As I got out of my car near 63rd and S. Central Ave, a giant plane flew overhead, and it startled me a little bit. I live on the north side of Chicago, and the O’Hare planes look tiny as they follow their landing pathways. But here in the Clearing neighborhood, I am just a block from Midway Airport, and airplanes sure do take up a lot of sky from this vantage point.
I cross the street and walk by a few charming storefronts to my destination: Southwest Signs. A few of their trademark signs hang in the windows, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve mocked up for me. My name is Cass Westover, and I am Chicago Market owner number #1903. I’ve been volunteering with the Events and Marketing teams for about a year now, and I recently took on the role of project manager to design, source, and install signage in the Market windows. Chicago Market inhabits the historic building in Uptown, designed by Arthur U. Gerber, which was formerly the Wilson Red Line station. Now, the Uptown neighborhood (and beyond) are thrilled to watch it morph into an urban grocery store co-op, such that has not been seen in Chicago – or the country for that matter. The problem has been: many folks still don’t know what we aim to do – what we are – WHO we are!
As I speak with siblings Chuck Wilmarth and Carol Kamba, along with Carol’s husband Dan, who run the family-owned Southwest Signs, it becomes clear to me that this is a really welcoming place. They mention that Chicago is special; it’s unlike many other cities in the US, and we can thank hand-painted paper signs for some of that uniqueness. Despite many people leading toward graphic posters (services that Southwest Signs also provides), Chuck gives an example of realtors selling/renting property 10 times faster with hand-painted signs than they do with graphic posters. Carol admits that she doesn’t know why that’s the case, but it simply IS! I’m glad to hear it, because this is the kind of attention we need at the corner of Wilson and Broadway.
Designing these posters was a process with graphic artists Erik Slagter, Alex Gilbert, and me. We discussed a number of approaches to the window dressing, from high-end vinyl looks, to lively hand-painted windows. Nothing sat right with us, either because it was off-brand or out of our price range. Then, Erik found a report on the Southwest Signs operation by NPR and WBEZ’s Liz Stanton. Stanton also notices that the handmade signs “[stand] out in our age of digital printing (or practically digital everything, for that matter).” Southwest Sign’s Carol tells me that when you read or listen to the WBEZ report, you can read between the lines and see their growing despair about the industry. “But,” she says, “that report helped us see our signs in a new way.” Southwest Signs isn’t restricted to mom & pop grocery stores anymore. The style is iconic Chicago, and it’s attractive for many folks who want inexpensive and quality handmade signage. In fact, the team shared that they’d just shipped off an order to London!
As far as the Chicago Market order is concerned, we wanted to keep our branding colors and motifs in the design, but maybe we could loosen it up a little. Despite the fact that Chicago Market doesn't sell "Fajitas for 3.99" (yet!), we hope the neighborhood will connect the quintessential grocery sign style with local markets they remember from childhood.
Hand-lettered posters used to be 90% of the Southwest Sign business. These days, only 20% of their orders are for hand-painted paper signs, and we at Chicago Market are thrilled to be part of that 20%. As I left the shop and they wished me well, I could tell that they weren’t exaggerating when they said camaraderie is the best part of the job. Chuck said, “It’s like Cheers!” And it truly was. They made me feel like neighbors, partners, equals. I can only hope that this energy will translate to our Ownership, through which I have made a number of new neighborhood colleagues and friends. Owners may come from different neighborhoods, states, and countries – but we are neighbors in Chicago now, and we have a great dream that’s coming to fruition in Uptown.
Stop by, check out the signs, and join us as we build a grocery store with food that is local, sustainable, and yours.
Cass Westover is a business owner and Chicago Market Owner #1903. She is committed to sourcing local and small business options for her gifting business, Homegrown Wrappings Gift Company.