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An Andersonville shopkeeper redefines retail therapy

At Martha Mae, Jean Cate fights her demons by inviting customers into a total work of art.

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The shop is a tribute to Cate's dog Martha Mae, for "keeping me going and saving my life." - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • The shop is a tribute to Cate's dog Martha Mae, for "keeping me going and saving my life."

The first thing you notice about Martha Mae: Art Supplies & Beautiful Things is the light. Jean Cate's small shop, near the northeast corner of Clark and Balmoral in Andersonville, is unlike its neighboring storefronts. It doesn't have a dark awning; its windows aren't obscured by lettering or decorations; there's no elaborate display of the wares sold inside. If you took away all the stuff for sale—the row of heavy art books, the brass rulers and pencil sharpeners, the handmade scissors, the wooden animal models, the mason jars of paintbrushes and sponges, the boxes of retro paperclips, the notebooks and sketchbooks and desk pads, the porcelain pallets and the colored pencils, the little bundles of erasers and all the framed etchings and watercolors on the walls—what you'd have left would look like someone's sparse but inviting home, or an artisan's workshop. It's an airy, long space with a huge skylight and a hardwood floor. The daylight streams in unobstructed.

There are three tables made of blond wood. There are wide utility shelves painted in Pepto-Bismol pink, the same color as the bricks on the storefront's facade. There's a veritable zoo of taxidermied animals, including a shiny armadillo, a miniature warthog, and a stately pheasant peering out from some dried reeds.

From the entrance to the back, the shop is a kind of reverse journey from finished pieces of art to their conception in Cate's mind. At the front everything is white, brass, or blond wood, with hits of color from a few ceramic vases and notebook covers. A formation of scissors with crane-shaped handles flies skyward on a wall next to Cate's gold-framed pencil drawings of shrews. Elegant brass staplers share a table with glass and cork pencil sharpeners shaped like the bottom half of a duck. In the middle section are most of the art supplies and tools—endless types of paintbrushes, oil paints, and watercolors; little foldable stools for plein air painting and portable easels. Proceeding further, there's Cate's workshop, a space for crafting where she keeps big sheets of Japanese paper in narrow wood drawers and a light box to photograph items for her future online shop. In the back there's a utility sink, a kiln, a couple of pottery wheels, and shelves of unused props and yet-to-be fired ceramics.

And of course, there's Cate herself, dressed in a round, calf-length black skirt and a white shirt with a red necktie, which matches the one on her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Martha Mae, the namesake of the shop.

As a shopkeeper Cate, 26, is a friendly and unimposing presence. She doesn't seem too eager to sell you anything, but she also doesn't make you feel unwelcome for simply browsing. She has a round, full face reminiscent of the peasant women in Dutch Renaissance paintings. She wears her light brown hair pinned up in a tiny bun and has round, pink eyeglasses. On Sunday, or "game day" as she calls it due to the high volume of shoppers, she wears her uniformiest of uniforms: a white shirt or shirtdress with a necktie. On weekdays she can be found in vintage ensembles of wide-legged trousers and silk blouses or two-piece dress sets. Outside the shop, Cate's getup resembles 1960s society-lady cosplay, but at Martha Mae the clothes are costumes for a daily, six-hour performance, worn to enhance the visitor's visual experience of retail perfection.

Still, Cate's full of contrasting impulses and behaviors. She's reserved but has strong opinions. She's introverted and sensitive, yet hates being told what to do and is uninterested in others' approval. She's attuned to her customers' tastes and loves talking about her products, but having to interact with people is a daily nightmare. Her well-manicured look is pleasantly at odds with her casual mannerisms and hearty, explosive laughter. She'll carefully wrap people's purchases in Japanese paper, tie each box with thin cotton string, and finish off the knots with minuscule golden bells—then she'll take a giant swig from a half-gallon bottle of GT's Kombucha.

There are lots of art-supply sellers and stationery merchants around Chicago, in Andersonville even, but none run stores that feel habitable. The typical art-supply shop is a warehouse crammed to the ceiling with specialized items, a Home Depot replica where nothing but the price tag differentiates high-end Swiss colored pencils from the store-brand variety next to them. The intent is to create a sense of abundance, but most of the time the shops just look like bad housekeeping. Whatever the commercial benefit of displaying merchandise in this way, being in these spaces is fatiguing.

