Randolph Street Market Festival founder Sally Schwartz fills her home with oldies but goodies.
From crooked noses to big dimples, we all inherit things from our grandparents. Randolph Street Market Festival founder Sally Schwartz inherited antiques—lots of them.
“What happens is that when people die, you can’t get rid of their stuff,” Schwartz says. “[When I was in my twenties] I sort of ended up with the relics of [my grandparents’] leisure lifestyle.”
Judging from the look of her Hyde Park home, you’d think she’s been acquiring items for a lifetime. The living room shelves bow under the weight of thick art books and biographies of old film stars. At least 100 ornate cigarette lighters dating from the 1880s to the ’60s cover every inch of wooden organ pipes that double as shelves on the adjacent wall. Her desk obscures an antique xylophone in the corner of her office space.
As a teenager, Schwartz fixated more on quantity than quality. “I remember going into this shoe store where it was, like, $12 for each pair of shoes,” she recalls, “and I bought 15 pairs of shoes. I was walking down Michigan Avenue from my first job, and the shoes just broke. I remember being very conscious [from then on] of things that weren’t made well.”
By the time she headed to college, she rid herself of her possessions, even abandoning boxes of records on her stoop. But when her grandparents passed away, she started receiving box upon box of handmade and memory-laden housewares and accessories: charcoal prints from the 1900s, needlework pillows made by her grandmother, and the entire bed set and chaise lounge that now occupies Schwartz’s pink bedroom.
Once she started working as an event planner Schwartz got serious about collecting on her own. She headed to flea markets outside the city in search of fabulous party decor such as bar stools and salt and pepper shakers from the ’50s and bolts of fabric. Then once a year, she’d sell the overstock at a yard sale during the Sheffield Garden Walk. That lasted for about ten years, from 1990 to 2000.
After a few years of hosting her own sales, it hit her: Why not start a market in Chicago? “I didn’t understand why a city like Chicago didn’t have something like this going on.” She and her husband at the time hosted three festivals until the owners used the property to develop townhouses. When Schwartz migrated to Hyde Park eight years ago, she launched the Randolph Street Market Festival, now in its seventh year and widely expanded to encompass both the Chicago Antique Market and the Indie Designer Market.
Along with the move, she brought remnants of her previous home in Lincoln Park, with her—consolation prizes for the fact that the house, an old church rectory from the 1800s, was being torn down. She salvaged everything she could get her hands on: a Victorian chandelier that now hangs in her hallway entrance, doorknobs that she displays as ornaments on the living room shelf, cornices from the roof and wood-paneled hutch doors, which now hide unused and special-occasion collectibles.
Not surprisingly, Schwartz’s collections reflect various phases in her life. In her twenties, she took inspiration from her grandparents’ poker chips and playing-card sets and went full steam ahead with the theme of vices: glass swizzle sticks, playing cards, dice and the aforementioned cigarette lighters. Except for the lighters, Schwartz retired the vice pieces, along with her partying, in her midthirties. When her daughter was born, she moved on to French poodles along with tea cups and glass animal figurines from her own childhood.
After years of exposure—spending long weekends at the market plus traveling around the country to locate new vendors and check out competitive shows—Schwartz is finally able to walk away from her weekends at work without pallets of goods trailing behind her. Now she mainly picks up small trinkets like gold charms and hankies with her mom’s initials.
That said, the one type of item she can’t deny herself is artwork: sculptures, charcoal drawings, mostly figural pieces. She claims that her only limitation when it comes to buying is wall space, but in reality, she’ll make room for any piece she can’t imagine living without. “I have a vendor with a really big watercolor right now,” she begins. “I’m just gonna cave. It’s just gonna happen. It’s like an addict. You can only hold off so long,”