Chicago's Most Inspiring Shop Owners 2012

Chicago never comes up short on big thinkers, hard workers, and dedicated dreamers. And no one inspires us more than our local business owners. Today, we're introducing you to six successful boutique bosses living the dream of selling what they're passionate about to devoted Windy City shoppers.
We're chatting with them about bricks-and-mortar stardom and what they love about running a small enterprise in Chicago. As the proprietors of some of this city's coolest stores, these local heroes are the ones you'll want to get in good with, ASAP. TGIF inspiration? Check.
1 of 20
Mallory Ulaszek, cityblue

What inspired you to open your store?
"It wasn’t any one thing that inspired me, more so a life-long passion for clothing and styling.  I knew when I was young I wouldn’t be truly happy unless I did my own thing.  For me, doing what I love and what I am passionate about is directly related to my happiness because that’s what motivates me.  There was an opportunity in the market and I took it, it was that simple."

Who is the coolest customer you’ve ever had?
"I had the wonderful opportunity to work with DC Crenshaw of Game Time Dine on a few projects, which brought Taj Gibson into the store.  A lot of people forget that my business is half menswear.  Having Taj try on a Pink Floyd T-shirt made my day.  He’s such a down-to-earth, gem of a person."

cityblue, 1444 North Wells Street (between North Avenue and Schiller Street); 312-664-2222.


Photographed by Heather Talbert
2 of 20
Where do you love to shop in Chicago?
"Honestly, my stores cityblue apparel & denim and CB.  Cliché and a shameless plug aside, if I am putting my money behind the brand there’s a good chance I am a huge fan.  I light up on the inside when I walk into the Theysken’s Theory showroom, my head buyer Megan Finn has seen it, and it’s slightly embarrassing to her.   I am also really into home shopping right now, so I frequent Jayson Home & Garden.  They currently have a 4-post lucite bed there from the 1970’s that is incredible."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
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3 of 20
What is your favorite item for sale in your store right now?
"Trick question.  Everything.  Next."

What makes owning your own business fun?
"Doing what I love, working with amazing creatives, and constantly pushing myself to do better.  The feeling of “the sky’s the limit” definitely applies if you open yourself up to situations."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
4 of 20
What kind of music do you like to play in your store?
"We are all music fanatics.  One of my employees is Chelsea Cankar, who founded the music and fashion blog Stic-of-the-Week.  Between her and I there are a lot of indie newcomers, from Chicago and elsewhere, and 90’s alternative deep cuts."

Do you have any advice for new/future shop owners in Chicago?
"On occasion, I have sat down with aspiring owners to let them pick my brain.  The thing that ends up becoming a real discussion is the decision to sacrifice.  What are you willing to put on hold?  How you prioritize your life becomes very black and white in my eyes.  Loved ones, especially my boyfriend and my family are my number ones. Period. You have to be careful and keep yourself grounded.  I gave up a lot of “freedom” in my 20's, and it wasn’t a walk in the park.  I don’t regret a single night or weekend in working on spreadsheets or reworking a project because it wasn’t perfect.  Success is directly related to how much you’re willing to put into your livelihood." 


Photographed by Heather Talbert
5 of 20
Tara Heibel, Sprout Home

What inspired you to open your store?
"Before I opened Sprout Home I was a corporate art consultant by day, rehabbed buildings in West Town by night, and was a painter at heart.   Gardening quickly became an overriding passion and I realized that I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty every day, and my thoughts drifted to what newly planted gardens would look like from year to year.  When I would go on the hunt for plants in which to materialize my garden design concepts, what I found around me were the 'standards and basics' and I desperately wanted something different.  Even the non-living goods at other garden centers didn’t resonate with my design palette.  I knew that there were other people like me that have similar design views out there, and so began the process in developing a home for us."

