By Janie Blank
I wrote an article recently on department stores on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and they are just that, magnificent, especially at Christmas when decorated. There is nothing quite like it. However, if department store shopping is all you do when shopping in Chicago, then you are missing some real gems.
There are basically three types of small shops. One is the chain shop. This would include Talbots, Pottery Barn, Gap, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. Much like chain restaurants save these for shopping at home. As far as that goes, the same is true of department stores. The sales tax in Chicago is higher than in most smaller cities so if you can buy it at home it makes sense to do so. Unless, like my Ya-Ya girlfriend who works about twelve hours a day, your trip to Chicago is your only chance to shop. Then go for it! I have also found that even though these chains operate in our city, they do not always have the same selection that a Michigan Avenue store can provide. Often these are the flagship stores of the chain and the variety is much more extensive. I bought some cashmere sweaters at the Ann Taylor on Michigan Avenue a couple of years ago and then later decided to exchange sizes. I found out that the local Ann Taylor stores did not carry the full array of colors that were available in Chicago.
A store that used to be found only in Chicago is Crate and Barrel. For the first few years we shopped in Chicago we always bought gifts there and they were people pleasers because everyone had seen the catalog but most people had no opportunity to visit the store. Of course that has all changed but their three level store on Michigan Avenue still has the best selection. They have lots of things pre-wrapped and a lot of things in a reasonable gift price range.
The second type of store is the high-end shop. Michigan Avenue is noted for its exclusive, luxury boutiques such as Gucci, Cartier, Tiffany, Georgio Armani, and Bulgari and other famous names. You might find these shops in other places but only in very large cities or resorts. Although not unique to Chicago these shops are not on every corner or in your local mall. Chicago has a street at the far north end of Michigan avenue called Oak Street. This is where a lot of your designer boutiques reside such as Kate Spade, Donald Pliner (shoes), Hermes, Frette (luxury linens), and a branch of Barneys New York. The surrounding streets such as Delaware and Walton as they intersect with Rush Street (a block west of Michigan Avenue) also have fine shopping. As a matter of fact saying you are shopping on Oak Street denotes a certain panache. A number of years ago my daughter bought her wedding dress, a simple elegant gown, in Nicole Miller on Oak Street.
The third type of small shop is the one of a kind, or shop that you can find only in Chicago. You are more likely to find these boutiques in Lincoln Park due to the exorbitant rents for Michigan Avenue real estate but I will save that for a different travel guide. Sticking to the ones downtown, there is a cute shop on Delaware called Pistachio that now has a second store outside the Nordstrom Mall. They have a lovely selection of one of a kind jewelry ranging from $50 to $500. They carry tons of earrings and pendants. They also have some unique gifts. They wrap everything in bright colored little boxes at no charge. With each purchase they throw in a cute little bag of pistachios. Nice touch. We never miss this shop and always find something for our grown daughters in there.
A wonderful store is American Girl Place (www.americangirlplace.com) on Chicago between Michigan and Rush. If you do not have a young girl to buy for find one! If not, just go in for the sheer fun of it! If they had only had something like this when we were little girls! This store used to be unique to Chicago but I understand it now has New York City and Los Angeles branches. There is a restaurant inside where little girls take their dolls to lunch. Reservations must be made months in advance. The selection of dolls and clothes is beyond the imagination of many young girls and many older ones as well. Heck, I even drug my husband in there once when we were in Chicago. He loved it! Right now we are still lucky enough to have one niece still in this age range. Over all the prices are reasonable. You can buy a darling doll outfit for $22 but it does add up. This is a Do Not Miss!
Another small store on the Mile is Chiarascuro (www.chiaroart.com). It is located in Chicago Place. It has a large assortment of whimsical gifts. One of my Ya-Yas once had them hand paint dozens of champagne glasses to give to friends and business associates for the Millennium. They work with several local artists. This is a regular stop on our list.
On Rush Street at about Delaware on the west side of the street is, of all things, a button store. We usually visit this store just from a fascination standpoint. They have some of the most beautiful buttons you will find anywhere.
A really cute childrens store is called Madison and Friends (www.madisonandfriends.com). It is at the corner of Rush and Oak. They carry hip childrens clothes and a huge amount of denim for kids. They have more recently opened a second location but it is still a store unique to Chicago.
Almost every shop is friendly and will gladly mail your packages home for you. We have actually gotten to know the manager of Chiarascuro. We did have one experience with a clerk in an exclusive boutique in the Bloomingdale Building. Unfortunately she did not recognize my Ya-Ya friend who had purchased a very large amount of gifts the previous year and although it was a few minutes before the posted closing time she had already locked up and would not let us in. The stores loss for sure!
Once you get your bearings you will be able to discover the many great shops in this compact area for yourself. I recommend a glossy little fold up street map for your purse.
A good map you can find online and print for Magnificent Mile Chicago shopping is: (www.chicagotraveler.com/chicago_magnificent_mile_shopping_map.htm). I wrote recent blogs on where to stay and department store shopping on the Magnificent Mile so you might want to check that out as well (www.travguides.com/2006/08/where-to-stay-for-shopping-in-chicago.html) and (www.travguides.com/2006/08/chicago-department-store-shopping-on.html).