Logan Square Spotlight: Bric-a-Brac Records is a uniquely Chicago community

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We’re moving! As new members of the Logan Square community, we’re talking with some of our favorite businesses about why they love their neighborhood. Follow the progress of our new mixed use commercial retail and loft apartment, Logan Certified, on our blog. We’ve renovated and refreshed Logan Certified from its humble beginnings as a food and liquor store and we have space to rent. The building had fallen into disrepair on the outside, but upon exploration, we found many salvageable elements and of course kept the “bones” of the building, a crucial component of our favoring adaptive reuse over the generally more wasteful demo/rebuild cycle. Our second featured new neighbor is Nick Mayor, Co-founder (along with his wife, Jen Lemasters) of Bric-a-Brac Records & Collectibles, which in its short time since opening in 2013 has made a huge impact as a community hub, local music showcase and safe spot for all-ages shows. Part of what makes Bric-a-Brac so unique is its collection of collectibles, meaning shelves lined with vintage toys at an accessible price point (we ended up walking away with a Ghostbuster’s Marshmallow man). Don’t forget to check out our other interviews in this series with The Dill PickleBoulevard Bikes and Antique to Chic.

During our chat on a sunny February afternoon, Nick Mayor intermittently answers the phone and goes to help walk-in customers find music they might enjoy. As much as Mayor and his wife disinvest in the idea of an online-only experience, they invest their energy directly into a brick-and-mortar, facetime-rich experience, evidenced by the care Mayor takes in all his interactions, whether its evaluating Bric-a-Brac’s role in its community, helping a store patron find his new favorite music, or carefully arranging giant cardboard cut-out “NO BAN / NO WALL” letters in his shop window. Mayor and his wife opened Bric-a-Brac with the intention of making it a reliable community space in Logan Square, and it’s pretty clear that they’ve succeeded. The colorful storefront is both a neighborhood destination, and an international one; Mayor mentions that travelers from outside of the U.S. have added Chicago to their itinerary just to visit the local record and collectible gallery. Read on for why Bric-a-Brac champions local music, how Chicago specifically is the perfect nexus for a store like it, and why the best collectible toys are the ones that don’t just sit on a shelf. 

TALK ABOUT OPENING BRIC-A-BRAC
There’s not a huge story behind it; we thought it would be cool [laughs]. We’re big collectors and we saw a hole in the market. Chicago kind of allows a store like this to exist. It’s a bigger market, so we’re able to be more niche with what we sell, both with the toys and the music.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE TOYS AND THE AESTHETIC OF BRIC-A-BRAC, WHICH IS VERY UNIQUE
It’s predominantly toys from the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve always tried to hit the accessible collectibles target, so there’s not a lot of high-end stuff: it’s mostly from $4-$8. It’s stuff that you can actually play with. I’m not trying to sell to someone to put it on their shelf; I want to keep the original intent behind these toys. Beyond the specific inventory, I keep everything very local. We hardly do any online sales.

In context of getting of the neighborhood, I feel like the reason a store like this exists is because it’s an experience: the toys, the records; we try to create more of an environment than just shopping with solely goods and services.

Obviously we put a lot of effort into the aesthetic. We have a lot of performances in the store and they’re always free and all-ages. We try to make it very accessible to people, and that’s in line with the pricing, too. We’re not just trying to get big dollar collectors in here. We want people in the neighborhood to be able to come in, get stuff and play with it. If you’re looking at a Pirates of Dark Water toy, you’re not competing with someone online. You’re the only person that has this available to you right now.

Our store is a destination. And we take a little civic pride in that. We’ve been told a few times from people while traveling that this is one of the reasons they came to Chicago. Domestically and internationally. It’s pretty crazy that we’ve been able to reach that far. The only marketing we do is our own social media stuff. So it’s sort of an odd existence. A paradox; in that we couldn’t exist without the internet, but we try to shun the internet from our actual business.