But ceramicist Andrew Jessup, whose work is on sale at the shop, says that walking into Martha Mae "is like walking into a painting, a very well-curated painting."

Recently, Allison Williams, who runs the New York City-based Wms & Co. and supplies sterling-silver bookmarks and self-inking stampers to Martha Mae, was passing through town and visited the shop for the first time. She told me she doesn't usually bother checking in on the retailers selling her wares, but this place looked unusual.

"I'm seeing so much that I don't see anywhere else," she said after at least a half hour of careful browsing. "Such a nice juxtaposition . . . and I also love the maker tools with the made, both the ceramics that are made and the clay."

Williams, whose day job involves branding for fashion-retail companies, spends a lot of time analyzing stores. She told me Cate's is unlike anything she's ever seen, even in New York. "It's closest to maybe Amsterdam or Copenhagen," she said. "For America, I know nothing close to this. And I don't just say that . . . not even close." She walked around some more, then noted, "There's a real sense of the artist's hands here."

Objects at Martha Mae are arranged to encourage touching and exploration. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Objects at Martha Mae are arranged to encourage touching and exploration.

In 1849, in his essays "Art and Revolution" and "The Artwork of the Future," the German composer Richard Wagner explored the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the "total work of art." For him it summed up a vision of a perfect future society, wholly dedicated to art. But Wagner's contemporaries took the term to mean an ideal artistic composition, and the popular understanding of Gesamtkunstwerk became linked to Wagner's operas—grandiose, epic narratives brought to life through an immersive fusion of music, acting, costumes, scenery, and movement.

As we discuss her interest in opera, Cate's eyes light up when I bring up the term. "That whole concept is kind of behind the shop," she says, grinning.

Retail spaces require planning a psychological and physical experience, she explains, and creating a "dance" between her mind and the customer's. "You're essentially mapping out the choreography that these unknown strangers will have."

While Cate's not the only one in Chicago who's selling Blackwing pencils, much beloved by New Yorker copy editors and cartoonists, she may be the only shopkeeper whose display choices are integral to the desire to buy them—the pencils' white boxes are arranged in three perfect rows on a dark wood shelf. At Martha Mae there's no clutter, no attempt to create a feeling of affordability through bulk, but also no pretentious glass cases designed to make objects seem luxurious and rare. That's because selling stuff isn't Cate's primary goal. "The main priority is so it's beautiful and that it's a space of wonderment, and that it's well designed," she says. "I only buy things I like and think are really good, because if the business goes under I can just keep it or give them all as gifts."

Cate carefully organizes negative space so the eyes can rest between examining objects. Each item is displayed with enough room around it so that it looks unique, even if it's next to another one of its own kind. This arrangement sharpens visitors' ability to see and makes them more observant. There's no shuffle to get lost in, no bins, no Plexiglass lazy Susan towers. People want to touch these things and there are no barriers to doing so.

Cate's also keen on the idea that people buy things because of the emotions they experience in a store, aroused both by the objects on sale and the atmosphere. "When I'm making displays and setting things up, I think about how [customers] react and interact with it," she says. "And so I purposely put things so that you're constantly discovering." Cate thinks the soul music and old-school hip-hop she plays also help people feel more at ease, more likely to connect with their inner selves and with the things on display.

The shop and Cate's open, unimposing demeanor persuade people to relish in their inner snob without fear or judgment or oversharing. "I just have no tolerance for cheap-ass pencil sharpeners," I once overheard a man declare, as he eagerly examined one of at least five types of sharpeners snuggled in a wooden box. Mirroring his enthusiasm, Cate explained how the wood and the lead would be cut differently depending on which one he chose.

