Judy Maxwell opens in the Gold Coast

This new Chicago present gallery features breakable plates, DVDs of a Barbra Streisand movie and a mystery owner.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11A view of the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11A view of the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

One item you won�t find at many other gift shops: Breakable plates ($40 each)�just like the kind used in the movies. �We thought it would be funny to have a breakable vase on your holiday party and get into a fake fight with a family member,� Black says.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Nail polish on display at Judy Maxwell in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

This popsicle painting ($8,900) is by artist Brian Bonebrake. �We think of it as a great way to keep your family cool and happy.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

One of the most affordable items in the shop is also one of the quirkiest: tiny gift boxes with a piece of bubble gum ($1). Customers have been purchasing them for dinner parties and placing them on their guests� plates.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11A view of the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Items on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11A plastic toy soldier on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Sumo wrestler soap on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Sumo wrestler soap on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Local artist Pamela Paulsrud makes these rocks from vintage books ($65 each).

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Book rocks on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11Book rocks on display at the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 11/18/11A view of the Judy Maxwell store in Chicago's Gold Coast.

There’s a little bit of mystery surrounding Judy Maxwell, a new Gold Coast store. “People always come in and they’re like, ‘What is this place?’ ” manager Elizabeth Black says.

It’s a valid question. It doesn’t look like a typical store. The shop’s handmade paper letter sign posted in the front window and a huge elephant statue that greets shoppers at the door don’t give you many immediate clues. Merch (there’s a wide variety, from artistic rocks made out of books to cheeky Jewish-themed board games) is displayed in such a clever way, it looks like an exhibition. “We call it a present gallery,” Black says. “Everything [in the store] falls under the umbrella of items that are fun, creative and useful.”

Who would open such a quirky store? That’s a bit of a mystery, too. The store’s owner prefers to stay anonymous, but she is well known and has even been nominated for a couple of Academy Awards. Here’s another hint: One of her favorite movies is What’s Up, Doc?, the 1972 movie where Barbra Streisand plays a kooky character named Judy Maxwell. (DVDs of the movie are sold in the shop.)

“I wanted to open the store because in the journey of having a family and a home, I came to find that making a place of comfort was, for me, about finding wonderful things that add to that,” the owner says via e-mail. “Making a shop that has [interesting] content and is a place that’s fun to experience seemed like a challenge I could enjoy.”

An ongoing theme here is creating unexpected uses for traditional items. At Judy Maxwell, a small plastic pitcher isn’t marketed to quench your thirst. Instead, it’s packaged as a children’s bath-time kit ($12) and comes with a small bottle of shampoo. (“It looks so much nicer than those [random] plastic cups parents normally use to wash their kids’ hair,” Black says). An extra, extra large metal pot ($245) wouldn’t fit on many Chicago stoves, so the store suggests it can be used as a kitchen table in a studio apartment. And what about the store’s unofficial mascot, the elephant ($3,200)? The owner thought it would be fun to have an elephant in the store, so she found this one (although she won’t say where it’s from—another mystery!). “We’d love for it to go in a nursery,” Black says.

One of Black’s favorite things about the shop is the large front window. “We love watching people walk by and do double takes,” she says.

Visit Judy Maxwell at 1151 N State St (312-787-9999).

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