HAVE YOU LISTENED TO EVERY RECORD ON YOUR SHELVES? HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHAT TO STOCK AND HOW DOES THE LOCAL COMMUNITY AFFECT THAT?
No. The local community affects us in that we’re pretty open to everybody. We cater to a certain audience; I don’t think there’s any way to deny that. But anybody can bring something in for our local inventory. I feel that we have one of the more representative stocks of local music, which makes sense to me on a lot of levels. Obviously you want to be inclusive with your community. But apart from diplomacy, economically, it makes sense too. Even if I don’t like a band’s music, if we have their tape in here, and then they go tell their friends, like ‘hey you can go to Bric-a-Brac, and buy our tape,’ then it’s gonna bring in more customers. I remember when we first started, there were more than a few people that said it was super easy to get their stuff in here, and they weren’t used to it being so easy. It just doesn’t make sense to me why you would turn away somebody.

HOW DO YOU THINK THAT BRIC-A-BRAC HAS SHAPED THE LOCAL COMMUNITY AND VICE-VERSA?
It’s always been important to us to be a community space. The concert market here is very much bar-driven, it’s not designed to be friendly to all-ages events. If you’re under 21 and want to see a show, it’s tough. There are definitely venues that do have all ages or 17&up shows, but my experience before this was working at a club, and just being on the production side, it was always a headache to have underage shows. The liability is an issue. And for the bar staff it was a pointless shift: you’d just be giving out cups of water all night.

And then there’s the DIY side of it: house venues and basement shows have obviously come under a lot of scrutiny in the past few months. There used to be a decent network of those spaces, in this neighborhood specifically. The nature of that stuff is very cyclical: they come and go. I feel it’s important to have a space that’s reliable.

HOW DOES HAVING A RELIABLE SPACE FOR SHOWS CONTRIBUTE TO THE STRENGTH OF THE COMMUNITY?
We’ve been doing shows here for three and a half years, and we haven’t had a single problem. I think a lot of that is that we always do our shows in the early evening. We’ve done one show that was nighttime. And…it’s never gonna happen again. But by having these shows at the most basic level, we’re not violating any noise ordinances. There’s no reason for the cops to come out. We’re very communicative with our neighbors above and next door. It’s all very open. And that’s also why we do them early, out of respect for the neighbors. If we’re done by eight, we shouldn’t impact their evening very much.

Even if you’re say, under 16, and kind of reliant on parents, this is somewhere that they can be comfortable leaving the kid. It’s not just some dingy basement. There’s a real sense of community responsibility in here. People will also ask, aren’t you worried about getting anything broken or stolen? Honestly, the only time that anything actually got broken in a meaningful way was at that nighttime show. I feel like the community really respects what we do here. To the point where everyone is looking out for us and the space. And I think they know that—not to be self righteous or anything—this is kind of a privilege. If it gets abused, then we can’t do shows anymore.

WHAT ARE YOUR THREE FAVORITE THINGS TO DO IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD?
The walkability score is high in Logan Square. We go to Reno all the time, to grab our coffee. And we used to go to L’Patron all the time. And the Logan Theater. And Cole’s, the cornerstone of free live music for a long time.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE ASPECT OF OWNING A BUSINESS THAT LETS YOU CONNECT TO PEOPLE SO PERSONALLY?
That. I mean, that’s definitely the most fulfilling aspect of it. Having a store like this, where everything is so handpicked just means we take a lot more pride in our ability to recommend things. We know that the majority of people that buy records might come in here and have a hard time finding something that they are familiar with.

On one hand that’s kind of a dumb business model—to have intentionally obscure items. But I think that we can do a really good job if the customer is comfortable coming to us and saying “ok, I like ABC, what do you have that I can find here that I would like?” And going back to why we started it, we didn’t feel like many of the stores here had that environment, where you felt comfortable approaching the staff. Chicago is doing it’s job to live up to the High Fidelity archetype. And we didn’t think that that was cool.

I would say we’ve had a pretty good batting average of being able to help people find something new that they really like. It seems like a very basic tenement of running a small business is making your customers comfortable.That’s just gonna breed repeat customers. If you build a relationship with somebody, and they trust your opinion and they trust your stock, they’re going to be more likely to buy something that they’re not familiar with, then if they just come in and look through things and you’re giving them a cold vibe. “You don’t know The Oblivions? What?! You should just go.” You know? It’s just stupid.