On a typical day, Cate wakes up at around 8:30 AM and immediately begins "answering e-mails and freaking out about stuff," she says. The shop is open from noon to 6 PM Wednesday through Sunday, but even when she's closed or it's her "weekend," Cate spends almost every waking minute thinking about or working at Martha Mae—obsessing over new inventory, refining the displays, creating paintings or drawings for the walls. "It's so nice to have the space to create my own universe," she says. It's all-consuming, but in a good way.

The life of a shopkeeper is filled with dramas large and small—conflicts, arguments, haggling. In a typical week, Cate may be battling with a neighboring business to stop filling her Dumpster with their old, rotting lumber; or she may have to deal with repairing her glass door, which some drunk Saint Patrick's Day reveler shattered with a kick; or she may have to pay extra to a window cleaner to scrape dried soup and potting soil from her front windows, angrily smeared there by another window cleaner whom she had to let go for doing a bad job in the first place. Then there's companies who want to charge absurd amounts of money for shipping merchandise, and people who come in angling to have their handicrafts put on sale, and shoplifters, and the crush of weekend postbrunch visitors who touch everything but buy nothing, sending Cate on a tidying frenzy.

And while all of this might amount to the typical stresses of small-business ownership for some, for Cate each challenge can take on epic proportions and comes with a heavy mental toll. "People scare me," she says. "Or they overwhelm me." The primary question in her head each time she talks to a customer is "How can I survive this encounter?"

Martha Mae isn't just a reflection of her personality but the projection of an aspiration; the shop isn't so much who she is as who she wants to be. As she puts it, Martha Mae is "kind of a big experiment. Like, can I be a social being?"

DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
Owner Jean Cate designed the shop as an "ecosystem" populated with decorative taxidermy, art objects, and maker tools. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Owner Jean Cate designed the shop as an "ecosystem" populated with decorative taxidermy, art objects, and maker tools.

Six years ago Cate was barely able to function. She was a student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving positive critiques of her work but so depressed that she was hardly able to leave her apartment. She contemplated suicide. Coming to college in Chicago from her native Los Angeles was supposed to be an escape, but instead she became trapped in her own mind.

"I just felt so strange, and weird, and almost subhuman," she recalls.

At the end of her first semester at SAIC she was so suicidal that she checked herself into a hospital and was kept there for several days. The same thing happened in the spring. "It was really intense—my depression and the suicidal thoughts and yearning for escape."

One of Cate's closest friends, Nora Mapp, says that in college Cate was almost "a recluse" and that it was hard to see her have such a difficult time leaving her apartment and interacting with other people. After all, some of Cate's favorite things were to paint landscapes and animal specimens at busy museums.

"The way her inside space has worked with the outside world—the boundaries between inside and outside have been aggressively at war for her," Mapp says. "She's a really remarkable combination of qualities—she's very generous and has an amazing warm smile, and at the same time, I know she really struggles with other people."

Cate says that throughout those years she was also on a cocktail of medications for anxiety, sleep issues, and depression. Each came with its own side effects; often they left her feeling dazed and unsure as to whether she was experiencing her symptoms or the side effects. She had no idea how to build a structured routine and take care of herself; she'd never been around any adults who set that example.

Cate is the fourth of five siblings. Her father came from a wealthy family—his parents made some lucrative purchases of beachfront apartment buildings after WWII—but earned a modest living as a piano tuner. Her mother was a teacher for visually impaired children. They were in their mid-40s when she was born and not in great health. Cate says that from a young age she had to be aware of their physical limitations—bad knees, fatigue, other health problems.

"I always had an instinctual thing, to take care of other people first, starting with my parents," she says. "Especially with my mom—I was really close to my mom growing up."

When Cate was eight years old, her mother developed a chronic health condition that persisted for years and left Cate and her younger sister on their own for much of the time. She didn't want to get into specifics to respect her mother's privacy, but she says the illness made family life chaotic and unpredictable.

Cate describes her family as introverted. "We were all like little islands," she recalls. But her mom's illness created even more barriers. People didn't talk about what was really going on. In these circumstances, she says, it was easier to connect with people through the objects they enjoyed. "A lot of the time, I felt like getting to know people and appreciating them through their things was safer than, you know, asking them direct questions," Cate says. "Because you never knew what was going to happen—you could upset somebody or spur on something."

