Mary Toussaint stands in front of her shop’s collection of African clothing. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Minouchic Boutique is packed with racks of vibrant clothing, glass cases of jewelry, tiered accessory tables, and Haitian paintings propped up on wall shelves.

Located at 1900 Asbury Ave., Suite B, the shop specializes in African clothing and sells new and used items.

Minouchic Boutique, which opened in 2013, is owned by two sisters. Mary Toussaint  manages the shop full-time, and Marie Lynn Toussaint, who works as an attorney, assists her sister when she can. The name Minouchic Boutique is a twist on Mary’s nickname, Minouche.

In addition to African clothing, the boutique offers sweaters, evening dresses, blazers, suit pants, blouses, casual wear, and clothing for any occasion. The jewelry displays feature bold statement necklaces, delicate rings, big hoop earrings, and jeweled studs. On tables and shelves, the boutique advertises an assortment of gloves, hats, purses, scarves, shoes, and masks, in addition to original art.

“It’s not just a resale store,” says Marie Lynn. “There’s much more than that.”

For Mary, who spent most of her life working in retail, owning her own shop is a dream come true. She always loved fashion and received a degree in Fashion Design from Ray-Vogue College of Design and also attended Harrington College of Design.

“Since I was 13, I have worked for basically every single retail store that you can imagine,” says Mary. “I knew after a while that I needed to have my own.”

Opening the shop was a challenge for Mary since she had to pay for the business out of pocket.

Fortunately, her sister Marie Lynn supported her throughout the process. Together, they calculated the costs of the shop and slowly began collecting items, years before Minouchic Boutique opened.

Now, the sisters work together, splitting the responsibilities. Mary manages merchandising and most day-to-day functions, while Marie Lynn helps with operational work, such as setting up the website and stepping in when Mary is not available for an appointment.

Marie Lynn works as a public defender in Skokie, but she tries to stop by on the weekends or when she is off work.

“[Mary] is really the one running the store,” says Marie Lynn, “but I am her right-hand man.”

“She always wants to back me up,” says Mary. “We’re always together.”

The Toussaint sisters moved from Haiti to the U.S. in 1972. Still very involved in the Haitian community, Marie Lynn is the president of the non-profit Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, which works to create a more peaceful and stable Haiti.

The sisters also send supplies like clothing and toiletries to their Haitian hometown, Bainet, using profits from the boutique.

In addition to its Haitian owners, Minouchic Boutique also features art by disabled artist Herold Alvares who depicts scenes of Haiti in his lively and colorful paintings. Marie Lynn met him 11 years ago while visiting Haiti, where she always buys local street art. She encountered Mr. Alvares, who has no arms and paints using his feet and mouth, and offered to sell his art in Minouchic Boutique.

This painting, by Herold Alvares, depicts Mary and Marie Lynn Toussaint and their friends. The painting inspired  Minouchic’s logo. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Original paintings by Mr. Alvares line the store. When one of his paintings is sold, the Toussaint sisters mail him the money. They keep in touch, and he has visited Minouchic Boutique twice.

Mary says her family in Haiti is proud of her and her siblings for what they achieved after coming to the U.S. She has four siblings in addition to Marie Lynn who also live in the U.S.

“We all came here, we went to school. I have my degree in fashion. My sister’s an attorney; others are in nursing, so we’re all doing just fine,” says Mary.

In pre-pandemic times, Minouchic Boutique fared well, but now the business struggles.

Sometimes a week passes without any customers.

“It’s really put me in a bind,” Mary says. “Maybe as the weather changes, maybe it will pick up.”

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...