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Vendors forced out of Little Village Discount Mall have mixed success beyond it

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For decades, Norma Castillo has been sewing dresses just the way her mother taught her in Mexico, moving seamlessly between traditional styles and current popular trends; only what’s changed is the noise around when she does it.

From 1995 until earlier this year, she worked at the Little Village Discount Mall, in a quiet booth amid a diverse warren of stalls where shoppers from around the U.S. could find everything from rare musical instruments to exotic birds.

Castillo, 65, was among the about 40 vendors forced to leave the mall near 26th and Albany streets after the owner closed half of it. And like many of those who left, she has found it difficult to keep her business going beyond the confines of the old mall.

When he bought the property in 2019, John Novak of Novak Construction said he planned to replace the mall, a neighborhood icon since opening in 1991, with national retail chains.

Vendors fought those changes and at least half were able to stay. The rest, with a management company that couldn’t come to a lease agreement with Novak, left acrimoniously at the end of March.

Since then, Castillo has been working out of her house in Berwyn. She thought she could do about as well, finding clients by word of mouth. But her business is down 90%.

“I know what I want to do. I want to make a dress,” said Castillo, who learned to sew in her home state of Nuevo León, Mexico. “But who would I make it for?”

Her stall at the mall provided a steady stream of potential clients. Without it, she’s struggled to find buyers, and the few she has have proved unreliable. Some stop by for fittings much later than she would work at the mall.

“They tell me they’re going to come at 2, and then they come at 9 at night,” she said. “That doesn’t work.”

She hopes she’ll be able to return to the open half of the mall, but many vendors have moved on and opened conventional storefronts or turned to other malls. Others hope that those locations are just temporary stops along the way to the group opening up a new mall of their own on the Southwest Side.

The space those vendors have in mind is a former Kmart at 51st Street and Kedzie Avenue in Gage Park. The owner, they say, is fixing up the space. In April, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who has supported the vendors throughout their exodus, announced the city had verbally agreed to help by covering the initial cost of rent.

However, their target date of May 15 has come and gone, and the new place shows no signs of opening.

Norma Castillo (left) chats with a woman who stopped by to offer moral support as Castillo packed up her shop on March 28 to prepare to move out of the Little Village Discount Mall. Castillo had been in the mall since 1995 and has struggled to keep her business going from her Berwyn home.

Norma Castillo (left) chats with a woman who stopped by to offer moral support as Castillo packed up her shop on March 28 to prepare to move out of the Little Village Discount Mall. Castillo had been in the mall since 1995 and has struggled to keep her business going from her Berwyn home.

Still making music

The Miranda family, after 18 years at the mall, are among those that have, mostly, tried to move on.

At the mall, shoppers could find their music store by listening for the softly thumping rhythm of cumbia music playing from their loudspeakers.

Now, they’re in a conventional storefront on 26th Street, about half a mile west of the mall near the “Bienvenidos a Little Village” arch.

The new Cesar’s Music of Illinois is massive compared to the old location, so the instruments they carry finally have room to sing.

But the extra room comes at a price.

“Expenses really went up,” said Iraís Miranda, 65, the father of the family. With the higher rent and utilities, and money spent to build out the space, “it’s like a new mortgage.”

Cesar Miranda, 32, inside the Miranda family’s new store on West 26th Street.

Cesar Miranda, 32, inside the Miranda family’s new store on West 26th Street. The family had operating Cesar’s Music of Illinois out of the Discount Mall for years before having to leave in March.

He and his wife, from Guerrero, Mexico, had started with a small stall at the mall, turning it into a full-scale shop with an inventory ranging from beginner instruments to $6,000 accordions handmade in Italy. And their professional-caliber 12-string guitars that drew players of traditional Mexican music from around the Midwest.

The forced move came just as they were preparing to turn the shop over to their boys: Cesar, 32, and Oliver, 27.

“The space here is definitely better,” Cesar Miranda said recently, standing inside the new location.

Foot traffic, though, can be a little harder to come by.

“It’s more comfortable, but there’s no people,” said his mother, Idalia Miranda, 53, adding: “It’s like starting a business again from zero.”

