The 12 Best Niche Stores In Chicago
By Staff in Best Of on Jul 16, 2015 8:45PM
In a world of price-slashing Amazon Prime discounts, it takes something extra special to get many of us away from our computers and shopping in an actual store. Fortunately, even in the age of online deals, Chicago is still home to some fascinating speciality stores that put a little humanity back into the shopping experience.
Whether we are looking for an afternoon of leisurely window shopping or planning out our next major home-decorating project, dinner party or magic show (hey, you never know), these are some of our favorite niche stores to hit up around the city.
You know all those cute, chic terrariums that you pin on Pinterest or admire in design magazines and swear to yourself that one day you’ll attempt to DIY? Well, for fellow procrastinators and those who aren’t so crafty, there is an adorable shop in Chicago that will whip you up a custom terrarium to bring a little nature to your urban dwelling. Alapash also offers up a curated selection of home goods (think heavenly smelling candles, soft throws) but their custom terrariums are the real charmers. They’ve got different sizes and varieties. They also have some of the more stunning succulents around. Alapash is the perfect spot to bring a little green space into your own space. — Lisa White
Alapash is located at 4835 N. Damen Ave.
G-Mart Comics stands out thanks to its stellar service with a staff that is very knowledgeable about an array of comics and graphic novels for all ages. Beyond the latest comics, their bargain bins tempts visitors who want to wile away the afternoon poking through them. The Logan Square shop always hosts a weekly game night on Thursdays starting at 7:00 p.m., as well as many other types of events, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer karaoke. — Carrie McGath
G-Mart is located at 2641 N. Kedzie Ave.
If you or your family love kite-flying and live in Illinois, Chicago Kite is the place to head for all your colorful paper and cloth-stretched-onto-wood needs. The store has been a mainstay of Norwood Park’s Harlem Avenue for over two decades, catering to families and kite-aficionados with a variety of windsocks, balloons, boomerangs and more traditional kites. According to the website, new kites for sale this year include an 8-foot flapping bat, a magenta Rainbow Fugu, a 7.5-meter alligator and a 49-foot "mega turbine," which looks seriously awesome. —Rachel
Chicago Kite is located at 5445 N. Harlem Ave.
The Spice House
As you approach the Old Town location of The Spice House, nine times out of ten a pungent scent will greet you from half a block away, a heady mixture of basically everything in the world that smells delicious. I’ve been going here for my herbs and spices for close to 20 years now. I think in the beginning I came to stock up on one of their excellent mixtures (such as their peerless chili con carne seasoning or the divine Sunny Paris seasoning). But for awhile now I’ve gone to get inspiration. Case in point: on a recent visit I spotted a jar of Pimenton de la Vera Dulce (sweet smoked paprika), decided to take it home and now I use it all the time. (Hint: it’s freaking delicious on roasted brussels sprouts.) The Chicago-themed gift boxes make really amazing housewarming presents. And, best of all, the staff is unfailing friendly. — Rob Christopher
The Spice House is located at 1512 N. Wells St. in Chicago and 1941 Central St. in Evanston.
Red & White
The incredibly curated selection of wine at Red & White will satisfy aficionados and newbies alike. The woody and minimalist space encourages browsing, and the wines are organized very well throughout to make selection easier. The knowledgeable staff makes an excursion into the world of wine a pleasurable and approachable learning experience. With free wine tastings on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons, it is an ideal establishment for exploring your individual palate and preferences. Prices are as diverse as their selection, making it an affordable destination to impress guests, gift a host or add some dimension to your meal at a BYOB bistro. — Carrie McGath
Red & White is located at 1861 N. Milwaukee Ave.
People Play Games
If you’re someone like me who hasn’t let go of his Nintendo 64 and bought a Super Nintendo as a kid instead of an Xbox, then you’ll love People Play Games. PPG caters to all video gamer needs, housing a treasure trove of games spanning the '80s until now, cartridges and disks alike. Along with Nintendo, one can find games for Dreamcast, Xbox, Playstation and other systems/consoles. Gamers seeking accessories can capture them in PPG too. It could be something as common as a controller, or a new Power Adapter for your Super Nintendo, something I had to do a few months ago and didn’t dream they would have. With a kind and knowledgeable staff, the atmosphere is pretty easy going, so feel free to browse without feeling like you’re being watched or will get snapped at. Tucked away at the corner of Clark and School, this video game haven is five to ten minute walk away from the Belmont Red/Brown/Purple line stop.— Ben Kramer
People Play Games is located at 3268 N. Clark St.
