When Robyn Witt and Joe Moore of Take2Vintage couldn’t find the perfect space to house and display their inventory, they decided to found Beehive Chicago, a cooperative space in Garfield Park that now houses nine small businesses specializing in vintage home furnishing and apparel. The two had been selling vintage online and at pop-up markets in Chicago since 2010, but Robyn recently quit her full-time job in order to dedicate herself to building not only her own brand but creating a hub for other creative entrepreneurs. Beehive allows vendors to move their businesses out of their homes and gives them the resources to succeed– there are professional photography backdrops and shipping stations set up in the space and there are plans in the future to host forums dedicated to topics like marketing and social media, taxes, and inventory management. Currently each vendor can host clients by appointment but Beehive also hosts a monthly Open House, where the public can come listen to music, sip cocktails and of course shop curated vintage wares. Besides the permanent members of the collective, the Open House will feature a rotating roster of local guest vendors that are veterans of the Chicago vintage community.
Beehive Chicago: Community & Vintage
CHM: How and when did you formulate the concept for the Beehive?
BH: About a year ago, we were debating whether to renew our lease on our small 200-square foot studio in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago, in a place called the Art Colony. It was great, but we were pretty much the only non-artists there. We had been drawn to it by the monthly open studio in which resident and visiting artists displayed their work. But there was no one coming specifically because they wanted to shop vintage. Plus, we needed more space…a LOT more space. We had tried various scenarios; we shared a studio with a woodworker (sawdust nightmare), did the antique mall thing, tried photography in a storage unit with battery-powered worklights (it failed as miserably as you would expect). Nothing was meeting the unique requirements of a growing and evolving business where everything you have is one of a kind. No one backdrop fits. No display fixtures will work for everything we have. No single size box could be ordered in bulk and expected to fit everything we needed to ship. So we began talking to the people who we knew had to be in a similar boat to us; who needed the space to do things properly and who shared our love and respect for vintage, and were soon exploring the potential of pooling resources and sharing overheads.
CHM: How has your original idea evolved to the present reality of the space?
BH: It’s steadily coming together and not too far off from the original vision. We agreed on the name “Beehive Chicago” because it’s a flurry of activity, everyone working at their own task to ultimately get to a common goal. We’ve had to table some of the grander visions we’ve had for the space, but only temporarily, we hope.
CHM: Why did you decide to start a cooperative space rather than a storefront? What services do you hope to offer to the greater community?
BH: Many of the dealers who are part of Beehive Chicago are part-time. For every person who sells vintage as their sole source of income, I would say that there are at least 10 who just do it when they can, because it’s their passion. A storefront, if it’s going to work, needs to be open during set hours, and a lot of us are just not yet ready for that. The price of overhead for a store in a part of town where it makes sense to open can be astounding. We all do some combination of pop-up markets, selling at antique malls, selling online via Etsy and Krrb.com and Craigslist. We wanted a place that was going to enable us to have all of our inventory in one place (that place NOT being our dining room) without having to rent multiple storage units, where we could spread out, clean, fix and measure items and photograph them beautifully. A place where we could work any time of the day or night as our schedules allow. Perhaps even more importantly, a place that is neutral for both seller and buyer. One of the biggest problems with buying from online classifieds is that very often, you have to put yourself in a potentially uncomfortable or unsafe situation; either going to a stranger’s home or storage unit, or having strangers in your home. Working alongside a diverse group such as this is not only motivational, but also adds a strong social aspect and sense of community to what can otherwise be a very lonely business.
If we reach our IndieGoGo campaign goal, we will very soon be equipped to offer co-working opportunities to other small online business owners at affordable rates, as well as to host regular meetups to discuss the particulars of this and like businesses. For example, each spring, we plan hold an introductory session for new dealers which covers the basics of participating in live events / markets for the upcoming season. We hope that by doing this, we will be able to give people the advice and encouragement needed to ensure that the vintage scene in Chicago continues to grow with new vendors.
CHM: Give us an overview of the vendors and what a visitor to the space can expect (in terms of merchandise/how often items will rotate out/etc)
BH: Beehive Chicago is in a third-floor industrial loft and is laid out similarly to an antique mall; each vendor has their dedicated space to do with what they wish. Since we were going with a square-footage-based split of expenses, this seemed to make the most sense, and it’s been working out nicely. Each company’s style and aesthetic has really blossomed into something varied and beautiful. We have nine dealers in the space; Poly Golightly Vintage, Imaginary Girl, Marthette Vintage Rental, Lost Girls Vintage, Shark Gravy, Yetti Treasures, Leah Onomatopoeia, Cat’s Pyjamas and us, Take 2 Vintage. Each has their own unique combination of merchandise, and their own favorite time periods, and style. Clothing and accessories from the 40’s to the 90’s, and home furnishings vary in style from rustic to Mid Century Modern, Danish Modern to industrial. We are constantly shopping when we should be working. Occupational hazard, I guess. It’s a wide array of inventory, and since we all sell at various venues (and none of us ever *truly* stops shopping), the merchandise rotates fairly frequently. At our open studio, which is open to the public and takes place on the third Thursday of every month, from 5 pm to 10 pm, we invite other local vendors, artists, charities and small businesses to pop up for an evening at the Beehive, so shoppers are guaranteed to see something new each time they come back. It’s also very easy to shop by appointment; since there are so many of us, there’s a good chance someone will be there whenever it is you’d like to visit. It’s not a high-pressure sales environment. It’s spacious and organized enough that you will want to stay for an hour and just browse until you find whatever it is you’re looking for…and you can.