Who is the coolest customer you’ve ever had?"There’s no way that I can narrow that down to one person! All of our customers are cool on so many different levels.  Clients and Sproutsters (sprout employees) are on first name basis and all are part of the family.  At any given moment we will have a client in the store that simply stops by to say hello and give us a pictorial update of family including their plants.  Yes, some people even name their plants (which we completely encourage)."

Sprout, 745 North Damen Avenue (between Superior and Huron streets); 312-226-5950.


Photographed by Heather Talbert
6 of 20
Where do you love to shop in Chicago?
"I have lived a couple blocks away from Sprout Home since before its inception and I tend to stay pretty local and independent when I shop. For furniture finds I visit my buddy Angela at Post 27.  For clothes I run up to Penelope’s or I will hit vintage stores like Dovetail.  If I need a sliver of art inspiration in a non green variety I’ll pop in at the Monique Meloche Gallery."

What is your favorite item for sale in your store right now?
"My favorite plant for this week would be Moss Balls.  Seriously, they are pure algae balls that live underwater and can be treated as a houseplant. They’re most certainly guaranteed to be a fabulous conversation piece.  My favorite home good that just came in is the handmade macramé chair that comes from an artisan in Peru."  


Photographed by Heather Talbert
7 of 20
What makes owning your own business fun?
"I like a good challenge and it feels great to know that you have succeeded in helping someone or watching them get excited about something they see at the shop.  It doesn’t hurt that I get to constantly walk around in oasis of green at all times during the year, shoes totally optional. I surround myself with a staff that really rocks, by choice, and it’s just a great place to be."

What kind of music do you like to play in your store?
"It depends on the mood of the Sprout team and what needs to be happening at that moment.  If we are unloading trucks stuffed with heavy trees you could hear some Metallica or Naked Raygun, or in contrast a sunny weekend day giving the plants some love you could wander in to Sprout and hear a Tom Tom Club cut or Passion Pit.  My team is pretty heavy in to music and almost everyone plays one instrument or another.  We have a store iPod and record player in which all the employees can dump and play what gets them going - shuffle always proves to be interesting.  One thing you will not hear on the speakers would be Dave Matthews.  By contrast,  Lil' Mama's 'Lipgloss' song is playing right now…it’s poppin'."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
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8 of 20
Do you have any advice for new/future shop owners in Chicago?
"It shouldn’t be about the money. Make sure you love and believe in what your business stands for.  The most important thing is to have passion and believe in what you’re doing – you’ll be a happier person and only the best will come of your hard work.  I know that it’s cliché but I’ll stick by it.  All of a sudden you find yourself working 60 hours a week…but for some reason with it being your own business it doesn’t seem to bother you."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
9 of 20
Heather George, Em Bo

What inspired you to open your store?
"I had my 'aha' moment when I was enjoying a typical Chicago summer afternoon with a good friend lounging on my sun deck. She was in the midst of making a significant career transition, and even though she was taking a significant pay cut, she couldn’t have been happier with her decision. She was following her heart! And then came the question that we’ve all pondered…if you could do anything and not have to worry about money or whether you had the skills or experience (you know that pie in the sky kind of stuff), what would you do? And that conversation sparked a fire under my butt and provided the clear recognition that I needed to do something more soul fulfilling. And so I began the journey from a successful 10-year career in financial services to 'independent shop owner'."

Em Bo, 3432 North Southport Avenue (at Newport Avenue); 773-360-1501.


Photographed by Heather Talbert
10 of 20
Who is the coolest customer you’ve ever had?
"The best part of my job is that I get to meet so many cool people. How do you narrow it down to one? I think that the opportunity for me to meet like-minded people is greater because my business has a specific 'green and responsibly-made' mission behind it. It creates a natural setting for discussions about environmental, social, and human rights issues. I have met so many wonderful and enlightened individuals and that fuels my passions and inspires me more! Oddly, however, there were a few weeks where an inordinate number of psychics came into the shop. Now that makes you pause and ask what the universe is trying to tell you!"