Her mom also encouraged her interest in the arts. "She gave me the idea that in art, you can do whatever you want, and it's OK," Cate says. "It was a safe space to communicate."

As a teen, Cate says she had to provide a great deal of emotional support, particularly for her mom and younger sister, and that it left her "extremely depressed and dysfunctional." Their father seemed unable to figure out exactly how to handle the kids without his wife's help, especially after they divorced and she moved out of the house.

The adult troubles and emotional responsibilities of her home life also made Cate feel isolated from her peers. Nor did she identify with characters in books or think about a future adult life. "I didn't think I would grow up," she says. "I couldn't think that far ahead. I was like, How am I even going to get through the next day, month, year?"

Cate says that she did manage to develop some friendships, but she was never sure why people were interested in her. "I'd shower them with gifts that I would make, to thank them for being my friend, because I just couldn't understand why anyone would want to hang out with me," she says. "There was no inherent sense of self-worth or self-esteem. It was like I needed to make these things to be worth something."

In 2011, while Cate was attending SAIC, her depression worsened. Her therapist said Cate couldn't see her anymore unless she checked into a hospital once again. But Cate didn't want to repeat that experience; she didn't think it really helped last time and it left her feeling trapped and out of control.

She had been walking by a Lincoln Park pet store for months, observing the puppies in isolated pink cubes on the walls. One day she walked in and instantly bonded with a white-and-orange spaniel.
"I needed something to take care of that would therefore make me take care of myself," she says, "because this other thing was reliant upon me." She named the dog Martha Mae, and they became inseparable.

Cate eventually finished college and in fall 2015 she partnered with a fellow classmate to open a pottery studio in Andersonville. They started up with the help of a $40,000 loan from Cate's father. But the studio wasn't working as a business, and the partnership quickly soured. Cate bought out the classmate and decided to make the space into a shop. When it came time to naming it, dedicating it to Martha Mae seemed only right, she says, "like a tribute for keeping me going and saving my life."

DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs

Despite the stresses of the business, Cate says the experience of being a shopkeeper has been overwhelmingly positive. Since opening Martha Mae her mental health has improved significantly and she's been able to go off her medications. Cate thinks the key has been building a life around a liminal, public-private space filled with objects she loves that are organized through her favorite activities—curation, creation, focusing on small details, and showing her own artwork. Creating Martha Mae has provided Cate with a way to live simultaneously in her own space and among other people. Walking into work every day means entering her best self.

"This was my only shot to have a semipublic life, to share myself with other people and also to be a part of other people's lives," she says. There are some regulars: a ceramics collector who buys a few of Jessup's pieces at a time with cash, a local pamphlet distributor who always brings a Milk-Bone for Martha, and several families who consistently come in to buy gifts, their adolescent sons leaving tiny paper cranes for Cate. Mostly, the clientele are artists who come in for tools and casual shoppers who wander in accidentally.

"I like the shopkeeper-customer dynamic, because it's so clean," Cate says. "I can have these nice, easy, sort of shallow but pleasant conversations with my customers. I feel like as human beings we need a certain amount of that—just pleasantness. There are no emotional entanglements. We only really exist in this space."

The people closest to her have noted her personal transformation. "There's something about the shop that's really an act of courage on her part and the force of her belief both in the objects and their makers, and also wanting to inspire other people to make—that's something that she can fight for, something worth going to every day," Mapp says. "I think it's also a profound relief to her, after years of not knowing how she would make a place for herself in the world."

As she wraps up a day in the shop, Cate might walk around with a small paintbrush and a can of white paint to touch up nearly imperceptible holes in the walls, left by the brass thumbtacks she uses to attach typewritten price tags and product descriptions. She might rearrange some inventory, swapping a row of wooden cats and dogs frolicking across the top of a shelf for some elegant nickel plant misters. Up until now, Cate's reinvested her $20,000 in monthly profits into her overhead and buying more merchandise, but she thinks that soon she'll have enough stuff and will be able to start paying herself. Looking around on a recent evening Cate said, satisfied, "I think I'm finally coming to terms that maybe it's good enough."  v

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