UPTOWN — It's a bargain hunter's paradise, but for some it's a well-kept secret they hope their competitors won't learn about.
Most of the more than a dozen or so wholesale outlets on Clark Street between Wilson Avenue and Montrose Avenue are small, family-owned operations that are off the beaten path. But for those in the know, they offer deep discounts on everything from scarves and faux designer handbags to cellphone accessories and jewelry.
"A lot of people ask me where I get my merchandise. But I've managed to keep it quiet for 20 years," said a customer who owns a gift store in Wisconsin and regularly drives three hours to shop at Ace International Trading Co., 4520 N. Clark St., and other nearby shops. She refused to give her name or the name of her business, saying, "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there."
She's not alone. Others from Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan load onto charter buses and head to the wholesale shops before the holidays and during the summer, a few shop owners told DNAinfo Chicago. Many buy in bulk and bring them back to sell in their gift shops, mall kiosks and online stores. They prefer seeing the merchandise in person rather than buying it online themselves.
While some only sell to those with business licenses, others are open to the public.
Mina Bloom explains why people come from so far away:
The discounts are what attract them, they said. The stores offer racks and racks of jewelry, scarves and other accessories for rock-bottom prices. A pair of rhinestone-studded earrings at Ace might set you back $4, for example, while at Adorro Wholesale, 4541 N. Clark St., you can get a pashmina scarf for $6.99 (10 for $48).
"This is the only place in the country like this," said 29-year-old Sujot Gulati, who runs Iganazia, 4525 N. Clark St., and Pam Imports, 4531 N. Clark St., who says he has customers from as far away as Las Vegas, Florida and North Carolina. "In New York City, all of the wholesalers are in buildings and it's impossible to find what you're looking for. In L.A., it's the same thing."
John Suh, who has worked at Ace for the past decade, said the only other nearby destination for wholesale shoppers is a mall in suburban Niles.
Some of the businesses have been in the area for decades; Nice Trading Co., 4540 N. Clark St., has called Clark Street home for more than 30 years.
Martin Tangora, a longtime resident of Sheridan Park and officer of the Uptown Historical Society, said the area used to be on the "fringe of the entertainment district."
"So when that trade fizzled out, there was space available, zoning allowed for almost anything, and wholesalers moved in to fill the vacuum," Tangora said in an email.
Shopper Yolanda Pittman, who travels to the wholesalers on Clark Street from Chatham, said she comes for the "good deals," among other things.
"They have funky stuff," said Pittman. "I get the needs and come back for the wants," she said with a laugh.
While Pittman only makes the journey once a month, she said she "plans on coming more often."
It makes sense that Pittman and others would shop at the store rather than buy online, according to Steve Balkin, an economics professor at Roosevelt University who specializes in micro enterprises.
That's because unlike, say, office supplies, fashion accessories aren't "standardized" products, he said.
"The brick and mortar is essential for non-standard products because you need to look at them in the flesh and inspect them," Balkin said.
As for the future of Clark Street wholesalers, Balkin said a real estate developer could always come in and transform the area. But he believes there's a "need for brick and mortar at the wholesale level for fashion accessories."
For Paul Eng, who owns Adorro Wholesale, 4541 N. Clark St., the concentration of wholesalers on the street is both a blessing and a curse.
"It's one stop for [shoppers] and they buy a lot of stuff," said Eng, who folded scarves at the cash wrap on a recent Friday at his store, which is bright and colorful inside and features bags and hats in every shade lining the walls.
But since a lot of the shops sell similar items, some customers will use that as leverage and try to haggle.
"A lot of people complain because one [shop] sells [an item] for $5, and we sell it for $6. They want to get a low price," Eng said.
Balkin said there are advantages to grouping together and creating a "market-dense" area, he said
While individual sellers will get a smaller piece of the pie, odds are the pie will be bigger, he said. In other words, all of the wholesalers on Clark Street will benefit from higher foot traffic.
Compare that to stores that choose to open in a small rural town, he said.
"They'll get 100 percent of the pie, but the pie will be very small."
Balkin compared the concentration of wholesale shops on Clark Street to jewelers row on Wabash Avenue. Both, he said, are examples of "market density."
At least part of the value of the market is determined by being able to competitively engage in the market, he said.
Plus, "having a lot of alternative sellers in one spot [allows buyers] to compare price and quality," Balkin said. Which means they will "have the best chance of getting the best deal."
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