ANDERSONVILLE — From celebrity prayer candles to Pokemon keychains, Andersonville’s Strange Cargo has been home to “all the crap you don’t need but sort of want” for decades.
Strange Cargo, 5216 N. Clark St., is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
“When people think of Strange Cargo, I want them to smile and feel happy,” said Jay Schwartz, who’s owned the store for 30 years. “All we can do is make people happy, even if it’s just for a minute. I hope we can be the bright spot in someone’s day; that’s all. It sounds hokey, but it’s true.”
There are thousands of gifts waiting to be found within the store, including pop culture memorabilia, locally made jewelry, lunch boxes, collectible pins, mystery figurines, coloring books and funky socks. It’s all laid out in a colorful and quirky store packed with amusing artifacts.
Schwartz buys collectibles and trinkets from all over the Midwest, and he’s willing to “drive anywhere” for the right item, he said. The staff of nine dedicated employees helps curate the items in the store, he said.
“It’s not me. I don’t know anything,” Schwartz said. “The key is that the whole staff helps out, and everyone gives their input, and they’re all so great.”
Strange Cargo is known as much for its merchandise as for its irreverent and political displays in the Clark Street storefront.
Strange Cargo’s storefront was filled with over a dozen Black Lives Matter T-shirts during the protests after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and it displayed shirts with disparaging words for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas following the overturning of federal abortion protections.
Its current display shows shirts reading, “Keep abortion safe & legal.”
The first time Schwartz remembers taking a political stand was after George W. Bush’s election in 2000. Strange Cargo distributed more than 25,000 free stickers that said, “George W. Bush is a Punk Ass Chump,” Schwartz said.
“Sometimes, I just feel like I don’t have a choice,” Schwartz said. “There are genuinely bad people out there doing bad things that are affecting everyone, and it’s just not good. I’m allowed to have a say in my windows. Only dead fish go with the flow.”
Other window displays are pure humor, including red-and-green Christmas T-shirts with X-rated words spelled in a candy cane font. There’s also a shirt about turning gay from drinking Bud Light, a joke about the controversy that erupted when the beer brand partnered with — and then abandoned — a trans influencer.
Strange Cargo will print custom socio-political jokes or statements on shirts, too. From sexual innuendos to “I Love My Mom,” Schwartz is happy to make any shirt people can imagine as long as it’s not offensive to marginalized communities, he said.
“Whatever you want on your shirt is great, there’s zero judgment,” Schwartz said. “If, God forbid, someone wanted to print 100 Trump T-shirts, I’d make them because that’s their right to say that.”
Although the shop’s activist storefront displays, T-shirts and unique gifts have become a cornerstone of Andersonville’s Clark Street, it’s only been in the neighborhood for about five years.
Strange Cargo opened in 1983 and for years resided on the main stretch of Clark Street in Wrigleyville. Schwartz and his brother first bought Strange Cargo in 1993 and added the popular T-shirt customization line of business in 2005.
The store moved from Wrigleyville to Andersonville in 2018 in anticipation of the Red Line construction and Brown Line flyover that disrupted the area, Schwartz said.
The business has not looked back.
“The location sort of fell into my lap,” Schwartz said. “But the neighborhood has been absolutely wonderful; I can’t say enough about it. Everyone’s been very responsive, and very few people have been upset with the crude sayings we put in our windows.”
Schwartz also partially credits the store’s success to his landlord, Barbara Boba, who was supportive after the pandemic greatly impacted small businesses.
Nowadays, Schwartz typically spends five days per week helping out at the store, and he loves interacting with customers. He started working in his father’s pawn shop when he was 5 years old, and he’d dreamed of opening his own business his whole life, Schwartz said.
Just like Schwartz remembers working in his dad’s shop, his four children grew up among the shelves of Strange Cargo. Schwartz’s kids — now 17, 19, 21 and 23 — still help out at the store sometimes.
The best part of his job is when someone comes in and tells Schwartz how much they enjoy it, he said.
“It’s the day-to-day interactions I like the most,” Schwartz said. “I love when people come in and say, ‘This is my happy place,’ or, ‘This is my favorite store in the whole world,’ or ‘I’ve never been to a store like this.’
“It feels good to make people happy.”
To learn more about Strange Cargo or inquire about ordering T-shirts, visit its website.
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