Forest Park Antiques has gone through at least three “seasons” since owner James Brown opened the shop the day after Thanksgiving in 1988.
The first season lasted from 1988 till 2003 when he retired from teaching. Brown, who now owns an apartment above the shop at 7504 Madison St., grew up in the Bronx and in upstate New York in a family of Russian immigrants who admired and collected antiques. He referred to his interest in old things as an “inheritance” from his family.
After studying psychology at the University of Chicago, Brown spent 35 years in education, teaching at the University of Chicago, the UC Lab School and more.
Because much of his time was consumed with teaching, he was unable to keep the shop up the way he would have liked. When he retired, he had more time to invest in redoing the business.
“Back then the store was not very desirable and was full of junk, really,” he explained. “I took over control of the business in 2003 and remodeled the whole shop. What you see here now dates back from around 2004.”
Eclectic might now be a word to describe what people discover when they walk into Forest Park Antiques. Browsing customers will see china, paintings, toy trucks, pairs of skis and more as they wander throughout the store. Brown said he finds antiques at flea markets, estate sales, people bringing items in and more.
Once, he found a hidden treasure. Brown was at a flea market and saw a vase that looked nice. Turning it over he discovered that it was made by Tiffany Studios.
“That kind of find is a rarity,” he said..
Another time, a couple of celebrities strolled through the store. About 15 years ago, Brown said Barack Obama, who was then running for state senator, and wife Michelle marched in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Madison Street. Brown immediately recognized the two.
“I had been one of his early supporters, but he was not well known to most people back then,” Brown said. “After the parade, they stopped in my shop and Michelle bought a pin from me. That was kind of exciting.”
The shop’s third season began when Brown was diagnosed with cancer. As the cancer and the accompanying treatments has limited his ability to run the business, friend Ania Bonar started helping out at the shop five years ago. Bonar rents an apartment from Brown.
Her assistance has enabled Brown to keep Forest Park Antiques open at odd hours, although a sign posted on the store reads that the business will eventually close permanently.
Bonar came to the Chicago area from Poland 17 years ago, has lived in Forest Park for the last 10 years. Bonar’s day job is cleaning houses, but the number of hours she puts in at the antique shop has been gradually increasing.
“As the number of hours I put in here increase, so has our friendship grown stronger,” Bonar said. “He’s away from the shop sometimes for his cancer treatments and I’m away at times cleaning houses, but we kind of work things out. Jim has become like family to me. I’m happy to help out when I can.”