Chicago Manual of Style—February 10, 2009

Belmont is full of funky resale shops and stylish specialty stores perfect for outfitting the student set.

By Jessica Hester

Lined with stores like Burberry, MaxMara, and Coach, the stylish stretch of Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile attracts hordes of shoppers with deep pockets and huge closets. I, for one, can’t afford the drool-worthy coats that beckon from the Burberry window displays. For clothes and accessories I can buy without having to live on ramen, I leave the Mag Mile behind and catch the Red Line to Belmont. The neighborhood is full of funky resale shops and stylish specialty stores perfect for outfitting the student set.

Fiesty fashionistas will flock to fierce clothing and accessories at The Alley (3228 North Clark Street). With the catchphrase, “Subversive since 1971,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the boutique is known for its array of leather goods and sky-high spiky heels. My rocker little brother loves The Alley’s collection of Zippo lighters and huge belt buckles. If the eardrum-bursting music is too loud for you, check out one of The Alley’s other shops lining the street.

The Alley is not just one store, but a retail conglomerate that owns many of the boutiques around the intersection of Clark and Belmont. The Alley Stores include kinky adult emporium Taboo Tabou (854 West Belmont Avenue), hipster paradise Jive Monkey (3224 North Clark Street), Blue Havana smoke shop (852 West Belmont Avenue), boho-chic Architectural Revolution (3226 North Clark Street), and trendy Tragically Hip (914 West Belmont Avenue). I am a frequent shopper at Architectural Revolution. While I sometimes get a headache from the commercialized “exotic” touches like Hindu and Buddhist prayer flags and incense, I love the selection of knit gloves and cozy Mukluk slipper boots, as well as the delicate earrings and unique décor. The store’s tribal fetish aside, it’s a great place to shop for papyrus journals or adorable winter outerwear.

Ragstock (812 West Belmont Avenue) is essentially a two-story warehouse for everything pre-worn. Around Halloween, the store is a dream come true. Partygoers stampede to the massive vintage and resale shop for its stock of kitschy clothes like old school prom dresses, aprons, and fringed leather vests. In the off-season, Ragstock is a one-stop shop for people looking to dress for costume parties or trying to find a creative and dirt-cheap addition to their wardrobe. The store’s enormous inventory makes it a little claustrophobic, and with racks of clothes everywhere, it sometimes requires a bit of digging to strike sartorial gold. I love the massive array of kimonos, which are a stylish alternative to the tired terry cloth bathrobe. Ragstock carries vintage day dresses from every decade. I used a 1960s shift dress I found there as inspiration for the collection I designed for last year’s MODA show. With prices starting at just $2, Ragstock is a year-round bargain destination.

Belmont also caters to bibliophiles. Check out Chicago Comics (3244 North Clark Street) to browse the huge selection of Manga, small press, and indie titles. Of course the store stocks standard Marvel comics, but it also carries an eclectic book collection including compilations of Popeye comics from the late 1920s and a book I added to my reading list: “Frightful Fairy Tales.” It’s a collection of romantic fairy tales accompanied by the Victorian-inspired drawings of famed comic illustrator Dame Darcy.

If you’re looking to dress to impress on the party circuit, stop by Fashion Tomato (937 West Belmont Avenue), the sartorial love child of Charlotte Russe and Bebe. Once in a while, you’ll find classy day wear in the boutique—I swooned over a damask brocade trench coat last spring—but generally, the shop caters to a crowd looking for sassy party clothes. The shop carries trendy party dresses and tops of questionable quality. Though the clothes aren’t built to last, they’re priced accordingly. This shop is a great alternative to Forever 21, an emporium for all poorly-made-but-adorable things tight, short, and disposable. A word of caution: there is no return policy for dresses, so try before you buy.

There may come a time when I have the budget to splurge on clothes at Burberry. Until then, I’ll happily browse and buy in Belmont. Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile may be a mecca for high-end retail, but when it comes to scoring good deals on cool, quirky clothes and accessories, Belmont is pretty magnificent, too.