Recession slows down sales for Alley Gallery

Devan Coggan

A man in a bucket hat walks through the door of Alley Gallery. Jessica, the chatty parrot in residence, squawks “Hello,” before gnawing on the helmet of a plastic fireman in her cage. Brent Houston, an artist who works at the Sherman Avenue poster shop, walks out from behind the counter and smiles at the customer. His grin reaches all the way to his blue eyes: “Welcome to the Alley Gallery. Can I help you?”

Tucked in an alley in downtown Evanston, the Gallery shares a building with the used bookstore Bookman’s Alley. Only a single sign points the casual passerby toward the poster shop.

“We’ve been open for 25 years with absolutely no advertisement,” Houston says. “It’s all been word-of-mouth. We are discreetly located in the alley, and having Bookman’s next door gets more people in here.”

Houston and his business partner, Ross Martens, are in the process of gaining co-ownership of the gallery after the original owner recently passed away. Both work as artists at the gallery.

“It chose me,” Houston says of his profession. “I was a photographer, and I was laid off from my job downtown. I walked in here and this guy with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a big beard and suspenders walks up to me and says, ‘Are you having fun?’ And I said, ‘Do you need somebody to work here?’ It was just total happenstance.”

Since Houston joined the gallery 10 years ago, he has seen ups and downs in the shop’s profits. To combat the current recession, the store has put smaller goods like note cards on the shelves, as fewer people come into the store for big framing jobs.

“We don’t sell bread and milk,” Houston says, tapping his feet against one of the many mismatched Oriental rugs. “We are in a good business for knowing how the economy is. If we’re slow, the economy is slow. If we’re moving, the economy is moving,” he says. “This has been one of the hardest years, but we’re slowly seeing things get better.”

In addition to custom framing and small works, the shop offers original artwork and hundreds of posters.

Despite the sluggish economy, the store was filled with eager shoppers.

“I’d been here once before,” says Weinberg senior Liza Engstrom said while perusing modern art posters. “I recently moved into an apartment, and I remembered how cool the stuff at the shop was, so my boyfriend and I decided to stop by.”

Across the room, another couple stares in wonder at one of Martens’ works-in-progress, a large felt soccer field spread across a table, complete with tiny plastic players.

One display rack is open to an original Star Wars poster, another to a painting by Renoir, and another to a vintage Chicago travel advertisement. The customer with the bucket hat has warily taken his eyes off the chatty parrot and flicks through the racks. He makes eye contact with Houston and says, “You have a cool store.”

“Thank you,” Houston replies. “It’s hard work, but I really like it here.” He pours coffee for the man and himself, and Jessica squawks, “Hello.”Devan Coggan is a student in the journalism division of Northwestern’s National High School Institute.