Driving past Pieritz Bros. Office Supply and Stationery in Oak Park, it's not difficult to wonder if the 118-year-old, third-generation family-run store is patronized — or even open. It looks a little like the Ghost of Storefronts Past.
But the quick answer is yes and yes, thanks to the alternative business approach of its co-managers — and resident artists — Deborah Pieritz, 60, and her brother-in-law, John Roberts, who jokes he is "67ish."
So the business, located at the corner of Ridgeland Avenue and South Boulevard, could be called, "Pieritz Brother-In-Law and Sister."
These two "creatives" have been evolving — along with the family biz — bit by bit since the 1980s, so now their "little shop of curiosities," as they call it, is still relevant and certainly among the last office supply stores of its kind.
"If we were both business majors, we would have pulled the plug 15 years ago," says Roberts, who notes that, before this, he owned his own art-publishing business in Chicago. "Well, we are not [business people]. We are both art majors, and its like time has just gone past us and [despite everything] we are still here."
Stepping across the store's threshold is like entering "Diagon Alley" in Harry Potter's universe. For sale is everything from standard office fare to vintage writing instruments, including the Rolling Rider Ballpoint Pen, which like the pencils, is peddled one at a time. Also available are apartment lease forms, school supplies and a range of unique artful objects, including fancy French journals and sketch books, the Quo Vadis calendar line, and fine pens from Germany and Japan.
Not for sale here are about 40 or so old manual typewriters (they do sell typewriter ribbons, though), and an old mimeograph machine from days gone by. These collectibles make up their "museum," which Deborah calls a free teaching moment for anyone who wants to drop by.
"People bring their kids in here because there is no other place like this," she says.
Six days a week these artists job-share, which allows them to make ends meet and create time for their art. On a recent Tuesday when their shifts overlapped, among the steady stream of customers was a local couple who strolled in with their "family" of small leashed dogs in tow, which isn't unusual here.
"This is an unspoken, community gathering place, like a neighborhood pub without liquor," says Deborah, the granddaughter of one of the original Pieritz brothers. "More often than not, someone will be in here to do some sort of school or business project, and another person comes in and we get into these interesting discussions."
As working artists, she says, "Neither of us is very money motivated, so it was like if we could make enough … that is the artists' side of it, and to me it is a much more interesting place in here than it used to be."
Ebb and flow
Born in the Austin community, three miles east of the store, Deborah, for the last 20 years or so, has resided in, and does her art from, a nearby two-flat she shares with her sister, Katie, who is married to John. It was her entrepreneurial grandfather, Robert, and his brothers, Arthur and Henry, who opened the original newspaper, magazine and cigar shop at the corner of Lake Street and Laramie Avenue in 1895.
In 1970, after 75 years in the Austin neighborhood, her dad, Alvin, partnering with his best friend from grade school, relocated the business to Oak Park, kitty corner from the Ridgeland Avenue Green Line el stop.
"When I was 5 or 6 years old, my dad bought me a tool box, and the greatest thrill for me was when I would hang out at the store and Dad would say, 'OK, you can clean out a cabinet and have any of the old stuff.' It would end up in the basement of our house, and I would build stuff out of that. So I have always been drawn to older things that I can twist and reconfigure," says Deborah, who earned a Master in Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago.
During her high school years, with that penchant for building things from "old stuff," especially manufactured wood and industrial hardware, she used the old store's stainless steel interior trim — fabricated from milk cans by Depression-era laborers — to help build out the new one.
"We built this all out of old wood we had saved, and I spent months taking nails out of old two-by-fours, but that is just what you did," she recalls. "Now it's called reuse, repurpose, it's got a name to it … but we have always had recycled bags. And now I get as many green items in here as we can."
The art of old things
Nowadays, two of her well-traveled "word sculptures" have become retail window dressing. "Run-on Sentence Structure," a long, poetic sentence she wrote, is drilled and sewed into a long wooden ribbon.
"It used to be part of a gallery in the Fine Arts Building in Chicago, and it has been in a few shows in the city and elsewhere," she says.
With "Tumble Jumble," she manipulated cut-up blackboard and other materials to play with words and letters, which "you can see through and are the same forward and backwards." It was displayed at the Art Center in Highland Park in a "word show," and has been on exhibit elsewhere in Chicago.
"In my life I have always been surrounded by words and numbers, which I am still very curious about," says the former school teacher. "I think it's because it never came real easy to me in school. Numbers and words were more mysterious to me back then, so it is still sort of a curiosity to me."
Still, and moving, pictures
John, meanwhile, is a printmaker and videographer who holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Fine Arts in Detroit. About 10 years ago, he began creating a line of blank greeting cards, which were inspired by "all the old, funky stuff we had lying around the store."
More recently, a collection of 2012 political short videos, as well as "The Typewriter Tour," he did earlier this year, can be found on YouTube.
"We set up a table of typewriters, and some of [members of the League of the Letter Writers Alliance] would sit at the typewriters and just type letters," says Roberts, who was born in Oak Park but grew up in Elmhurst. "That day a guy showed up who knows everything about typewriters and pens. So I had my camera for these other people, and decided to just follow him around."
Contemplating the future of their legacy-laden office-supply store, Deborah says it is open ended.
"It's just funny. I have so many 'I don't knows' going on right now. But I have always had the sense that the store would be here for me as long as I needed it to be here, and my role right now is to give this place a good old age, and that is what I am trying to do anyway because these kinds of places just aren't around anymore."