Iwan Ries & Co. Tobacconist
Originally located in the Sherman House Hotel, where the Thompson Center now sits, Iwan Ries began its tenure as one of America’s oldest tobacconists in 1857. The original hotel burned in the fire of 1871, but founder Edward Hoffman set up shop once again in the resurrected version, growing the family name as a premier retailer of pipes, cigars and tobaccos and as a manufacturer. His nephew Iwan Ries took over in the 19th century, and despite moving the shop several times due to the architecture boom, Ries developed the tobacconist’s reach worldwide through a full catalog and mail service. In 1968 the Levi family, in the mix through marriage to Ries’s daughter, bought an Adler & Sullivan building in the Loop, where they continue to provide unparalleled expert service, one of the finest selections of tobacco in the world and the most pipes in one place (15,000!), many of which are available for purchase online. It is truly a walk back in time. And since the 2006 smoking ban, it is now one of the only place in Chicago where members ($750 for an annual membership) and guests ($15 a day) can relax with a pipe and a Scotch or beverage of choice - it’s BYO. — Kristine Sherred
Iwan Ries is located at 19 S. Wabash Ave.
Although Galerie F is just that— a gallery— it is also a shop specializing in fine art prints of street art and concert prints showcasing bands from Sonic Youth to Nick Cave to The Melvins and Belle & Sebastian. Prices go anywhere from $20 to a couple hundred bucks, so the range makes this a great stop for both collectors and casual print admirers looking for a unique gift or as a way to decorate their pad. While you're there, the exhibitions are a great compliment to this print-centric shop, and should not be overlooked even if you find yourself utterly engrossed in the print archive. And no doubt you will be enthralled with these high-quality art prints. — Carrie McGath
Galerie F is located at 2381 N. Milwaukee Ave.
City Newsstand and City News Café
Print media may not be what it used to be, but magazines and newspapers are still king at City Newsstand. Humbly started as a traditional corner newsstand in the late ‘70s, this periodical lover’s dream expanded into a full-fledged shop that boasts of carrying current issues of over 6,000 magazines and around 60 newspapers. The selection runs the gamut: politics, sports, travel, arts, pets, music, pop culture, technology, literature, comics, tattoos, drugs, booze you name it. Sure, you can get TIME and Rolling Stone anywhere, but try finding Popular Scooterist, Zen Doodle Workshop or Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment at your local drug store or Barnes & Noble. While a passion for print fuels this business, the ownership seems practical about staying alive in a digital age. The recently-added City News Café, serving coffee and various edibles, is not only another source of income, but it makes the store a place to linger and perhaps browse and shop some more. Occasional in-store music performances are also a draw. And I’m guessing the sizable porn section (tastefully relegated to the back end of the shop) helps subsidize the more esoteric titles. City Newsstand also operates the Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston. — Joel Wicklund
City Newsstand and City News Café is located at 4018 N. Cicero Ave.
Freehling Pot and Pan Co.
Long before retailers began to view the South Side’s Hyde Park as an untapped oasis for brand name chain stores, the mom-and-pop speciality cookware store Freehling Pot and Pan has made East 53rd Street a shopping destination. Owner Sue Freehling sells knives, utensils, pans and bakeware for residents on a college student's budget up to pricier, restaurant-quality items all from an inviting, if a little cramped, storefront. Go there to add a much-needed tool to your cooking arsenal, or to get ideas for your next foodie experiment. Sue helped me pick out my first can opener in 2008, and it’s still going strong. —Rachel Cromidas
Freehling Pot and Pan Co. is located at 1365 E. 53rd St.
If you need a little magic in your life, head to this Lincoln Square shop to learn a few new tricks (or, if you prefer, illusions). Magic Inc. bills itself as the oldest, continuously family-run brick and mortar magic store in North America and it caters to professionals as well as magic fans who are just starting to take an interest in the art. The shop is full of all types of supplies and clients include some big name magicians. But if you want to just learn some basic magic skills they’ve got those as well along with the instruction materials. The shop also offers a magic camp for budding magicians to perfect their act. Probably the most fun, interactive aspect of their store is the quality customer service. The shop is staffed primarily by magicians, friendly and eager to share their skills, so you’ll likely enjoy a few tricks and plenty of interesting and informative conversation when you stop by. — Lisa White
Magic Inc. is located at 5082 N. Lincoln Ave.
Inside the deco Chicago Mens Wear facade sits a shop so unadorned, one may wonder if the simple shelves of spices are for storage or for sale. Owner and curator Steven Tobiason doesn’t care for frills or too much talk. Here, the spices are what matter most. Epic began as a peppercorn purveyor, offering the Chicago culinary community the best black tellicherry, white, pink and green peppercorns available, but Tobiason soon learned that convincing kitchens of the humble peppercorn’s worth was a task too tall to stand alone. He started retail as a side project to the wholesale business, but word quickly spread among the bartending community that Epic carried cinchona bark, an essential ingredient in tonic syrup, and now the storefront is booming with loyal buyers. Tobiason and his staff are incredibly knowledgeable and their prices are tough, if not impossible, to beat. The shop is open to the public six days a week, where home chefs can stock up on house blends of Jamaican Jerk or a piquant Adobo pepper, vibrant star anise and a fine Garam Masala. — Kristine Sherred
Epic Spices is located at 1725 W. Chicago Ave.