CHM: You also run your own business under the brand, Take 2 Vintage. When did you transition from collector to dealer? How did you grow your business?
BH: Our transition from recreational collectors to owners of a viable vintage business began in February of 2010, when we jumped head first into selling at live events at the very first Vintage Bazaar, which took place in the Dank Haus in Lincoln Square (we weren’t selling under the name Take 2 Vintage yet). We were so unprepared. We had never seen so many people coming at us. At the end of a frenzied day, we were utterly exhausted and elated and knew it was for us. We had just opened a storefront on Etsy. Robyn had an online vintage apparel business for a short time in 2000-2002, while living in Richmond, VA, when she had found that shopping was the easy (and fun) part of owning a vintage business. It’s all the work that comes afterwards (fixing, cleaning, measuring, photographing, listing and shipping) that took more time and effort than she was able to devote at the time. Live events still definitely hold more appeal for us, because we get to interact with other vintage enthusiasts, but online sales are almost necessary to sustain an income and inventory turnover in the slow season. We grew our business by constantly forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone; trying everything until we find what works, even if we’re nervous to do so. Our style and taste has evolved, and we’ve learned something new about the business or ourselves with every market we’ve done.
CHM: Why should people purchase vintage items?
BH: There are lots of reasons to purchase vintage. I’ve always liked unique clothing and accessories, and it’s far less likely that someone will show up to a party or work wearing the same thing as you than if you shop at the mall or at big box stores. Many times you’re spending the same amount of money or less for a much higher quality item. Gone are the days when all-wood furniture is made available at an affordable price. For the amount you’d spend buying particleboard furniture new, you could have a living room or dining room set that’s very likely to have resale value instead of a set that’s going to fall apart the first time you move it across town. There’s definitely truth to the saying “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Plus, you’re saving whatever it is, be it a dress or a five-piece bedroom suite, from ending up in a landfill.
CHM: What do you tell the naysayers?
BH: Nothing. More for me.
I’m kidding of course. Some people feel like there’s an “ick” factor in buying used items, whether it be clothing or furniture. I personally don’t get it. Every day, we use and are surrounded by items that have been used and touched by dozens if not hundreds and thousands of people. Cash, for example. Yet no one seems to have a problem accepting used cash. There’s still a bit of a stigma around buying used items, which is a shame, because there are so many good reasons to buy items secondhand, not least of all the value for the money being spent. I discovered buying clothing resale in 1998, when I’d had a job that required me to dress business formal all the time, which would not have otherwise been possible on my entry-level salary. I didn’t view it as being much different from swapping clothes with my friends, which I did frequently in high school. The likelihood that the previous owner of the item was anything other than a normal, decent human being is slim. Perhaps my favorite part of wearing vintage, though, is wearing the original when everyone else is wearing the mass-produced copy. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” It’s true – most “new” styles are just repros of or inspired by something from the past.
CHM: What makes the “vintage scene” in Chicago unique?
BH: It’s young and vibrant and friendly. It’s not so much about collecting for the sake of investment than it is about expressing individuality in your everyday life; in your home and your outfits. It’s about standing out in a place where everyone kind of does. What we like most about Chicago is that it’s a major metropolis, so we’re not lacking for anything, but it’s still small-town friendly. We were friends with most of these vendors when we asked them to be part of the cooperative. We genuinely want each other to succeed; we congratulate each other on triumphs and help each other to lighten the load. If you’ve ever been to a popup market in Chicago, you might note that most of the vendors are interacting with one another, hugging each other hello, helping each other out when the tent is not cooperating, watching each other’s booths when it’s time for a short break. It’s hard to imagine seeing that kind of camaraderie anywhere else. It’s not every man for himself.
CHM: How does Beehive differentiate itself from what’s already present in the city?
BH: We are primarily geared towards vendors. When looking for a space that would work for us, we couldn’t find anything that was suited to our particular needs. You can rent a desk at hundreds of places in Chicago. But finding a blank white wall, a high-quality camera, a work table, WiFi and good lighting? Not affordably. One with a covered loading dock, massive freight elevator and people to help you move that seven-foot sofa? Not likely. True, we still provide the opportunity for shoppers and collectors to have a unique and intimate shopping experience. But our main goal is to help others who were once like us, deer in the headlights at the prospect of doing what they love for a living, successfully.
CHM: What can we expect from Beehive in the future?
BH: Over the next year, we plan to hold as many industry-related events at Beehive Chicago as possible. Our aim is to make it a major resource for both vendors and lovers of vintage. We’d love to be able to expand the Beehive to accommodate more businesses, as we already have a wait list forming. If it does well, we could expand into other spaces in our current location, or find a new location to bring to fruition the grand vision we’ve had since the beginning. We might even expand into other cities. Vintage is everywhere.
To find out more about Beehive Chicago, visit us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/beehivechicago. There you can find out more about how to join our email list, shop by appointment, Third Thursdays, how to be a guest vendor, and stay updated on our progress and upcoming events.
Written & Photographed by Leilani Wertens