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Wednesday, March 20, 2013


The other day a woman stopped by to check out our gray walls. She's tired of the look of her living room and when she told her daughter she was thinking of going gray, the daughter suggested a trip down to Grand Avenue to see our "absolutely perfect gray". Why, thank you. Except that when the woman walked in, I was up on a ladder, painting over the very color she had come to see. "But why?" she asked. "I thought gray was getting to be pretty popular!"  Exactly.
When Debra hired me back in 2010, our walls were painted Sheetrock White. OK, that wasn't the actual color actual name, just what it looked like on the walls: nothing. All the cool pieces that Debra had found were dying against the bland background, so my first order of business was to change that background. I went with dark gray instead. Much better.

Actually, the "new" paint color was a fairly easy choice:  I just re-used the same shade  of gray that I had used thirty-five years before, when I moved into my very first post-college apartment. 
One of the reasons I took the apartment in the first place was that, although the place was dirty, it still had its original glass block walls, terrazzo floors and twelve-foot-wide enameled steel Venetian blinds. I couldn't have afforded to replace the blinds--even if I wanted to, which I didn't--so I had their glossy gray finish custom-matched by Elmer, the old guy at my neighborhood Benjamin Moore store. There's a hard way to do things and an easy way. I chose the easy way: I let Elmer do it.  

The building had been a tony address when it was new in 1940, and its apartments' spacious dimensions turned out to be a drawback. What little furniture I owned looked totally lost in the big rooms, so I used paint & dim light to create the illusion of warmth & intimacy where there was neither.  Dark gray & I go way back.
And although my handsome gray walls matched the blinds, they somehow had a depth & liveliness that the blinds didn't have. Of course, in the dark ages before HGTV turned everyone into a design authority, nobody ever had heard of full-spectrum paint, but that's probably what I got from Elmer, who matched anything you gave him  
and he did it all by eye, not by pushing a button on a digital scanner. Nowadays, guys like Elmer are a vanishing species.  

I stuck with the gray, even after the place started filling up with antique furniture, and when I moved to my next place--the upstairs of a big Victorian house--I painted my bedroom the same gray as that first apartment. Why mess with success?

And ten years later, when I moved to an apartment in Chicago--a 1950 high-rise overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan--I went all-gray again.  This time I matched the steely color of the lake in winter. So I have no problem with gray.
So why, then--my visitor to the shop wanted to know--if I liked the color, and it looked good in the shop, was  I getting rid of it?  I couldn't argue with her about its looking good in the shop. It did look good. Really good. But here's the thing:  
six weeks after I painted the shop gray, a mass-market store lately known for its overscaled furniture and its equally overscaled catalogs painted their store what's basically the same color, so, after people started asking me "Is this Restoration Hardware 'Slate'?"--and it's not, but there's no point being coy or making people guess--I started giving out hand-painted samples of our color. That way, those who liked it could take it to their own paint store and have it matched. After all, there's more to being a merchant than just selling stuff. A hundred-odd years ago, Marshall Field started serving home-made chicken pot pies to lady customers faint with hunger after a morning of hard shopping. I'm no cook, so I'm not about to  do that, but I can paint and hand out paint samples. Whatever it takes.

These days, of course, that's hardly even necessary, because dark gray walls are everywhere you look. And while, in principle, I have no problem with copying--either my own, or others'--I hate it when new customers think that I've copied the shop right across the street--or the one two doors east of us. I sure hope my color sources aren't that obvious. Fortunately, inspiration is all around us.
 Anyway, since, after a few years, I've become bored with this no-color palette- (which, if I get to missing it, I can still see, simply by looking in the gutter out front)

 we'll be going--finally, after a year of talking about it--in a fresh, new direction. 
I'm not saying where or when I came up with the idea for this particular color, 

Green River by artist Stacy Bogan.  

but if you were in Chicago last weekend, you might have an idea.

Friday, March 8, 2013


A terra cotta keystone on an apartment building on North Clarendon Street in Chicago

Judging by the mounds of dirty snow in my apartment's shady courtyard, it's still the dead of winter in Chicago, but spring has to be close because there are already crocus budding a block away, birds I haven’t seen since Thanksgiving are back in town to check out the available nesting spots in the neighborhood (and, too, probably wondering what happened to the two white mulberry trees that were still in the front yard when the birds left) and here in the shop, customers who winter in Palm Beach and Montecito are starting to show up again--with tans. Those are all good signs, this time of year. I, of course, retain the normal pallor that comes naturally to one who spends most of his time indoors and whose southward travels generally go no farther than Cermak Road. Mayor Anton Cermak--in whose honor 22nd Street was renamed--went down to Florida one year about this time and look what happened.  There's no reason to take unnecessary chances just to soak up a little sunshine.  The stuff's over-rated.    

The view out the window above my bed. Sometimes, it's easy to forget I live in a city of almost three million people. 
Then somebody's stupid car alarm goes off.
No, I'm staying right here, close to home, and in recent days, it’s Chicago's year-round residents that  I’m seeing--and hearing: just  more of them. The raven that hangs out in the ancient cottonwood across the street wakes me up like he does every morning, no matter what the season is, but lately, he seems louder. Maybe I'm imagining it. And just this morning, I saw four fat cardinals in the tree right outside my window.  Like me, like ravens, cardinals stay put when the weather turns cold, but still, I've never seen that many cardinals together before. Then again, Why not? The city's homeless population may be struggling more this year than in years past, but at least the cardinals are being well-fed. To him who has, more will be given, I guess. Soon enough, the noisy sparrows--who never think they have enough--will be fighting over snippets of the colored yarn that one of my neighbors threads through the bare twigs of the barberry hedge out front. The Circle of Life is a wonderful thing.
Meanwhile, down on Grand Avenue, the hyacinths & forsythia are blooming, I’m down to the last dozen or so of Debra’s rubber faux tulips and our Slush Gray walls are splotched with test swatches of green & yellow paint. Winter may have one last blizzard up its sleeve—face it, it is only March, and we are in Chicago—but at SG Grand, it is now officially Spring. Let the nesting begin.
Do a good deed for somebody today: everybody deserves a home.