Stop by Devon Market to pick up pelmeni dumplings shipped from Russia. Credit: Kirk Williamson

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine . . . they have nine different types of feta. Yeah. It’s a place called Devon Market.”

The tall, white, American man drifted in front of the deli counter. If his euphoric expression and phone conversation hadn’t given him away as a first-timer, his massive, empty cart definitely did. Only a rookie would bother with a full-sized cart at Devon Market. Those familiar with the densely packed, winding aisles of the Rogers Park grocery store know that it’s better to stay nimble with a basket. 

Devon Market is situated at the northeast corner of Devon and Greenview Avenues. Since 2000 its owner Shaul Basa, an Israeli immigrant of Iraqi heritage, has provided fresh produce, meat, dairy, and dry goods from all over the world to the international, integrated community that defines this part of the city. To enter through Devon Market’s doors is to enter America at its best. 

Past a mural depicting Basa’s wife as a blonde mermaid riding a shrimp and giant containers filled with lush petunias, a covered outdoor vestibule is a staging area for everything Basa is offering at deep discounts. The inventory changes daily—ripe papayas and cabbage, pickled peppers from Ukraine, Turkish marshmallows, Spanish cookies, light bulbs, mineral water. Basa says he purposefully overstocks items to put on super sale. Last week, high-end Russian sunflower seeds that are supposed to retail at $7.99 per bag were on offer for $1.99. After the overstocked items are gone, Basa puts out a different pallet of unexpected delights.  

Devon Market
Every day 8 AM-10 PM
1440 W. Devon
773-388-2572
devonmarket.com

The mouth of Devon Market is also home to a small ecosystem of symbiotic entrepreneurs—a cast of panhandlers; a Mexican woman selling outstanding tamales from a small cooler; a few elderly musicians from former Yugoslavia who pump out folk melodies on accordions and guitars. The musicians just started showing up in the parking lot last summer and when it got colder Basa invited them to set up under the awning. 

Past this busy entryway and some automatic doors, the 27,000-square-foot hive of the store opens up in its full magnificence. First, coolers of European and Middle Eastern pastries all made in-house, then every imaginable packaged sausage and salami, shelves of pickled herring, mozzarella cheese, beer, Turkish yogurt. The produce section is filled with all the universal basics but also staples of Central American and West African cuisine. Basa, 54, is particularly proud of his fruit selection. When he was growing up in a poor part of Tel-Aviv with five siblings his family struggled—his mom couldn’t work and his father, who was sick through much of Basa’s childhood, died when he was 16. Basa had to support the family from a young age and always dreamed of being able to afford the fruit that tempted him from the carts in the street. His dream was to own a fruit shop long before a cousin of his immigrated to America and started a grocery, which helped him get into the business, too.

Items like smoked herring line the aisles of Devon Market. Credit: Kirk Williamson

At the northeastern corner of the store—flanked by the potato stand, a burgeoning vegan section, Mexican cheeses, cooler shelves of beef, and an aisle of Georgian wine—is another point of pride for Basa: the pizza station. (Lest you have negative thoughts about grocery-store pizza, I can personally vouch for its delicate thin crust, excellent seasoning, and generous toppings.) The takeaway pizza is returning from a pandemic hiatus soon, and the Iraqi baker in charge of this station will also add pastries to the fresh pita and zaatar bread she bakes here. “Trust me, it’s gonna be amazing,” Basa says.

Since the onset of the pandemic, as grocery shopping has become both the most stimulating and stressful part of life, Devon Market has provided thrills and reassurances. In the early spring of 2020 it was the only place in the neighborhood reliably stocked with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pasta, and masks. “I saw it coming, I saw what’s happening in Europe and in my country,” Basa explained, “I knew what they are short with so I bought a lot.”

Basa quickly adjusted to the demands of a new era—Devon Market started offering online shopping and home delivery, expanded senior shopping hours, and handed out gloves. On their Instagram page they shared mesmerizing videos of disinfection specialists in white jumpsuits spraying down every surface of the store set to the pulse of immersive techno.

Basa says their business didn’t suffer over the last year-and-a-half. A few workers got sick but all returned eventually. He’s not struggling with a labor shortage. About 80 people work at the store, at least 30 of whom have been there more than ten years. Some of the staff have been with Basa since he opened.

