HUMBOLDT PARK — Last year was a game changer for Marcus Kirby. After years of selling plants out of his apartment and at markets, Kirby’s online shop skyrocketed in popularity, with people eager to spruce up their homes during the lockdown.
Now, thanks in large part to that support, Kirby is gearing up to open a brick-and-mortar shop this summer on Humboldt Park’s Division Street. The Succulent City, 2540 W. Division St., will carry a range of houseplants and small gifts.
Kirby said he’s struggled with mental health issues and wants the shop to be a refuge for people battling similar issues.
“I want someone to leave with a little more bounce than when they walked in,” he said. “I think there’s ultimately something to be said about how plants can help people, not even in an abstract sense, almost in a metaphysical sense.”
Kirby started selling houseplants on Facebook Marketplace in 2016 and, later, at markets and festivals. At the time, Kirby was a server and cashier at Native Foods, and plant sales only amounted to extra cash.
For years, Kirby dreamed of opening his own shop, but his personal and financial struggles kept getting in the way.
“I have bipolar disorder, I have ADHD … and I was suffering from alcoholism. The plant thing — the goal to have a shop — has been the one thing that kept me on track,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m over-exaggerating to say that having this goal has saved my life. It has forced me to confront so many issues. I had a terrible credit score and bad credit card debt, and I had to deal with those things. If I want a plant shop, I need to go to therapy, I need to find a psychiatrist.”
Everything changed last year when the pandemic hit. Kirby’s online business suddenly took off, and he started raking in upwards of $15,000 a month. He quit his job at Native Foods and poured all of his energy into growing his houseplant business.
That journey was a long and arduous one.
Kirby started out renting a storefront on Augusta Boulevard, but he had to move out after discovering it had black mold and wasn’t zoned for commercial use. He moved into a different storefront on Western Avenue, which seemed perfect until he lost access to the storage room downstairs.
Along the way, Kirby was pumping his pandemic earnings into fixing up the storefronts, only for them not to work out.
“The money I saved from that time was depleted rather quickly,” he said.
In May, Kirby signed a lease on the winning storefront, a 2,400-square-foot space on Division Street, most recently home to a Montessori school. He said he feels confident this storefront is the one and has launched an online fundraiser to help him pay for costly renovations and offset the losses he’s experienced over the past several months. So far, he’s raised $4,160 through GoFundMe.
The Succulent City is on a stretch of Division Street called Paseo Boricua, the heart of Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community. Kirby is working with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and other local groups to ensure the shop serves the community. The goal is to open the shop in mid-August, he said.
“I don’t want to go in there and make assumptions about what the community needs,” he said. “Even though I’m Latino, I don’t want to come into that area say, ‘This is what people need.’ I would prefer that organizations talk to me about some of this stuff. They know what the community needs.”
Kirby’s vision for the shop is to have a well-curated selection of plants and gifts and a slate of workshops and events that bring together people. In addition to terrarium and potting workshops, Kirby said the space will be used for community meetings and possibly activist meetups.
“The goal is to have a completely inclusive space that’s accessible to everybody,” he said.
Now that Kirby has found a viable storefront, he’s facing another challenge: finding plants to sell. There is a nationwide shortage of houseplants because of the pandemic, Kirby said, with growers in Florida and Central American countries struggling to keep up with the high demand.
“It’s this odd intersection of demand still being up, and the supply is just not there, and things only grow so fast,” he said.
Still, Kirby said he’s committed to finding unique plants to sell, with an emphasis on cacti and succulents, his speciality. He plans to make road trip to Florida and Texas and bring back plants to avoid high shipping costs.
Supply issues aside, Kirby said he’s thrilled to finally be fulfilling his yearslong dream of opening a shop — in the neighborhood where he’s lived for more than a decade, no less. He said he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish his goal without food stamps, a city therapist and other social safety nets to get him on his feet.
“It was always a dream of mine that if I could have a plant shop on Division [Street], that’d be awesome. The feasibility and likelihood of that happening was zero,” he said. “I couldn’t have even imagined that at some point that [would have] actually happened.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: