‘Shopping small’ at the hidden gems of The Main-Dempster Mile
November 19, 2019
Just a short walk from the Arch, heading south on Chicago Avenue, lies the first of many multicolored banners printed with “The Main-Dempster Mile” and its logo. The banners denote the entrance into an area lined with dozens of restaurants, coffee shops, stores and offices.
Despite being in close proximity to Northwestern’s campus, Katherine Gotsick, executive director of the Main-Dempster Mile, said the area faces limited student exposure. Because of this, she works actively to familiarize students with the Main-Dempster Mile to promote a “shop local” mentality.
“Shopping local is close to my heart and the hearts of merchants,” Gotsick said. “When you shop local, the business you buy from and all the businesses around it thrive.”
The Main-Dempster Mile is a non-profit organization that administers special services for the district. The organization has a board of directors, mostly made up of local business owners, and its members include merchants and neighbors. The Main-Dempster Mile’s boundaries include parts of Dempster Street, Main Street and Chicago Avenue, which are defined by a 2015 city ordinance that designated the Main-Dempster Mile as a Special Service Area. Gotsick described a Special Service Area as a place in which services — like landscaping, advertising and public art — are provided throughout the municipality. The special services are paid for through an annual tax for commercial property owners.
Of the roughly 260 businesses in the Main-Dempster Mile, Gotsick said less than 20 of them have corporate support. Almost all businesses are locally and independently owned, and Gotsick said each works to make visiting their store an experience.
“Business owners are so deeply invested in this area,” Gotsick said. “They provide something online shopping can’t: human connection.”
The following five businesses embody the “shop small” and “support local” spirit Gotsick said the Main-Dempster Mile is built upon. She encourages students to visit the area for an opportunity to “detach in proximity and culture to the stress of school.” Gotsick hopes students ride the Intercampus Shuttle, the CTA Purple Line or Metra to eat at restaurants like La Principal, or use ride-sharing services to spend the afternoon at an art gallery like Space 900.
Shop: Stumble & Relish
Jamie Leonardi and her mom, Paulette Leffler, believe the things people relish most in life are those stumbled upon. This mantra was the inspiration behind their store, Stumble & Relish, located at 1312 Chicago Ave. The store is filled with unique gifts and trinkets, like necklaces made from recycled skateboards.
“I like saying, ‘Hey! We can use materials to make something new in a different way,’” Leonardi said. “That’s how a lot of this stuff ends up here.”
Leonardi fills Stumble & Relish’s shelves with greeting cards, jewelry, candles and other items since the store opened in 2013. She discovers products through her relationships with local makers, at art shows and fairs, and through word-of-mouth. Many of the items Stumble & Relish sells are made by Evanston artisans and companies, like Edgewater Candles, ceramic works by Joanna Kramer and jewelry by Ali’s Collection.
Leonardi said she’s always wanted Stumble & Relish to be a “destination” on Chicago Avenue. She said her store adds character to the street, inviting the community to shop small at a locally owned establishment.
“We really get to know our customers, and our customers really need to get to know our makers,” said Leonardi.
Eat: La Principal
Nestled into the corner of Main Street and Custer Avenue, La Principal is a casual, Mexican-inspired restaurant. Eric Young, owner of La Principal, said the menu is focused on traditional street food, but expands beyond authentic dishes to offer customers variety. While the pozoles and tortas are popular, Young recommends the lengua beef tongue tacos and the churro sundae.
La Principal is dedicated to serving customers high quality food and drinks, like homemade corn tortillas and their own line of hot sauces. Young aims to offer a relaxing atmosphere at the restaurant. Customers can enjoy a meal in either the main dining room, front bar and lounge, outdoor patio or backroom bar. Additionally, because La Principal is located steps away from the Main Street Purple Line stop and the Metra, Young created a walk-up coffee window, which is open on weekday mornings and serves churros, breakfast tacos, coffee and other beverages.
One of Young’s favorite aspects of La Principal is its events. The restaurant has a weekly happy hour in its bar and lounge Tuesday through Friday from 3-6 p.m, where customers can take advantage of deals like $2 tacos and $2 off margaritas. On the last Tuesday of every month, the restaurant also hosts “Taco Tuesday for a Cause,” where $1 is donated to a featured charity for every taco sold during this event.