“This is the best boss in the world, number one,” Emina, a young Bosnian baker says, pointing to Basa as he shows me the narrow back kitchen where she’s preparing a cake made of chocolate sponge layered with raspberry and white cream filling. She’s worked for Basa for five years and says she loves the atmosphere among the staff. “We are like friends you know, like a family.” Basa lets his cooks and bakers develop their own recipes and doesn’t mind the kitchens turning into a dance party. “I don’t like to choke the people, I like to let them do whatever,” Basa says with a shrug. 

Basa is soft-spoken and measured but warm, with a clean-shaven face, a perfect coif of silver hair, and a taste for polo shirts and leather jewelry. He’s not a man who raises his voice, even when he’s haggling with a supplier in the eagle’s nest of an office perched high above the liquor counter. Up there, with the expanse of the store visible like a dollhouse with the roof removed, Basa and a few women who do accounting and other administrative work sit on high-backed leather chairs strewn with cozy throws and pillows. He asks their opinions when vendors come in offering new products. 

Organic meat is about the only thing missing from Devon Market. Though there’s a small selection of organic chicken, Basa says stocking organic meat is a big expense (perhaps even a risk given the affordability needs of the neighborhood). But he’s always considering new options. Basa’s retail philosophy seems to be to try anything once. When a vendor brings him neon green roses encased in water-filled glass orbs, he puts a few on the shelf next to the date-paste cookies and prices them at $16.99. To his own surprise, the “rose bowls” sell. When a longtime customer tells him he needs to stock Brown Cow yogurt, he promises to look into it. This is how, over time, Devon Market’s shelves have acquired an endless variety of Baltic oil-preserved fish, pickled vegetables, Ukrainian arthritis ointments, olives, and chocolate. The layout and organization of the products is loosely logical (there’s an aisle for dry legumes and canned items common in Latin American cuisine, a section for Southeast Asian products, a baking aisle), but as you navigate the store you have to think regionally, not just categorically. Not all the jams and preserves are in the same place—the Smucker’s and Bonne Maman brands aren’t next-door neighbors with the Polish black currant jellies; Persian teas are not in the same place as Lipton. Sometimes, though, you just have to search carefully and systematically. 

“If you ask me if everything makes sense over here,” Basa says with a chuckle, “no. I won’t lie to you.” As we wind through the store past the rotisserie chicken station, and Slovenian bakeware, the cooler of frozen pelmeni dumplings shipped from Russia, and shelves upon shelves of spices, Basa points to particular points of pride. He shows off the fish counter and fresh peanut butter grinder, the Ethiopian coffee, housemade hummus and the bagged sumac and cardamom. The crown jewel of the store is aisle seven, home of many varieties of ajvar (Serbian-style red pepper spread), honey, fish pates, herbal tea, and Five Roses-brand flour from Canada, whose higher protein content is crucial for Eastern European baking.

Since the onset of the pandemic, as grocery shopping has become both the most stimulating and stressful part of life, Devon Market has provided thrills and reassurances. Credit: Kirk Williamson

Access to healthy food continues to be a persistent inequity in Chicago. One of the features of the segregated city is that some neighborhoods are food deserts while others are oases for grocery shopping. Rogers Park has a thriving independently owned grocery scene, but if you ask the locals, Devon Market is at the top of the food chain. It’s not just because of what you can buy there, or the affordable prices—it’s also just the good vibes. Whether you run into a friend in the cereal aisle, or spy an enemy in the checkout line, Devon Market is a hub for familiar faces. It’s the kind of place where you can always count on hearing your favorite Fleetwood Mac song.

“You feel so at home over there you leave your car with the key in the ignition,” one neighbor told me a while back. “You’re cool there, nothing bad is gonna happen to you. Or your car.”

“When I think of why I enjoy living here, Devon Market factors,” a recent transplant to Rogers Park said. “It’s peaceful.”

A friend recently had a houseguest whom she sent over to do some shopping. When he returned “he was like ‘Devon Market?! Divine market!’”

On my way out of the store last week I stopped to chat with a few customers. A Black woman in her 40s who lives around the corner said she likes to shop here because of the quality of the produce. A middle-aged Lithuanian man said he’d been coming since Basa first opened because it’s the only place that stocks the products from his home. I also met Kale, 26, who only recently moved to the neighborhood and had just emerged from their first experience at Devon Market.

“I actually went to Jewel earlier and just felt really gross,” they said. They found the atmosphere, prices, and quality of the products here much more appealing. “I moved to Rogers Park because of the community,” they said. “I loved being able to hear people speaking in their own languages. I had a great interaction with some of the staff.” Devon Market had clearly won another loyal customer.