Tag Archives: Reckless Records

Chicago’s Bucktown and Its Shops

I was told, “Go to Bucktown, it’s an exciting place in Chicago.” On that advice, I took the blue line, four stops and fifteen minutes from the Loop, the elevated subway line that circles the downtown center, and I was in that massively renovated neighborhood. Bucktown is a small neighborhood in the eastern section of Logan Park. It has been transformed from a run-down bedroom community into a lively urban area with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and bars.

As we neared my stop at Damen and North, the backsides of buildings began to sport weathered mural advertisements and gritty neon signs for what lay behind their walls–Myopic Books, Reckless Records, Double Door Liquors, Barry’s Cut-Rate Drugs.

The foot traffic below proved my intuition correct. Felt hats and old bikes abound on this three-way crossroads of Damen, North, and Milwaukee Streets. This intersection is a no-man’s-land between the long since revitalized Wicker Park and the quickly-catching-up Bucktown, guidebooks and even locals frequently mix the two together.

Milwaukee Avenue is a study in new urban development. Corporate stores like Urban Outfitters and G-Star Raw are wedged among the lingering vestiges of the neighborhood’s lower-middle-class roots (Central Furniture Mart, with its OG neon marquee announcing the neighborhood’s lowest prices), the ancient establishments who have aptly capitalized on their old-school cachet (Hollywood Cleaners has a playful yet sophisticated mural on its outer wall, where I saw natives practicing parkour; they also boast about their Twitter account), and the forward-thinkers whose claim-stake in the neighborhood launched its identity as a enclave for artists and the artsy. The Flat-Iron Arts building was bought and repurposed as an artists’ community back in 1985, and has hosted weekly open houses ever since.

The onslaught of coolness left me breathless with intimidation, and desperate for the comfort of oral fixation. Accordingly, I ducked into the nearest coffee shop.

You know it’s a friendly town when even the anti-mainstream local hipsters cheerfully offer you the remaining chair at their communal table. This is what happened to me at the Wormhole (1462 N. Milwaukee between Honore and Evergreen), a deeply set and dimly lit cafe that, on a Saturday morning, was illuminated by Macbooks and warmed by the intellectual chatter of patrons wedged cheek-by-bearded-jowl into the low velour couches.

1980s adolescence is the decor theme here. The bar, skillfully tended by baristas (who are meditative, rather than sullen), is crowned by a collection of novelty lunchboxes. A battered silver DeLorean hovers like a precipitous benison over the back of the room. Even the drinks are named after the decade’s screen icons, though their ingredients are entirely up-to-date: the Koopa Troopa boasts peanut butter and local honey, while the Harrison Gourd is composed of two espresso shots and sweet potato whipped cream.

After waiting the advised three minutes for my ginger tea to steep, I venture out and immediately into Store B (1472 N. Milwaukee at Honore). A dainty set of juice glasses embossed with the rules of canasta catches my eye, and cautions me against making any sudden moves. Caretakers of small children are advised to put off a visit to Store B until you have some alone time, and not only because of the potential for vintage breakage. You’ll want plenty of time to search the racks of 50s-era dresses and beautifully preserved fur coats, or simply to watch as the owner practices his craft of restorative millinery right in front of you.

While most of Milwaukee Avenue’s vintage clothing stores carry a little of everything, each has a designated specialty. US #1 Vintage Clothing (1460 N. Milwaukee between Honore and Evergreen displays a patinaed rainbow of leather boots in the twin plate-glass windows flanking its front door. The shoes here are well broken-in works of art. Even if vintage Americana weren’t the current comment il faut, you’d want to redesign your entire sartorial aesthetic around these boots.

I found an ankle-high pair that boasted two cut-out tulips on a creamy white background overlaid on dark red. The store attendants work in a rare mix of high accommodation and low pressure; their approach speaks again to the native Chicago confidence that even if you’ll leave, you’ll know you ought to have stayed. Meanwhile, the owner works like a Trappist monk in the sunlight filtered through the plate-glass window, while a long-haired shepherd dog of impressive proportions sleeps on a flannel blanket, under a sign that says “Hi my name is Kohl. I am cool and handsome. Please don’t bother me.”

Although I was overwhelmed with clothes shopping, and there was plenty more to pick through.

Myopic Books (1564 N. Milwaukee at Damen Avenue) is a used bookstore of the first water, with stacks pleasantly maze-like but just orderly enough to prevent overwhelm. Even better than the store’s deep and wide selection was finding it quite busy on a Saturday morning; each aisle sheltered at least one of the stylish unwashed curled up against a shelf, absorbed in a yellowed page.

Reckless Records (1532 N. Milwaukee between North, Damen and N. Honore) is proportionately satisfying as a record shop, that possibly even more endangered institution. Youngsters reveling in their sullenness flipped through the catalogues for the rare and out-of-print releases that continue to build the shop’s reputation.

And Rudy’s Roundup (1410 N. Milwaukee between Evergreen and Wolcott) is a gleefully curated collection of kitsch-some old, but mostly new made to look old. At this self-proclaimed “modern day general store,” you can find vintage teen magazines, books and knick-knacks nestled among the locally crafted jewelry, paper goods, and cheaply priced Wayfarers and cat-eyes.

Visiting the neighborhood early in the day proved no impediment to drinking-nearly all the bars on Milwaukee Avenue, and there are many, were open for brunch. (Even if brunch was just a pint of Half Acre and a Cubs game on TV.) I had time for only one, but my exhaustive research with the locals yielded the following notes for future reference:

If you like a little dive with your craft beer, try Pint (1547 Milwaukee, between North and Honore); for a slight step up, Bar Bar Black Sheep (1415 N. Milwaukee between Evergreen and Wolcott) serves high-minded food with its nicely curated wine list. If a true dive is more your thing, look no further than the Beachwood Inn (1415 N. Wood Street at Beach), a neighborhood stand-by with jukebox, cartoons on the TV, and a host of locals.

For the opposite end of the spectrum, try the newly opened Savoy (1408 N. Milwaukee between Evergreen and Honore) or Cafe Absinthe (1954 W. North at Milwaukee), both of whose cocktail menus are designed around the recent lifting of the ban off the green fairy.

But if all you’re really after is a good crowd and a game of pinball, the Emporium Arcade Bar (1366 N. Milwaukee at Wood) is your match made in heaven. Its comprehensive array of classic arcade games is rivaled only by its liquor selection.

And if crowds are what you need to know you’re in the right place, join the line at the Bongo Room (1470 N. Milwaukee at Honore) and bait your impatience with the Damoclean decision among their inventive pancakes, such as Raspberry Oreo or Lemon, Ricotta and Cherry. Regardless of your choice, you’d be well advised to down another cup of coffee before you get on the train back to the Loop, or you’re liable to sleep right through your stop.