By Tobias Burns
Don’t tell anyone, but The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., which recently reopened in a nondescript retail space on Milwaukee Avenue, is a front. Sure, the store sells disguises, fake noses, collapsable travel adapters and magnifying glasses, but don’t get fooled by the ruse. The back room, which is full of dark wood and sleek, custom-designed furniture, houses the organization’s actual operations — creative writing workshops for students.
“We’re by definition a front,” says Tyler Stoltenberg, the store’s creative and retail manager. “One hundred percent of our proceeds go to our nonprofit.”
The nonprofit is 826 National, an organization co-founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers that provides writing-focused tutoring services to public school students in cleverly branded spaces.
Each of the eight tutoring centers across the country has a different storefront theme. The Los Angeles center is the Time Travel Mart. In New York, it’s The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. In Washington, DC, The Museum of Unnatural History.
But such adventurous marketing strategies are not without their dangers.
“Some people think it’s earnestly a spy store,” said Sarah Kokernot, a program coordinator for the nonprofit. “A guy called once who wanted to spy on his wife. He said, ‘I’m looking to put something in her shoe.’”
Prior to the reopening, the storefront went by the even more tongue-in-cheek name of The Boring Store and was sold as anything but a secret agent outfitter — wink wink. Visitors to the website, http://www.notasecretagentstore.com, must enter a secret password before being admitted to a dastardly lair of espionage-themed games.
“When we started getting calls from people looking to bore their engines, the management knew they had to make a change,” Stoltenberg said.
Despite the initial over-cleverness, 826 Chicago has no further plans to modify its brand.
“It’s what makes us who we are,” says Avi Humber, the Chicago marketing coordinator and instructor. “It’s not just about making it a kid-friendly environment, though of course that’s a part of it. The quirky merchandise is really what drives our revenues.”
Last year, the store brought in $84,000 in revenue, driven in large part by items that sell for under $5, like fake mustaches, pens and pencils. The store usually contributes between $2,000 and $3,000 per month to 826 Chicago’s charitable programs, leaving operational costs to hover around $50,000 a year. The company has eight employees, five of whom work full time.
Secret Agent Supply is aiming to hit $100,000 in sales next year. The increased floor space of its new location will allow the company to showcase almost twice as much inventory.
“The foot traffic on Milwaukee is great,” Stoltenberg says. “Most of our sales come from people in their 20s and 30s, not moms and kids.”
Before coming to 826 Chicago, Stoltenberg worked for the American Girl Store, which, like the Apple Store, is known for its innovative in-store experiences.
“The theming potential here is huge,” he says. “We want to incorporate some interactive elements to give it more of a museum quality. There’s really a lot to do.”
The idea behind the eccentric branding, however, was never to bolster revenues but to create a space that was stimulating and engaging for students. “I do my homework faster because the tutors help me and because it’s a secret organization,” says Christopher, a fifth grader at Prosser Elementary. “They only let some people in, like spies.”
Parents recognize the positive effect of the inspired setting, as well. “It’s great for their imaginations,” says Amy Leigh Kile, who has a sixth grader in the creative writing program. “It’s a space to dream, invent and learn.”