For entrepreneurs and artisans, finding a space to sell their products can be challenging. Even if they sell online, many of them want to open a physical space, but rents for retail spaces are not cheap and lenders are reluctant to support ideas without much track record.
The Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) is hoping that a new Boombox pop-up retail space near the intersection of Chicago and Mayfield Avenues will change things. 
A collaboration between the City of Chicago and Latent Design — the West Town-based architecture firm — the pop-up store will be the first space of its kind of the West Side and only the third in Chicago.
Once it opens in October, West Side businesses will be able to rent it out for at least a week with the hope that more money, experience, exposure and momentum will come of it.  
Each Boombox is built out of an old shipping crate left abandoned somewhere in Chicago. It has electricity, built-in air conditioning and heating units; but no running water. It is assembled on city-owned land that is then spruced up and converted into a plaza once production wraps up. 
The first Boombox opened in 2015 in Wicker Park, a few blocks from Latent Design’s offices. The second Boombox opened a year later in Englewood, across the street from the new Whole Foods. 
The Austin Boombox will be located on the northeast corner of Chicago and Mayfield, near a community garden and within walking distance of AAABNA offices at Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave.  
On Aug. 10, AAABNA, Latent Design, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development held a meeting at the center to spread the word and give residents and business owners a chance to ask questions. 
Vanessa Irizarry, a CDOT coordinating Planner, said that the Boomboxes are part of the city’s ongoing efforts to encourage public use of underutilized spaces, especially in commercial corridors that haven’t seen much investment in recent decades. Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal architect at Latent Design, said that she felt that encouraging small businesses to take up the space is important to the process of promoting the concept.
“We know that small businesses are backbones of our communities,” she said. “We see that business anchor commercial coordinators and we want to have diversity along our commercial corridors. And we know that businesses change over time. There’s a more transient, nomadic business culture that might exist.”
With the Boomboxes, her company and the city sought to create starter retail spaces.
“We’re working to scale up, working from start-up to storefront phase,” Darnstadt said, adding that the Austin Boombox is currently being assembled on the West Side, near Chicago/Spaulding intersection.
She said that business owners will be able to sell a wide variety of products, including clothing, accessories, jewelry and beauty products. And while vendors would be able to sell food and beverages, they can’t cook or make anything on site. 
“I know some people can cook amazing things with a hot plate and a smile, but you’re not going to be cooking in here,” Darnstadt said.
Vendors can also use it for artistic purposes. Darnstadt said that other Boomboxes have been used as galleries, DJ booths and performance art spaces. 
In response to a question from a resident, Darnstadt said that multiple vendors can share space, so long as everybody’s name is on the lease when the agreement is made. She said that vendors can apply to rent Boomboxes at once. 
Darnstadt said that rents will be the same as Englewood Boombox’s: $250 for the first week and $100 for each week after that. Vendors won’t have to pay more than $500 a month. 
“It’s pretty much a lease agreement,” Darnstadt said. “We expect 50 percent when you get the keys and 50 percent on the back end.”
When asked whether the Boombox will have a restroom, Darnstadt  said that, because of the lack of plumbing, it would not, but Boomboxes in other areas worked out arrangements with nearby businesses. Tim Jeffries, Coordinating Planner at the Department of Planning and Development, said that AAABNA will serve this role in Austin.
When asked about insurance requirements, Darnstadt said that the city insures the Boombox itself, but vendors have to get insurance to cover their inventory.
“Businesses that already have insurance, we ask you to list the city as an additional insurer,” she added.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who attended the meeting, expressed his support for the project.
“In the end of two years, at least along Chicago Avenue, we want to say we brought great opportunity for business owners and residents in the area,” he said. “In three years, this program is either going to continue or we’re going to cease. I look forward to having it continued.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...