Idalia Miranda, 53, stands inside the Miranda family’s new store on West 26th Street.

Idalia Miranda, 53, stands inside the Miranda family’s new store on West 26th Street. The family had run their store, Cesar’s Music of Illinois, out of the Discount Mall for years before having to leave in March 2023, when half of the iconic mall closed.

They also lament how isolated the new place feels.

“It was beautiful to be there” at the Discount Mall, “because there was always someone to talk with.”

Having other businesses around was also good for business.

“Families would come to eat, they would buy a toy for their son, a dress for their daughter and just shop around,” Idalia Miranda said. “Everything worked better together.”

New spot less than ideal

Seeing the costs of opening a conventional storefront, Griselda Estrada, the longtime owner of a Western wear shop, tried heading to another mall, the Swap-O-Rama Flea Markets in Back of the Yards.

The market stands in the shadow of stacks and stacks of shipping containers and, although it’s open only a few days a week, it’s several times bigger and draws almost 1,000 vendors set up on weekends.

Despite that traffic, Estrada has seen a drastic drop in sales.

“I’m surprised,” said Estrada, 42. “So many people come in, but the sales aren’t what they were.”

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Griselda Estrada, whose leather goods store was in the Little Village Discount Mall for 27 years, packs up her shop and moves out of the mall at 3115 W. 26th St. on the Southwest Side, Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

She has a spot there only on weekends. And instead of the $5,000 in sales she used to have on Saturday and Sunday, her two-day take is now around $1,000.

Estrada, 42, had worked at the Lower West Side mall for 27 years, selling cowboy boots and other Western apparel, before leaving at the end of March.

“Sometimes I feel hopeless,” she said. “I’m stressed, because I have to pay my purveyors,” she added, referring to the wholesalers who loan her the goods on credit.

For now, she said, they’re understanding, but she’s sure if she doesn’t increase her sales dramatically soon, she’ll have to return the merchandise, which in turn leaves her worried about how she and her husband will provide for their five children.

“In the past, if one of them wanted something, between the two of us, we could take care of it. But now, it’s not the same,” she said. “It gives me a headache to think about it. … I’m feeling a little like I don’t know what to do.”

She hopes she can hold out until the Gage Park location opens in the former Kmart.

‘We just wanted to work’

Kocoy Malagón and Veronica Gutiérrez, both vendors who opened conventional storefronts, are hoping for the same thing.

Malagón became the de facto spokesperson for the vendors forced to leave the Discount Mall.

Now, she can’t wait to move to the Gage Park space, even if the new digs are exceptional.

The spot is a cavernous space on 26th Street. Rows and rows of mannequins inside wearing brightly colored dresses give way to fitting rooms and floor-length mirrors where shoppers can consult with friends about their fit for prom.

Kocoy Malagón owner of Koco’s Boutique, in Little Village shop. She moved her business from the Little Village Discount Mall a few months before dozens of other vendors were evicted.

Kocoy Malagón owner of Koco’s Boutique, in Little Village. She moved her business from the Little Village Discount Mall a few months before dozens of other vendors were evicted.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Beyond that, there are two storage rooms full of dresses on hangers and a hallway lined with boxes that haven’t been unpacked from the Discount Mall. Other boxes were emptied, then flattened, to be reused during the next move.

At the very back of it all is a spartan workspace with a sewing machine and spools of thread within reach on the wall. It’s a beautiful burden that, for better or worse, the native of Mexico City is now bound to this space by her lease.

“Here, I do sell, thank God, but in the mall I sold so much more,” said Malagón, 48. “There, it was like selling tortillas. You see it, you like it and then you buy it. Here, you’ll notice I have one client right now where in the mall I had 10.”

Gutierrez now runs an auto body accessories shop in Pilsen but stopped by the dress shop recently while running errands.

The two lamented how about they miss the convivial atmosphere of working together.

“It was very different,” said Gutierrez, 45. “We were all living together. We only ever went home to sleep. We pretty much spent the whole day there together.”

Like many others, she resents feeling that her business was stolen out from under her through no fault of her own.

“We never asked for any help,” Gutierrez said. “We just wanted to work.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.



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