By Jeff Huebner

Last December Wicker Park antiques dealer Gary Marks auctioned off all his stock–19th-century harvest tables, painted farm chairs, rustic cupboards, a few contemporary pieces–and headed for the Caribbean for two months. In early March he returned and began converting his Milwaukee Avenue storefront into a gallery and performance art center.

The idea had been brewing in Marks’s mind since about 1978, when he was down and out in London. He recently reread his journal from that year and was surprised to see an entry that said it was one of his goals to open a multimedia art space. “I’m just rekindling the dreams and desires that I had 20 years ago, before I had to shelve them and lead a more regular life,” says the 42-year-old Marks. “I was not an artist. I wasn’t producing my own art. I was handling other people’s products. But this will be a great introduction for me to theater people, dancers, poets, filmmakers, musicians. I thought if I created this ‘Gary’s Clubhouse’ where people can come and play, then I’d get to play with them too. I want to create a new paradigm, a new model for the relationship between artists and gallery owners. I want to be a little more community oriented, put a little more control in the hands of artists. I’m open to people coming up with projects and having a wide range of audiences.”

Marks, who grew up in South Shore, was five when his father, a sometime horn player, began teaching him how to play the piano. But his father didn’t want him to make a living at music; he wanted him to be a “nice Jewish doctor.” Marks rebelled, enrolling at Oberlin College, then dropping out in 1974 to travel around Europe. He worked as a farmhand in Denmark, where he also attended a performing arts school. “I not only had to learn a language, but I also had to learn how to slop hogs, drive a tractor, and harvest fields.”

He returned to Chicago briefly to work as a medical data entry clerk and gig with his dad at bar mitzvahs and in hotel lounges, then headed overseas again. Determined to be a composer, he wanted to expand his artistic horizons, get some worldly experience. He hung out for a while in Denmark again and then, nearly broke, drifted to Frankfurt, Germany.

It was there that Marks first began learning the antiques business. He moved in with a left-wing commune that ran a flea market out of a shoe factory and bought and fixed up furniture. He soon split with the group and set up residence in the factory, where he continued to strip and refinish furniture for resale. Then he moved on to Vienna, where he made a living as a street musician playing drums and working as a handyman for another commune. He spent most of 1978 sleeping on a friend’s couch in London, working as a bartender and housepainter.

Finally Marks returned to Chicago and got a job as a receptionist at the Keller Graduate School of Management. He says it was the worst time of his life. “I felt I’d blown my chances. I’d failed doing it their way–going to college, graduating at 22. And I felt I’d failed doing it my way too, being an artist-adventurer. I thought I’d be working at a business school till I died. I thought I had no possibilities in life.”

But he hadn’t lost his love for antique furniture. “I started hanging out at antique stores, buying projects, and fixing them,” he says. In 1979 he opened Bell, Book and Candle in West Rogers Park. He says his parents wanted to subject him to a psychological examination.

He concedes that he had no business sense in those days. “I chose that location because it was by Indian Boundary Park–a beautiful park with a zoo–and not because it was a place where people would actually come and buy anything.” For the first three years he had to take outside jobs, with an auctioneer and then with a furniture restorer. “I learned a tremendous amount–it was a great introduction to value, styles, contacts, and training your eye.”

Eventually business picked up, and in the 1980s Marks tripled his space, renting the storefronts on either side of him. A longing for stability led him to relocate to Wicker Park, where he bought the building at 1528 N. Milwaukee. “The neighborhood was still a little funky then, and it was a roach-infested, falling-down tenement.”

Gary Marks Antiques opened in October 1989, the first vintage-furniture shop along a strip dominated by family-run commercial furniture stores. But Marks wasn’t prepared for the falloff in business. He figured his customers would follow him, but they didn’t. “It was like starting all over again in a lot of ways,” he says.

But eventually things began looking up, and in 1992 Marks was able to hire two people to help, Neil Kraus and Deborah Colman. They pushed him to be more creative with his store space, which became known for window displays and funky but functional works by area artists. During the 1994 Around the Coyote Marks staged an installation featuring art, film, video, and music. The store, which was already attracting top designers and bargain-minded treasure hunters from around the country, became even more of a draw.

Marks, who was building a reputation for having one of the best eyes in the antiques business, drifted more and more toward art. He recorded an album, Just Me, singing and playing his own songs on piano. And then he decided it was time to work in the arts full-time. “I didn’t leave a sinking ship, but a business I’d gotten to the top of,” he says. “I was always going to quit the business and be a musician, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. It wasn’t until earlier last year when things were going well enough where I felt I was in control, where I could direct my future and I didn’t feel like the whipping boy of my business. For once I had choices. I’d started to become financially successful. It was a cue to exit.”

Marks held a clearance sale last fall, then before Christmas he staged a lively, standing-room-only auction. Everything was cleared out. He thought about leasing the store and going back to Europe, but he opted to open a performing arts gallery, subleasing the space to artists or staging exhibits and performances and taking a cut of the profits. “It just seemed so much easier to start an artistic endeavor in the city where you already know people and had people’s respect. I think it was the right decision.”

Marks has already lined up events for the next three months: part of the Asian American Showcase in April, portraits and constructions by Douglas Philips in May, and an exhibit of artwork by employees of Terry Dowd, an art-moving firm, in June. “People don’t have to be famous artists or have a track record, but they have to convince me of their ability to conceptualize, execute, market, and follow through,” says Marks. “My store was incredibly eclectic, but it still had an integrity, a feeling. I want people to know that if something goes on here it will have merit.” He pauses. “We’ll see how it progresses. At the very least, it’ll be interesting.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Gary Marks by Alexander Newberry.