Tiny silver earrings. Treasures in takeout food bags. The groundhog-like spring hiatus. The Mexican Shop has been an iconic Evanston destination for generations of shoppers since it opened in 1967. Its devoted hometown support has kept this defiantly independent shop open through illness, death, pandemic and even the gaucho pant revival.
The boutique, at the corner of Dempster Street and Sherman Avenue, was founded by Rick Bower, who grew up in an unincorporated area near Des Plaines. As a young man, he worked a series of jobs and struggled to complete his college degree until his wanderlust took over in the 1960s. He began traveling the world, with a special affinity for Mexico.
Sheila Montgomery-Bower, Bower’s widow and the shop owner today, said at one point he filled his car with Mexican souvenirs and folk art and drove to Lambs Farm in Libertyville to donate the items to be sold in its gift shop.
He later returned to discover the shop had sold out, Montgomery-Bower said, adding that the shopkeeper told him he had a good eye and advised him to buy more trinkets and see if the Art Institute of Chicago might want to purchase some for its gift shop.
‘And then we fell in love’
After selling to the Art Institute and wholesale stores in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Bower decided to forge a path in retail, opening The Mexican Shop’s first store, across the street from its current location.
“He felt like Evanston was a more forward-thinking town, and it was ripe to receive a place like he had imagined,” Montgomery-Bower said. In its early days, she said, the shop only sold Mexican goods. “He would drive from town to town and buy from small studios and families: hand-embroidered clothing from Oaxaca, silver from Taxco and pottery from Tlaquepaque.”
The daughter of an Irish immigrant mother and a Canadian set decorator and puppeteer father, Montgomery-Bower began working at the store while she was a student at ETHS, and she stayed on after graduating in 1979.
“I put off college because I was having such a great time learning about the business,” she said. “And then we fell in love.” A few years later, she joined Bower as his life and retail partner.
The store has had a few different locations before it settled in its permanent location in 1981, taking over a former appliance store space with a repair area in the back, where Montgomery-Bower now keeps the shop’s staging and display materials.
Apple Pay? ‘Absolutely not’
It’s a challenge to pop in and out of The Mexican Shop, where a dollar still goes far (few items cost more than $50). Each section is chockablock with treasures, arranged in miniature exhibits atop pedestals, mingled among robin eggs, vintage radios and toy cars, with painted rocks situated next to funky/spooky mannequin heads.
Every surface offers something to explore, from semi-fine, ethnic, dainty, gigantic and retro jewelry to sunglasses, purses, hair accessories and home decor. There is clothing that often favors the confident and the slender, and there are jokey year-round stocking stuffers.
Catherine Mudd, 38, who has worked in the store off and on for over a decade, said she always advises first-time customers, “Take a lap and come back to me, and we can take a look at whatever you want to look at. There’s so much, it’s almost overwhelming at times.”
Adding to the shop’s mystique is Montgomery-Bower’s refusal to bring it into the 21st century, technologywise. The Mexican Shop does not have a social media presence, a website, an e-commerce presence or a point-of-sale system.
“As much as it changes, it remains the same. Long may she reign as this analog store that nowhere else exists,” Mudd said. “These teeny boppers come in and are like, ‘You take Apple Pay?’ Absolutely not. And we never will.”
Montgomery-Bower said this system helps her maintain the customer base that makes the shop what it is. “You have to make a phone call to talk to us. And you have to come in because we are only open five days a week. I am not trying to get every customer in the world. I can’t compete with Nordstrom’s return policy, and I can’t compete with Target’s hours and I can’t compete with the parking at Walmart. I am just me.”
‘Stuff with cachet’
One of the shop’s defining features is the aspirational quality of its employees, who always seem cool and young (whatever their chronological age).
“You want to work where you want to be,” said Robin Linn, 43, who worked at the shop for a year or so as a teen. “There was an ‘it girl’ factor of the girls who work there. We were encouraged to take things off the floor and wear them, at least for the day.”
Linn especially relished the responsibility of picking the CDs that got played over the loudspeakers. “’Today I’m picking Beck’s Odelay and Bjork.’ You wanted people to be like, ‘Oooh, stuff with cachet.’” (Linn now works as a professional podcast producer.)
But just because working at The Mexican Shop might be cool doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“There’s so much knowledge that you have to retain, from how to take care of stuff, where this is from, how it’s made, plus the protocols,” Mudd said.
The incense, the vintage and the funny and sometimes profane gifts give off a relaxed, irreverent vibe, but Montgomery-Bower, Mudd said, runs a “very tight ship.” There are “holy grail binders” detailing where every one of the thousands of earrings lives in the display case and inventory drawers.
“She has to find people who are going to stick around. It’s not worth training anybody unless you know they’ll hang in there,” Mudd said.
‘Like the September issue of Vogue’
Part of the job involves getting the store ready for its annual spring cleaning, when it is closed for several months so Montgomery-Bower can meet with vendors and touch the samples before she brings merchandise to the shop. The entire store is cleaned out, with some undersold inventory sent away for another era, fresh stuff brought in, and the staging for the new season is envisioned, with employees creating the displays by hand.
“Those months of getting things ready always felt like the September edition of Vogue,” said Emily Barrish, 35, director of sales at Ilya Fine Jewelry, who worked at the store intermittently from 2003 to 2011. “That’s how I learned power tools and spray paint. Two-part epoxy? That’s Sheila. I remember her asking for a table saw for her 40th birthday.”
Barrish is one of many Mexican Shop alumni who went on to careers in fashion and design: Mudd worked at Ralph Lauren and John Varvatos before switching to real estate. Sally Berman is a former Mexican Shop employee who photographs celebrities for Men’s Health covers. Chechi Brieva worked at the store this summer before starting college at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Montgomery-Bower said her customer base is too diverse to define, but fashionistas and artists make up a segment.
A friend of hers owns a gallery in New York, she said, and always makes a pilgrimage to the store when she’s in town. “She goes to events and wears very expensive clothing,” Montgomery-Bower said. “And when she spends an afternoon with me she’ll buy all kinds of wacky stuff.” Her friend will share photos of her at the Met Gala pairing her designer outfit with “big crazy earrings” she purchased for $18.
“I’ve got people that have incredible style,” Montgomery-Bower said. “They can afford to buy whatever they want. They don’t have any qualms about wearing something that’s not expensive because they appreciate the style of it.”
‘I really love the people’
Montgomery-Bower, in her early 60s and ever youthful in her understated outfits paired with store jewelry, doesn’t have plans to hand over the store anytime soon – her mother is still alive at 103, so she envisions several decades ahead. Her rough plan is to eventually sell her home, renovate the shop’s building and live above the store.
While COVID-19 was a challenge (Montgomery-Bower asked customers to put on Madonna-esque gloves before handling merchandise, which she then “cooked” in a disinfecting UV lightbox), Bower’s 2018 death was one of the few times she considered closing the shop.
He had a harrowing experience with diabetes and kidney failure, treated with nine hours of dialysis a day, and then Montgomery-Bower would have to leave to help customers pick out bridesmaids’ gifts and cheap sunglasses. But the distraction kept her going, she said. “Just being with people and taking your mind away from it, it was like a savior.”
Montgomery-Bower ultimately realized she didn’t want to close.
At the checkout counter, a photo of Rick Bower, with his distinctive walrus mustache, watches over the shop.
“I really love it, and I really love the people,” she said. “I can’t imagine how I would do without that. Because all day long, it’s like a reunion every day here, and I actually never get tired of it. It’s just so diverse, the people that come in from your past.”
The Mexican Shop, 801 Dempster St. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.