Candice Washington (left) and Damon Smith pose in the children’s book library space at Play See Shop South Shore. Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — A South Shore storefront has sprung back to life with three small pop-up businesses after being dormant for more than a decade.

The three businesses at 7051 S. Bennett Ave., known together as known as Play See Shop South Shore, are a fine art gallery, a market venue for members of the South Shore chamber’s Artisan Collective and a children’s play space. The pop-up is being organized by the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, which received a city grant for the project.

“We want to eliminate the fear of running your business in our community,” said Damon Smith, the pop-up’s project manager.

South Shore’s commercial spaces “haven’t really received the full investment that they need” and have struggled to attract entrepreneurs, especially with a downturn in foot traffic during the pandemic, Smith said.

The owners of the Bennett Place apartment building, a co-op of 27 South Shore residents, received a grant to turn their five empty storefronts into a restaurant, Smith said. But renovation wasn’t slated to begin until this summer, giving the South Shore chamber a chance to leap in and fill the gap.

“It was the perfect location for us to do this activation,” Smith said. “And so we’re just paying them rent to create an experience for the community.”

The Play See Shop South Shore pop-up is at 7051 S. Bennett Ave. Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

At the pop-ups’ grand opening Saturday, all three spaces bustled with walk-in traffic from the 71st Street commercial corridor. Four artisan vendors carrying jewelry, handbags and other goods chatted with shoppers in the market while a DJ spun music from an empty window display.

More than a dozen children filled the play space, building castles out of cardboard blocks and flipping through shelves of children’s books. Murals by artist Elizabeth N. Hatton decorate the walls.

The play space is organized by Brown Books and Paintbrushes, a nonprofit that brings culture-affirming literature and activities to underserved communities. Candice Washington, the group’s executive director, said her organization had been looking for a physical space when the South Shore chamber approached them.

“The South Shore Chamber of Commerce asked if I could activate the play space. And so I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes,’” Washington said. “I wanted to bring a high-quality play space that’s also culturally affirming for young children. We do not — absolutely do not — often see that.”

The play space, dedicated to children 3-10, features rooms dedicated to gross motor skills and S.T.E.A.M. education alongside a movie theater and a children’s book library.

“One thing that we’re really proud of is our free Black children’s library and our free diverse libraries. We’re really, really pushing that high-quality multicultural literature,” Washington said. “These books are amazing, by Black authors and illustrators. And they’re often pricey.”

A key piece of Brown Books and Paintbrushes’ mission is giving kids access to African-American literature in the play space and at home, Washington said.

“Every time they leave they get a book of high quality African-American children’s literature to take home with them,” she said.

Richton Guy Thomas poses with a piece from his exhibit, “The Hearing Eye.” Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

In the neighboring fine art gallery, Chatham artist Richton Guy Thomas has his exhibit, “The Hearing Eye,” featured. The vibrant multimedia works, which blend textile art with painting, are inspired by Thomas’ decades-long love affair with jazz music, he said. He employs different media to evoke a sense of jazz music’s layered composition, he said.

Smith hopes providing physical space to members of the Artisan Collective can help them build the skills and business connections they need to set up a permanent presence in South Shore, he said.

“This is an opportunity for them to grow relationships,” Smith said. “Business relationships are important. Being able to call a fellow entrepreneur who has 20 years’ experience doing what you’re trying to do is just invaluable.”

Tanya Scruggsford, a visual artist who sells jewelry through her business Kingston James and Co., held a booth at the pop-up’s grand opening. She wants to return in the coming months, she said.

“We do need more things like this for small businesses to thrive,” Scruggsford said.

The Play See Shop South Shore vendor and gallery spaces are open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. until March 31. The Brown Books and Paintbrushes children’s play center is open 3-7 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through March 31.

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