Requiem for a paper shop

February 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

On the north side of Chicago, there used to be a shop called Aiko’s Art Materials. It didn’t look like much from the street – just a plain brown brick facade – but once inside the single glass door and the narrow vestibule, you found yourself in a spare and impeccably ordered wonderland. Blond wood racks along both long walls were lined with samples of every kind of Japanese paper imaginable, from gampi as lacy as a dragonfly’s wing to kozo thick as a blotter. There was paper with petals and leaves pressed into it, paper flecked with gold and silver leaf and shot through with iridescent fibres, paper dyed and patterned in myriad ways. In the centre of the shop two banks of shelves faced each other, one stacked with heavy pads of mulberry paper for sumi-e, the other with the loveliest range of origami paper I have ever seen. Next to the origami display was a glass case filled with brushes, seals, ink sticks and ink stones, and an ever-changing family of maneki neko, daruma and other tiny clay figures. The back of the shop held woodblock prints.

The eponymous owner of the shop was a Japanese artist who, after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, decided that her vocation was actually sourcing and selling the papers her fellow students had so envied. I actually first discovered Aiko’s during my own very brief career as an art student; I took a sumi-e class when I was in middle school and it proved, for some reason, to be the only art form for which I’ve ever shown even the shadow of an aptitude. So, accompanied by my mother (I was too young to go into the city alone) I first ventured into Aiko’s to buy supplies. It was love at first sight. After the class was over, I kept returning, sometimes to buy that gorgeous origami paper (some of which got turned into origami but most of which ended up blu-tacked to the walls of my freshman dorm room and my first two apartments), sometimes to buy stationery, but mostly just to gaze my fill. Once I was deemed old enough to go into the city on my own, that particular neighbourhood became one of my favoured stomping grounds and no trip was complete without a visit to Aiko’s. The light and the calm of the shop, the dazzling beauty of its wares and the endless possibilities they contained, was a reassurance that all was right with the universe, at least a small corner of it.

Four years ago I was back in Chicago and, being in the neighbourhood, decided to pay a visit to Aiko’s. I walked down Clark and somehow missed it. Nothing unusual in that – the shop front was so unassuming, and I have a habit of letting my mind drift while I walk – so I retraced my steps back down the block. Still nothing. I walked up and down the block twice more before the realisation hit – Aiko’s was gone. It was like looking up at the night sky and suddenly finding a star snuffed out.

A bit of Internet research later, the pieces fell into place. Aiko herself had died four years previously, well into her nineties, and her assistants had soldiered on for a few more years before deciding to throw in the towel. An online artists’ paper dealer had bought the remaining stock. Nothing remained in the empty storefront to suggest that it had once been a place that had been a beacon to me – and countless artists – for so many years.

In a way, this requiem for a paper shop is also a requiem for the neighbourhood that once housed it. In a scenario depressing in its familiarity, it has gentrified almost beyond recognition. The Dunkin Donuts with its parking lot full of skateboarding punks, the second-hand book and record shops, the vintage and thrift shops and the cafés that all seemed to a naïve suburban teenager the height of bohemian sophistication, have mostly been swept away in a tidal wave of luxury condos and Starbucks. (There are a few holdouts – coincidentally, one of them a cavernous, dusty and marvellous Japanese import shop, although paper is only a small part of its stock – but who knows how much longer they’ll last?*)

Memory is notorious for burnishing the past, and it’s quite possible I remember the neighbourhood in a better light than it deserves. Even with this caveat in mind, though, nothing will convince me that I don’t remember Aiko’s entirely accurately. Even if I may have erred in the specifics (the layout, the arrangement of the goods), the spirit of the place is as clear as if I’d seen it yesterday. It may be gone, but I feel lucky to have been granted the chance to pass through its doors so many times.

*June 2013 update: The shop in question, J. Toguri Mercantile, closed in February 2013. No doubt to be replaced by yet another Starbucks…

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