LOGAN SQUARE — Gag gift shop The Extraordinarium had only been open for two weeks when the coronavirus pandemic gripped Chicago and forced businesses to shut down.
“I had one person on our mailing list when this thing hit,” said the owner, who goes by the name Flabby Hoffman. “We didn’t even have time to wipe the dust from our eyes.”
Over the past year, Hoffman has struggled to keep on the lights at The Extraordinarium, 2800 N. Milwaukee Ave., while building a customer base from the ground up. Like other small business owners across Chicago, he’s been forced to get creative.
A few months ago, Hoffman started hosting socially distant craft markets on Saturdays featuring the work of local artists. He’s expanding that event series to include Fridays and Sundays.
Hoffman said the added days will bring in extra cash to help keep the shop open and allow him to support more artists and creatives who are struggling during the pandemic.
“Artists, their main gig is service-industry-type jobs that have vanished or [they’ve] been a rollercoaster ride they can’t survive. These side hustles are more and more important to make ends meet,” he said.
“I wanna be there to help support them with real tangible money that could be the difference-maker on whether they can pay the rent, keep the lights on, keep from being starving artists.”
The Extraordinarium hosts the markets 1-7 p.m. Saturdays and some Sundays and Fridays. Neighbors are encouraged to check the shop’s Facebook for specific dates and times.
Each market features a rotating roster of 10 local vendors and makers selling everything from handmade baked goods to jewelry and fine art.
Hoffman said the markets are a natural extension of what he’s trying to do with The Extraordinarium, which is to “empower what’s good in people.”
A longtime comedy show promoter and radio and TV host, Hoffman opened the shop to spread child-like joy. The shelves are lined with gag gifts and novelty items such as ranch-dressing-flavored pop and the shiny hat from “Back to the Future II.”
Hoffman was inspired by the Chicago-famous gag gift shop Uncle Fun, which closed in 2014 after 25 years of business.
The pandemic has been devastating for independently-run shops. With foot traffic way down, Hoffman said the store, which has remained open since July, is “barely able to survive.”
“It’s been frustrating and scary, and yes, in all honesty, I’ve had to carry this place on my back in terms of making ends meet,” he said.
But Hoffman has always seen the shop as one piece of the puzzle. He still wants to host live musical performances and comedy shows when it’s safe to do so. He also aims to launch a production studio to make movies and webisodes and grow his podcast studio. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, he’s determined to eventually see all of it through.
For right now, though, Hoffman is focused on uplifting local artists, a simple but impactful way to give back while also keeping the shop alive.
“It’s been a huge lifeline, both emotionally and a little bit monetarily,” he said. “To feel like you’re doing something that helps, that contributes to having a little hope. It’s worth just as much as the bucks are, to be honest with you.”
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