Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli

But for a handful of exceptions, suburban boutiques are more cushily decorated than their city counterparts. Windows have treatments, floors are carpeted and comfy chairs and sofas abound. That’s not the case at Ami Ami, which opened in August in Deerfield, one of Chicago’s northern suburbs.
Ami Ami is long and narrow, with white walls, a cream tile floor and loft-like ceilings with exposed ductwork. Clothes hang on recessed bars; sale sweaters crowd a folding table. Two glass-topped cabinets display the store’s jewelry selections.
In time, the store will become a little more polished, but not much, says Merrie Spade, owner of the 1,650-square-foot specialty store. “The space is urban-looking and long and narrow; I can do something with it,” said Spade, one of the first retailers to choose a storefront at the brand-new development, called The Shops at Deerfield Square.
A leather sofa and area rug will grace the space near the fitting rooms, now accessorized by a rolling rack. New mannequins will replace the current forms, which are male torsos filled out in strategic spots with tissue paper that, vexingly, keeps shifting onto unexpected places, in the manner of bad implants.
Spade is an expert in reading the suburban customer: She has worked in the ‘burbs for her entire 20-year retailing career. It began with Sauvage, a store she opened in tony Barrington, Ill., in 1984. A second Sauvage opened the following year in Glencoe, one of the small, affluent towns dotting Chicago’s North Shore.
The two closed in 1991, and in 1992, Spade opened the original Ami Ami in Highland Park, yet another North Shore enclave. Three years later, the owners of Scarboro Fair in Glencoe offered Spade a deal she couldn’t refuse: She could manage the store and buy for it.
Alas, Scarboro Fair closed in March of 1999, and Spade took a year off to cook, bake and, in her words, “get fat.” (Few would suggest Spade, who’s outfitted in black leather pants and a black sweater, as a candidate for Weight Watchers.) The retailing world beckoned, as did the new development in Deerfield, so she opened the second incarnation of Ami Ami.
Spade, who routinely dresses in black and calls pinstriping a print, favors monochromatic clothes that tend toward black, gray and the tamer shades of red. “I don’t buy yellow or green,” she says. She carries a lot of suiting — my customers never stopped buying it” — and, being a self-confessed jacket lover, gets them in readily, too.
The store is scant on dresses. “I’m not a dress buyer, but I keep trying,” Spade shrugged. Names like Teenflo, Katayone Adeli, Rozae Nichols and Chaiken crowd the racks.
Spade shies away from trends. Capri pants never crossed her threshold, and when confronted with a rack of plaid skirts, customers asked her if she had lost her mind. “I gave them to my nieces,” she said sheepishly.
Her patrons like quality, too. Expensive leather jackets, skirts and pants don’t last long, but their less-costly companions have been known to languish on the rack. And finally, Ami Ami customers work out: Sleeveless sweaters sold well, even during the city’s unseasonably, unreasonably cold and snowy winter.
Over the years, Spade has made a few changes to accommodate a customer base that’s changing, albeit ever so slightly. She’s added more T-shirts, jeans and novelty sweaters to court her customers’ daughters, who are now cultivating their own fashion sense. Lots of her customers are still having babies, so she’s adding Amy Zoller’s and Chaiken’s maternity lines.
Spade’s carefully edited style and urban attitude have earned her loyal customers even on the North Shore, which, design-wise, can be more Talbots than Rebecca Taylor, another popular designer at Ami Ami. One such customer introduces herself as Vicky, and Spade adds that she’s a high-profile political consultant. “Merrie dresses me,” Vicky says, modeling a pair of trousers in front of a three-way mirror. “I don’t know what I’d do without you ladies,” she said to the store’s staff, who’ve gathered around to watch the show.
Spade expects to gross about $1 million her first year in business, adding that the store can and will do better. “I’d love a manager,” she said wistfully. She has two full-time and three part-time workers, including her daughter, Joanna, who works in the store three days a week. (Daughter Stacy’s not interested in the business.)
For inspiration, Spade eschews Chicago-area stores in favor of New York’s SoHo shopping district. a habit that partly formed out of professional courtesy: “I don’t like it when people [scout] my store,” she explained. Overall, her attitude toward shopping is one her customers might agree with. “I don’t like to shop,” Spade says, shaking her head. “Going to the mall is horrifying for me.”