From the outside, Adrian Tann’s store, Saiote, looks isolated on its stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. Though it’s just a few blocks north of the fancy boutiques and trendy restaurants near the intersection of North and Damen, it might as well be a world away.

Hundreds of rugs from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan cover the floor and hang from the ceiling. Rugs sit rolled up in piles or draped over chairs. There are also drums, jewelry, and chests of drawers, as well as textiles from the Ivory Coast, sculpture from Mali, caftans from Nigeria, a ceremonial headdress from Cameroon, linens from Uzbekistan, and an ibex horn from the Sahara. With couches for seating and soft guitar music playing, the shop seems like someone’s well-appointed living room. You’re tempted to take off your shoes at the door.

That’s how Tann hopes you’ll feel when you visit Saiote, the name of which is a variation, he says, on the name of a friend, Masai writer Tepilit Ole Saitoti. He wants it to be “a kind of sanctuary, where people in the community can gather and interact.” Since opening the store a year and a half ago, he’s hosted free public events such as classical guitar performances and poetry readings. “The business side is one thing,” he says, “but the arts side is equally important.”

Tann is as widely traveled as his merchandise. He grew up in Hollywood, California, where he played forward on his high school basketball team. He was talented enough to be offered athletic scholarships (“I stopped counting after 50 offers,” he says), but he ended up studying international relations at Occidental College. On the suggestion of an African poli sci teacher, he went to Sweden to study “the Swedish government’s immigration policy toward southern Africa.” The subject didn’t interest him much; he wanted to travel. “I wanted to meet people,” he says, “speak in their language.”

He says he learned Swedish in only two months (“well enough to get by”) and found he had a facility for languages (he also speaks French, Spanish, and some Norwegian). He stayed in Sweden for two years, supporting himself by coaching children and playing on a professional basketball team in Stockholm. By then he wanted to learn flamenco guitar, so he moved to Seville to study, signing on with a different team.

In 1976, at the age of 24, Tann quit playing basketball because he wanted to become a professional classical guitarist (“I still do,” he says). He returned home, moving to San Francisco (“I always hated LA”), where he ran tutorial programs at a YMCA. He then answered an ad to become an aide to a man with multiple sclerosis. He got the job, and his boss turned out to be Thelonious Monk’s manager, Jules Colomby, owner of the old jazz label Signal Records.

Tann traveled with Colomby throughout Europe, and he became a collector of rugs after meeting a nomadic dealer who taught him about colors and weaves. His interest aroused, he began to read a lot of books on rugs. “I had a thirst for knowledge and kind of fell into the business,” he says. “I had a different taste for rugs, a quirky taste, picking up ones that maybe weren’t so visually appealing but that appealed to collectors.”

Back in the States, he opened a shop in Taos, New Mexico, but closed it to become a nomadic dealer himself, traveling by van to sell rugs at art fairs around the country. Two summers ago, at the Sandwich Antique Mart, he sold some rugs to the daughter of a woman named Suzanne Craig, a collector with a showroom in the Apparel Center. He later called Craig, and she said, “Come to Chicago and I’ll show you around.” Tann had been to the city before–a few years earlier he had mounted an “Oriental and Tribal Art” exhibit at Intuit–but he still took her up on the offer, spending two months here in 1999.

Shortly afterward Tann was in Michigan, selling rugs and other items out of his van. A man stopped by, and in the course of conversation Tann mentioned he’d like to find a retail space in Chicago. The customer turned out to be real estate developer George Pappageorge, who also happened to know Suzanne Craig. He mentioned a vacant space in Wicker Park, which is now the home of Saiote. “If not for Suzanne this wouldn’t have happened,” Tann says. “She made me feel comfortable enough and confident enough to give the shop a chance.”

Tann holds his next public event at 7 PM this Friday, June 22, when he hosts the premiere screening of a documentary examining several archaeological sites in the Nubian Desert of northeast Africa. Nubia and the Mysteries of Kush will be shown this fall on PBS. The film’s producers and cameraman will be on hand to answer questions. Admission is free.

Saiote is at 1861 N. Milwaukee (773-252-5700). Hours are 11 to 7 Wednesday through Saturday, 11 to 5 Sunday, or by appointment.

–Jerome Ludwig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.