If you live in Chicago and you count down the days until Randolph Street Market each month or you have a special savings account you tap into twice a year when Modern Vintage Chicago comes to town, you’ve got Sally Schwartz to thank. The entrepreneur and veteran event planner started the antiques and vintage market after returning from a trip to London in 2003. Since then, Randolph Street Market has grown into one of the city’s most beloved event producers, hosting more than 70,000 people each year.
Here, we talk to Sally about how she got her start, what she’s learned as an entrepreneur, the best thing she’s ever found at the market, and more.
HOW DID YOU GET TO STARTING RANDOLPH ST MARKET?
I was a party planner and decorated theme parties using actual props. I used to travel to cornfields to gather props for events and after visiting the Portobello Road & Spittlefields markets in London, I felt that a world class city like Chicago should have a market too. I approached the West Loop organization and they were all in on the concept.
WHAT WERE THE EARLY ITERATIONS OF THE MARKET LIKE?
We started as the Chicago Antique Market – An Urban Treasure Hunt! on Memorial Day in 2004 w Sunday only markets through October on Randolph Street. Our higher end antiques dealers were inside Hoops The Gym, which was where Michael Jordan worked out right next to his restaurant One Sixtyblue(now bellyque). No one came into the West Loop, a lot of people didn’t know where it was. The Neighborhood was not referred to as Fulton Market it was called the Randolph Street Market District. The event was very bare bones but a novelty because it was new. It was 100% antiques dealers when we started and the crowd was mostly older.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR INITIAL VENDORS ON BOARD? I visited antique shows around the Midwest and nationally and did face to face and phone selling. I was extremely motivated, it was very hot and sweaty but I felt the people in Chicago and the tourists would really support the concept.
HOW HAS THE MARKET GROWN SINCE?
It has grown in fits and spurts, the timing of the financial meltdown and the population aging out of antiques necessitated changing the name to the Randolph Street Market Festival and creating a two day experience which now encompasses food, drink and a variety of exciting top vendors, not just antiques. The market went from a one day Sunday only 6 times a year to two days every month with three holiday markets.
WHAT SORT OF CROWD TYPICALLY COMES TO RANDOLPH ST?
Very diverse culturally, we say from” Birkins to Burkas, Tiffany to Tattoos” it’s truly Chicago’s flagship market, we fill a lot of hotel rooms and all generations can enjoy. College kids bring their visiting parents, grandparents bring their grandkids, moms and daughters love shopping for prom dresses and housewares, dads and sons come looking for vintage tools vinyl and baseball cards. Newelyweds come before and after the weddings, with and without their visiting wedding guests.
HOW HAS IT EVOLVED SINCE THE BEGINNING?
While the term “antiques” became more associated with what was considered moth ball grandma cast offs, we targeted the whole “retro” “vintage” and “up cycling” movements which was attracting the youth and socially conscious audience. In 2005 we started the Indie Designer Market featuring the top local fashion designers to help pull in younger style seekers who were not interested in antiquing. We were also in the process finding some amazing artists who could spin gold out of trash and the sheer creativity of these top vendors is really fun and keeps changing.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN, WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT TO FIND AT THE MARKET?
Everything that was made well and has survived since around the late 1800’s but tons of cool objects, furnishings, art, fashion and jewelry from the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, vintage in the absolute best MINT condition, designer labels Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, our vendors get the first call when estates are being cleared out of the best homes throughout the Midwest.
WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU’VE FOUND PERSONALLY AT THE MARKET?
A cubist oil painting for $75 that I had cleaned and found out it was by a well known 1940’s artist. Also a fun working roulette wheel cigarette lighter for my collection of lighters.
HOW DO YOU KEEP RANDOLPH STREET FRESH AND EXCITING EVEN AFTER A DECADE?
I surround myself with super talented creative people who have ahead of the trend ideas. I make sure everyone who is a vendor is also a host and create pockets of energy and fun so it’s big but intimate at the same time. I want RSM to feel like the most exclusive, private, unsnobby and SAFE place to hang out, explore, learn and have a blast!
WHY DO YOU LOVE YOUR JOB?
Because it is never boring and I get to see so many beautiful and cool objects while hanging out with exceptionally interesting and good people.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU’VE OVERCOME AS AN ENTREPRENEUR? Unforeseen economic downturns of the recent long recession and the ripple effect on customers buying habits. The unexpected that impacts your business – no matter how well you plan, you can’t change the cost of doing business when gas prices and material costs impact your vendors ability to pay and stay in business. And no of us can control Mother Nature.
WHAT’S BEEN THE KEY TO YOUR LONG TERM SUCCESS?
Visualization. I actually see the event and the warts and beauty marks, I like more of the latter! And patience and most of all, luck, being able to ride it out while growing.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
Slow and steady wins the race, don’t put the cart before the horse BUT plan for worst case scenario. Surround yourself with people who know more about the things you don’t, hire experts.