Go Local: Penelope’s

Photos by Nathan Micheal.

I’ve been shopping at Penelope’s pretty much the whole time I’ve lived in Chicago. It might seem a little weird to say, but, I kind of feel like the store and I have grown up together. As my tastes and expectations about clothing have changed, so have theirs, and almost in all the same ways. However, it’s not just the clothes that have kept me coming back, it’s also the people. I’m not sure if it’s part of the employee training, or what, but every time I’ve ever walked in there, someone from the staff has warmly greeted me. That might sound small, but I can’t think of any other business about which I can claim the same.

Opened in 2002 in the ever-changing Wicker Park neighborhood, Penelope’s has managed to maintain consistent popularity and renown despite major shifts in both its surroundings and clientele. Credit for that longevity goes mainly to the store’s founders, married couple Jena and Joe Lauer. Be it due to an innate understanding of Chicago’s tastes, or, perhaps some sort of Chicago-centric prescience, the two have kept their store not just relevant, but downright beloved, for almost ten years. Co-founder Joe was kind enough to answer a few questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Well Spent: Are you from Chicago?

Joe Lauer: Jena grew up in rural Ohio, and I grew up in the northern suburbs. We met at college in Ohio and moved here after because we really liked the city. It has most of the benefits of a huge city like New York in terms of arts, entertainment and culture, but you can still maintain a great standard of living without a trust fund or winning the lottery.

Joe and Jena.

What neighborhood do you live in?

We live in Ukrainian Village, a few blocks south of the store. It’s close to the action in Wicker Park and Bucktown, but a bit more residential and laid back. Living close enough to be able to walk to the shop has been great. We lived above the store for a few years at the beginning. That was too close. There were times in the winter when we didn’t leave the building for a week.

What’s the best part about owning a business in Chicago?

We are a neighborhood store, and our clients and neighbors have been extremely encouraging about what we do. With many bigger retailers moving into the ‘hood in the last few years, the local community have been more supportive than ever.

Joe and Jena’s son Dignan, one of the best dressed toddlers you’ll ever meet.

What’s the worst?

Really, we couldn’t imagine running the store anywhere else. But, one difficulty in running a retail business in Chicago versus other major cities is the sales tax. Many of our customers visiting from other cities are taken aback at the almost 10% rate.

Your thoughts on Chicago style…

Style in Chicago has evolved a lot in the time since we have opened, especially for men. People tend to dress more casual, conservatively, and less trend-driven than on the coasts, but, increasingly we have seen our fellow Chicagoans drawn towards more contemporary designs, while maintaining a Midwest casualness.

Tough day at the office.

I’m visiting the city for the first time, and I’ve only got 24 hours. What should I do / where should I go?

There is so much to do, I’m going to keep it fairly inexpensive and mostly confined to our neighborhood and others nearby:

Stay: Longman & Eagle, the best whiskey bar / mini-hotel / Michelin-starred restaurant in the city.

Eat: Big Star, Lula, Longman & Eagle (again), Publican, Nightwood (this one’s a trek, but probably our favorite place to go).

Shop: Apartment #9, Sir & Madame, Eskell, Dovetail, Sprout home. For great vintage housewares, check out the Grand street corridor that has popped up in the last few years, start at Post 27 and work your way West.

See: Garfield Park Conservatory, maybe catch a show at the Hideout or Empty Bottle.

What’s at the top of your holiday wishlist?
With two young children at home, we are thinking more about vintage Fisher Price toys and Matchbox cars than what we want for ourselves. But, Jena has been eying up a set of stools at Reform Objects in Logan square, and I would be thrilled if Santa brought me a pair of boots or boat shoes from Oak Street Bootmakers.

To view the complete Penelope’s photo set, check out Nathan Michael’s Tumblr.