Downtown Elgin block is becoming a destination for collectors of vintage things
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org January 15, 2013 8:50PM
Owner Lisa Madrid cleans the leather on a vintage office chair at Retro-a-GoGo on East Chicago Street in downtown Elgin. January 14, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 17, 2013 6:24AM
ELGIN — Lisa Madrid used to love antiques.
Then in 2011, Madrid moved to Elgin, into a house completely original to 1959, from the turquoise cabinets in the kitchen to the yellow and black tile in the bathroom.
Somehow her “antique” things — by her definition, things more than 100 years old — didn’t look quite right in the sleek, space-age lines of her new midcentury modern ranch, she said.
So she started collecting “vintage” things instead — mostly things produced in the 1940s, up through the 1970s.
Pretty soon, she said, there were “pathways” through the roomfuls of furniture and other items in her house. And her new neighbors teased her when they saw her: “What did you bring home now?”
So she started selling pieces as a dealer at an antique store in Elgin.
Now she’s got a place of her own: Retro-a-GoGo at the corner of Chicago Street and Villa Street, which opened in December.
But Retro-a-GoGo isn’t the first vintage or antique store on the block.
In fact, antiques dealer Ray Maxwell described that block of Chicago Street as Elgin’s own “antique row,” home to his three antique stores, a record store-within-a-store and Madrid’s vintage store.
It’s also home to Spacetaste Gallery, which sells both art and antiques, according to the signs in its windows; and Elgin Books, which sells used, hard-to-find and out-of-print books.
“It’s getting to be a destination — downtown Elgin definitely is, and definitely our block,” Maxwell said.
Retire to antiques
Maxwell opened his first shop, Elgin Antiques & Uniques at 203 E. Chicago St., in April 2009.
He didn’t know that would happen when he retired after 20 years as a teacher in Elgin School District U46. He had no master plan. But, he said, “Everything happens for a reason.”
And he and his wife Karen had acquired “collections of collections,” he said.
He had grown up in a house full of oak furniture and cranberry glass and Fiestaware, antiquing with his family, he said. Later, it was something he and his wife enjoyed together, stopping into antique shops to break up long road trips.
After he retired, his children took a few things and “that generated the idea we should get rid of it,” he said.
“One thing led to another, and this is where we sit,” Maxwell said.
In July 2010, he opened 2 Doors Down Antiques, just on the other side of Wrona Brothers at 207 E. Chicago St. The store includes a couple antique dealers and Rich Wagner’s Rediscover Records, which sells new and used vinyl.
Antique sales have been steady — and most popular at Maxwell’s shops, besides Wagner’s records, are lighting fixtures and jewelry, he said.
But what he’s been pleased to see are younger generations coming in to his Chicago Street shops to find cool things for their apartments. And customers from as far away as Chicago, Rockford and Naperville. And more and more returning customers, he said.
And, he said, that’s turning not just the block into a destination for antique and vintage collectors but also, in addition to new restaurants and eclectic specialty shops nearby, downtown Elgin into a destination, period.
“I think we’re just a small piece of the puzzle to revitalizing downtown Elgin,” Maxwell said.
On the corner
Maxwell’s newest shop is Corner Antiques, 201 E. Chicago St., at the corner of Chicago and Spring streets. He opened it about two years ago, he said, when the landlord offered him “a deal I couldn’t refuse.”
Barbara Broeske has been dealing antiques at the shop nearly that long, since Maxwell invited her to hang her art on its walls, she said. Then Broeske got to thinking how she’d arrange the booths inside and what she had she could sell.
“I like junk. I like the treasure hunt,” she said.
“I realized if I had a space to do that, not only could I sell my pictures but I could decorate with things to sell. That was payment for itself. That was a fun thing to do.”
Like the antique and vintage treasures she finds and sells at Corner Antiques, Broeske’s art also preserves pieces of Elgin’s history: digitally “imagineered” photos of the Crocker Theater sign; the statue of Mary above the doors at St. Mary Church of Elgin; Elgin Books, next door to 2 Doors Down.
“I’m drawn to things that are overlooked, and some of those things have disappeared after taking those pictures,” she said.
On Thursday, Madrid was scrubbing down furniture a collaborator — she doesn’t call them “dealers” — had brought in to sell at Retro-a-GoGo on the other end of the block, 225 E. Chicago St.
The store opened quietly in December in the space that had been Carswell’s Flooring since 1936, and the owner has planned a “soft opening” in mid-February and grand opening in March. But so far, even as she’s cleaning light fixtures and arranging low chairs and sleek coffee tables, she said, “I’m doing OK.”
She sounded surprised. But, she said, vintage items in particular have become “ragingly popular.”
That might be because of the popularity of the TV show “Mad Men,” set in the 1960s. Or because that’s the kind of furniture young adults are bringing up from their baby boomer parents’ basements when they move out on their own, she said.
Madrid said she just likes it because it’s greener to buy something used than new, and these things have had the quality to last decades — taken care of, they’ll last decades more. Many are made in the U.S.
And she said, “I have always had a fine appreciation of the craftsmanship.”
“The generation before us — they put thought and effort into things. It was craftsmanship. It wasn’t just about profit.”