Where do you love to shop in Chicago?
"I am huge supporter of shopping local, meaning right in the neighborhood where my shop is. Supporting the Lakeview community and other businesses on the street is so very important to me. And what don’t we have on Southport? My favorites include Stella Blue Designs, Mint Julep, Dogaholics, M2 & M4 Men, and Persona. Outside the hood my favorite spots include some vintage and antique haunts and a variety of thrift stores throughout the city. Oh and a true Chicago favorite…who doesn’t find something they love every time at Art Effect on Armitage."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
11 of 20
What is your favorite item for sale in your store right now?
"Anything by Prairie Underground! I am in love with them. From their ultra flattering organic denim to their iconic organic cotton mothette blouses. Love it all!"

What makes owning your own business fun?
"Lots of things… like the fact that I can rock a ten gallon cowboy hat all day in my shop while listening to Willie Nelson and not worry about the looks I get...now that’s fun!"


Photographed by Heather Talbert
12 of 20
What kind of music do you like to play in your store?
"My regular clients must think I have musical schizophrenia. I just can’t stick to one genre. I mix it up depending on the day and my mood. Don’t be surprised to hear some old school country music, Motown, or even Polka, like for our recent Polka Dot Sale! And we’re happy to take requests should you be in the mood for something specific while you shop."

Do you have any advice for new/future shop owners in Chicago?
"The same advice that I would give everyone: Always follow your dreams! Open your heart and soul to the magic of the universe. And stay strong!"


Photographed by Heather Talbert
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13 of 20
Shirley Kienitz-Bruiser & Jenny Stadler-Brazen, Wolfbait & B-Girls

What inspired you to open your store?
"We were both selling our lines, Bruiser and Brazen Judy, to other stores when we met. Having a studio space to work in that would double as venue to showcase our collections as well as other upstart designers was a goal we shared."

Who is the coolest customer you’ve ever had?
"Getting to chit chat with people who prioritize supporting local talents in the shop shows you how cool all of Chicago is!"

Wolfbait & B-Girls, 3131 West Logan Boulevard (at Milwaukee Avenue); 312-698-8685.  


Photographed by Heather Talbert
14 of 20
Where do you love to shop in Chicago?
"Re-Builders Exchange and Stop Look are two places we love to hit up for salvaged items we work into display."

What is your favorite item for sale in your store right now?
"Having new stuff everyday, and one-of-a-kind pieces lasting only hours on the floor, always leaves us both pining. Right now we love the BagBag, a tote crocheted out of recycled plastic bags. It is beautiful and functional, perfect for farmers markets, the beach, or everyday. Just $30-$40."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
15 of 20
What makes owning your own business fun?
"Having our studio space in the shop is super satisfying. The immediacy of customer feedback, the excitement they have for something in the works on the table, really motivates us and keeps our designs and fits flattering for our clients."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
16 of 20
What kind of music do you like to play in your store?
"Everything from Motown to metal, different moods on different days of the week, sometimes reflecting the style we are working on."

Do you have any advice for new/future shop owners in Chicago?
"Find your niche. Do something different and you will stand out."


Photographed by Heather Talbert
17 of 20
Emilia Dlugolecka, Mr. & Mrs. Digz

What inspired you to open your store?
"I dont know if I would have been brave enough to open my own business if I didnt get pushed out of my corporate job. The thought of not having health insurance or a steady paycheck is terrifying to anyone and in this economy I dont know ANYONE 'leaving' their jobs on their own. My lay-off was the push I needed to know that I did not want to go back to the corporate grind. I have always loved fashion and have always loved a bargain. Being a creative person who made clothing, art, and jewelry myself, I knew I should do something that I loved doing. Then work wouldnt really be 'work', would it? Wouldn't that be a nice way to live your life?"