“La Principal gathers the community around a great cause and great tacos,” Young said. “There’s nothing better.”
Drink: Reprise Coffee Roasters
Reprise Coffee Roasters infuses more than just caffeine into its shop at 710 Main St. The company, which opened in Evanston in August 2019, is centered around a mission of sustainability. Working directly with coffee farmers who practice environmentally ethical growing methods, Reprise pays them above fair-trade prices. Hunter Owen, owner and manager of the Evanston location, said this business model ensures equity for everyone who works with Reprise.
“The money made from sales go right back into purchasing our high-quality products,” Owen said. “We write checks directly to farmers.”
The coffee shop’s menu is long and diverse, which Owen said is purposeful: Reprise offers “something for everyone.” The company has won national coffee roasting awards, and is known for its single origin brews and espresso. Reprise makes its own vanilla, lavender and hazelnut syrups, as well as a pumpkin reduction. Owen also sources other ingredients from local businesses, such as honey, tea, chocolate and caramel.
Another piece of Reprise’s mission is community involvement. Through hosting latte art competitions, trivia, open mic nights and coffee tastings, Owen said positioning Reprise as a community space not only connects the company with customers, but also promotes a deeper relationship with The Main-Dempster Mile.
“The more that we can build this community up, the better it will be for everyone,” Owen said.
Do: The Pot Shop
Dominic Mosca, owner of the Pot Shop at 1224 Chicago Ave., said working on a potter’s wheel is not for the faint of heart. It can take hours to shape clay, and, sometimes, pieces burst in the kiln. But for those who take classes at the Pot Shop, nothing is more rewarding than bringing their finished products home.
“I admire people who stick with it,” said Mosca. “People master skills in such a short time, which is an incredible thing.”
Since opening in 1975, the foundation of the Pot Shop’s offerings has been its classes. Mosca teaches all of the classes, which meet once a week for eight weeks and range from beginner to advanced pottery. In each class, participants learn how to make pieces on a potter’s wheel, fire them and glaze them. While classes formally meet once a week, everyone enrolled has unlimited access to the studio. Those interested can sign up for classes by visiting the Pot Shop’s website or in-person.
The Pots Shop’s studio is also utilized for private lessons and parties. Mosca spends time in the studio as a teacher and maker, since he creates mugs, vases and other works to sell in the space’s retail gallery. Mosca often meets new customers, but some have taken classes for decades. In one day, the studio’s 19 potter’s wheels can be used by 5-year-olds and 75-year-olds alike.
“I have people taking classes from all swings of life,” said Mosca. “That’s what makes this space special.”
See: Space 900
The art that hangs from the white walls of Space 900 gallery animates the wide-open room. Depending on the month, paintings, sculptures and photographs can tell different stories, or present ideas that tie in to a common theme.
Joanna Pinsky, one of Space 900’s core members, described the gallery as “collaborative.” She said the gallery is run by eight artists, each of whom specialize in a specific medium. They do thematic group shows together about twice a year, allowing the core members to show pieces together. Pinsky said she and the other seven artists meet monthly to generate ideas for shows, discuss their projects and give each other advice.
“The goal of this space is to enable us to present our different ideas, which has been wonderful,” said Pinsky. “The gallery has created a support system for us.”
In addition to group shows, the core members show their pieces individually or in small groups for about a month at a time. For example, Pinsky and Todd Anderson, another artist, recently did a show together entitled “Layers of Time.” Pinsky displayed her paintings, while Anderson showed his photographs. Additionally, artists outside of the gallery’s core members can rent the space to show their work for short periods of time. The gallery is open to the community a few times a week and it often hosts artist talks.
Pinsky said Space 900 is a special environment for her and the other core members to exhibit their pieces. She said commercial galleries’ “ultimate goal” is to sell work, which can limit how creative artists can be, or prevent them from taking risks in their respective mediums. Space 900, however, doesn’t put any barriers on artists.
“Today, more artists are taking control and doing their own shows,” Pinsky said. “Most of us want to experiment without worrying about selling, and Space 900 has allowed us to do that.”