Leilani Wertens at Kouks Vintage Cafe
The founder of the Thriftaholic blog shows us one of her favorite vintage shops on Chicago’s Northwest side.
Growing up on Maui, Leilani Wertens, 26, remembers her first thrifting excursion at age eight—an event that became a fun family ritual. “My parents and I would go every weekend,” she recalls. “We all had our own niche; I looked for 1960s troll dolls and jewelry.”
Her days of collecting trolls are behind her, but jewelry still tops the list for this discriminating vintage fiend, who exclusively wears dresses and skirts from the 1940s–70s. Having double-majored in journalism and art history at the University of Southern California, in 2007 Wertens moved here to pursue a master’s in photography from Columbia College; that’s also when she launched her bargain-hunter’s blog, Thriftaholic.
We were understandably happy when Wertens revealed to us one of her lesser-known haunts: Kouks Vintage Cafe, in Norwood Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The eclectic but well-curated selection would alone make it visit-worthy, to say nothing of the presentation: From clothes to housewares to toys, all the merch is tastefully displayed in a beautifully restored old space that contains a never-ending trove of hidden nooks. (Hint: Keep looking up.)
“Everything’s pretty much pre-’70s, which is great,” Wertens says. “I don’t support the 1990s-as-vintage movement.”
That’s not the end of Kouks’s unique charm: There’s also a fully stocked espresso bar. “This combines my two loves in life,” Wertens smiles. There’s also light nosh to be had—bagels, muffins, spanakopita—“in case you get tired after your walk from the Blue Line.” (For the car- and bike-free, Kouks is about a mile from the Jefferson Park stop; the Northwest Highway bus runs right to the door.)
Holding court behind the bar—a gorgeous, curved expanse of drool-worthy wood—is owner Georgia Nicole Pappas. She’s got a smile for everyone, even if she’s busy chatting up her regulars, such as Bill Arroyo, the handsome postal carrier who’s enjoying his beverage on a Sunday morning. Noting that you’re likely to see the same people there between 10am and noon every day, he says, “It’s that Cheers thing, where everybody knows your name.”
Speaking of names: The store’s unique moniker comes from a nickname. “When my husband first met me, he would call me Koukla—[Greek for] ‘my doll,’ ” Pappas explains. “As the years went on, he just called me Kouks.” She twirls her well-manicured finger in a circle pointed at her head, joking that maybe the name has more than one meaning.
A Greek immigrant, Pappas and her husband, Andy, opened Kouks together in 2003. Both love coffee, and when they found this unique space, “We were like: ‘Okay, this is meant to be,’ ” she says. The building’s quirky split-level layout originally housed a mom-and-pop shop in the early 20th century. The first proprietors set up shop in the front and lived on the upper level in back.
That partly explains the feeling Wertens gets when she shops here: “I enjoy Kouks because it feels like I’m going through a rambling house.”
Sip, browse or both at Kouks, 5653 N Northwest Hwy (773-594-8888). Check out Wertens’s “Jonesing for Junk” blog at thriftaholic.com.