Who is the coolest customer you’ve ever had?
"This answer might surprise you but my coolest customer is a woman in her 80's named Lucy. She is an amazing woman who still dresses to impress, wears red lipstick and has her hair styled every time I see her. She takes the care and time to make herself look amazing. These days everyone is running from one place to the next and taking care of ourselves is sometimes extremely rushed and not done to the best of our abilities. Not Ms. Lucy! She is the coolest ever! She inspires me to take better care of myself. She even gives ME styling tips! My favorite is when she told me that she cuts the tags out of her shirts because this way she can wear them backwards if the cut of the collar in the back is different than the front. She says "its like having 2 shirts in 1!" Brilliant! That Lucy is a smart cookie."

Mr. & Mrs. Digz, 5668 North Clark Street (at West Hollywood Avenue); 773-447-8527.


Photographed by Heather Talbert
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18 of 20
Where do you love to shop in Chicago?
"I love going down to Michigan Avenue and walking into the Chanel, LV, Escada, etc. stores. I pay close attention to the way they display their items, what colors and fabrics are in style. It's funny how what we see depends on what we look for. I used to shop for clothes and that is all I saw. Now when I walk into the stores I see the displays, light fixtures, staff, flooring, etc. I see all of the 'behind the scenes' instead of what is on the rack. I'm ruined forever when it comes to simply walking into a store and just plain 'ol shopping. I hope that's not long term!"

What is your favorite item for sale in your store right now?
"Right now my favorite item is a pair of black patent leather Chanel boots from the '60s! They are AMAZINGGGGGG!"


Photographed by Heather Talbert
19 of 20
What makes owning your own business fun?
"The fun part of owning your own business is meeting new people but most importantly making your own rules. If you want to take a month long vacation in February, you can! If you want to close the store for an hour and see a friend for lunch, you can! When I lived on Cape Cod, my friends had taken me to P-Town for the day just to go sight-seeing and have a fun girls day. It was a beautiful little town, very care-free. We walked around and went from one boutique to the next. I saw something really fun in one of the storefront windows and wanted to go inside. The door was locked and a sign was taped onto the door "Went for a swim, be back in 20!" I thought to myself how could this place be closed right now? It is Saturday at 1 p.m. and this person just closed shop and went for a swim! What? At that moment I had wished that I had that kind of lifestyle. I knew it would never be reality and that 'real' life didnt work so easily. But now? Now I'm the shop keeper who went for a 20 minute swim. My life is now that dream I had back when I lived on the Cape so many years ago. It's an amazing way to live and that is fun, dont you think?"

What kind of music do you like to play in your store?
"I love playing French music in the store. I also have a cd called Buddah Bar. I bought it in San Francisco about 10 years ago and I still love it! It's two discs, one called 'dinner' and one called 'drinks'. Guess which one I play most often?"


Photographed by Heather Talbert
20 of 20
Do you have any advice for new/future shop owners in Chicago?
"Please be realistic when considering opening your own business, especially if it in a brick andn mortar store. If it's online then thats something completely different. When you open a store make sure your rent is something you can afford. I can't even tell you how many businesses, of all kinds, fail within their first year because they did not anticipate the bills being what they actually are. There is not only rent to pay but electric bills, insurance, security, on top of your merchandise, staff, etc. The list of things to pay goes on and on. Do not go over budget. Also, join your neighborhood Chamber of Commerce. They are an amazing source for help and support. When I first opened I thought 'how cool, I'm a business owner. I can come and go as I please.' Yeah right! I work from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. in the store seven days a week. On top of that, I go home and do accounting, make phone calls, answer emails, pay taxes, order merchandise. Should I go on? Because I can. I miss weddings, birthday parties, and all sorts of fun activities. It's called sacrificing. This is what happens when you are in charge of a business. So please be ready to work non-stop for a good long time. That is the reality of being your own boss. Nothing easy about it BUT when its something you love doing, you wont consider it work. That is the amazing part of owning your own business. It does get easier as time goes on. You can hire employees, giving you the opportunity to not miss those weddings and parties but I'm telling you now... it's definitely more work than play. By far." 


Photographed by Heather Talbert
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