LINCOLN SQUARE — Nearly eight years ago, Kate Merena was one of Sacred Art's first customers. As of Monday, she'll own the joint.
Sarah Chazin, who founded the Lincoln Avenue art gallery/gift shop in 2006 (originally located in Roscoe Village), is passing the torch to Merena after struggling to juggle work and family for the past four years. The changing of the guard comes with a bittersweet mix of sadness and relief.
Chazin opened Sacred Art on a shoestring, with little more than her conviction that owning original art shouldn't be considered a luxury for the privileged few, or an intimidating experience for the Average Joe buyer.
"That we needed these things seemed simple to me," Chazin said.
She conned a bank into loaning her a small amount of money — "I told them I needed gum surgery" — and quickly found a loyal following, Merena among her biggest cheerleaders.
But running a small business proved "super stressful," she said.
"I was in there five to seven days a week for the first 3-1/2 years. My focus shifted four years ago when I had my son. I was happier when I wasn't there."
In Merena, who's worked at Sacred Art since 2011, Chazin found a kindred spirit willing to take over the reins, someone who not only shared a similar aesthetic but also her passion for promoting local, independent artists.
"It's kind of like I taught her how to drive the ship and I jumped off. I'm not closing a door, I'm opening a new chapter for someone else," Chazin said. "I'm so glad it's going to be nurtured and passed on."
"I think I'm coming at it from the perspective of tremendous respect for what she built," Merena said. "I've been given a really good foundation to take to the next level, whatever that is."
Merena, who calls her home a "museum to Sacred Art," said the transition from customer to employee to boss is a bit "weird" but overall "feels like a natural progression," though her path to becoming a small business owner has been circuitous to say the least.
She originally hails from Massachusetts and has a master's degree in writing and publishing from Emerson College. Blame her total lack of a Bah-ston accent on Emerson.
"They literally have a class in voice and articulation. We're taught to sound like we're from nowhere," she said.
Merena moved to Chicago in search of writing opportunities, and when those didn't materialize, she took a job as a project manager for a Fortune 500 company, which she bailed on two years ago. She's devoted her time since to building relationships with Sacred Art's customers and artists, while also serving as the marketing director for The GoForth theater company
"Working at Sacred Art has been a joy for me," said Merena. "The things that make me happy are theater and this."
Finding a way to meld her two passions is one of the few changes she has in mind for Sacred Art.
"It's about how to take this amazing concept and see how to crack it open a little bit," she said.
The shop has a roster of approximately 120 artists — Merena estimates 80 percent of them hail from Chicago or the Midwest — whose work is displayed and sold on consignment. The mix of merchandise — prints, jewelry, handmade knits — is intentionally eclectic and jumbled, yet totally Chicago-centric.
"People in Chicago love their city," said Merena, who thinks of herself as the "curator" of the shop's collection. They're really proud of it, they're really big into their community."
Stop in this weekend at Sacred Art, 4619 N. Lincoln Ave., to meet Merena and wish Chazin good luck. They'll be serving champagne and offering a 20 percent discount on merchandise.