The Hidden Gems of Black-Owned Business Crème de la Crème

Resale shop Crème de la Crème aims to offer high quality for low price. However, for owner Walter T. Rodgers, it’s more than a store — it’s an experience, one firmly tied to his identity as a Black businessman.

In 2019, after 20 years of work in the resale business, Walter T. Rodgers was unemployed. His old job had sold their property, took the lump sum of money and ran. With extensive retail experience and a loyal customer base, he opened his own store.

At secondhand store Crème de la Crème Resale (1352 W. Devon Ave.), Rodgers aims to offer a unique shopping experience. He said the key to his business model was ageless style at affordable prices.

Clothes, jewelry and home decor flood the store. Racks of shirts, pants and shoes weave from front to back, while rows of pillows teeter on top of a bookshelf stuffed with vintage glassware and porcelain dishes.

Rodgers, 49, said his ultimate inspiration in life is Jesus Christ but credits his father, a mechanic and business owner, for his work ethic.

The Evanston native said his first job was at Hecky’s Barbecue, a restaurant run by the late Hecky Powell

“He was one of the first really successful Black businesses on the North Shore,” Rodgers said about Powell. “When you see a successful Black man, you see a man with a business. That becomes your motivation.”

Rodgers said he’s only the third generation of his family to be born free in the country, after his father and grandfather, the latter of whom was born during the Reconstruction era.

“You give honor and praise to all those who came before you,” Rodgers said. “All those who fought during the civil rights movements and all those who had the fire hoses sicced on them — I get a little teary-eyed,” Rodgers said. “And now the voices are being recognized. Our truth is being spoken to power.”

Rodger’s store is named after a friend who said “jewelry is the creme de la creme.“ (Holden Green | The Phoenix)

Feb. 1 marks the first day of Black History Month, a nationally-recognized celebration of the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans.

“To me, I think Black history is every day,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers said the name of the store was inspired by a friend and longtime customer who escaped Nazi Germany with her family in the late 1930s. According to Rodgers, his friend often says “jewelry is the crème de la crème” — a French phrase meaning “best of the best.”

He recalled helping one client pawn an 18-karat Victorian gold piece for $5,000. Between his interpersonal skills, an English degree from Western Illinois University and learning Spanish from his wife, Rodgers said he feels confident with the business.

Rodgers said he hand-picks his inventory — rather than relying on donations — to ensure the best quality merchandise.

“The beautiful thing of this business is it’s economy-proof,” Rodgers said. “When you offer quality at a reasonable price, they’re going to come in all day long.”

Part of Crème de la Crème’s shopping experience is meeting customer Leotyne Horne, a frequent thrifter also known as Tina or Mother Love. She came to the store before it even opened and, upon assessing the products, has been coming back ever since, according to Rodgers.

Horne often sits by a chair near the counter, sometimes spending up to two or three hours chatting with Rodgers and other customers.

“She’s one of the absolute best customers you could ever have,” Rodgers said. “She dresses like a million dollars. She knows and understands the quality of what she’s getting.”

Leotyne Horne has been coming to the store since before it even opened in 2019. (Mao Reynolds | The Phoenix)

Horne said she learned Polish while working as a butcher in Milwaukee, retired from the Chicago Traffic Division and now volunteers and attends fundraising dinners. Among other memories, she recalled having dinner with Congress members Danny Davis and Tammy Duckworth — who she said also likes thrifting.

The 82-year-old said she lives to look good. Living on a fixed income, she prefers shopping at thrift stores, especially Crème de la Crème.

“I’ve been married a couple times, but this, for me, is my second boyfriend,” she said about the store. “I need to release all this beauty inside. I’m a senior, but I don’t act like one, I don’t talk like one and I sure to heck don’t dress like one.”

The classic styles and vintage pieces in the store are exactly what Horne looks for when thrifting, she said.

“I can become Joan Crawford, I can become Bette Davis, I can become any of them,” she said about putting on thrifted clothes. “They started from somewhere with little to nothing, but they had so much guts to do it.”

She said she likes talking to Loyola students and looks forward to them coming through the door. She said she almost relives her life through them, imagining where they’ll be in 20 or so years.

“If you talk to people, you can get to their mind,” she said. “If you can get to their mind, you can get to their heart.”

Some of Horne’s favorite purchases from the store include a $1,500 St. John piece — which she got for around $20 — and a $2,000 black Andriana Fur cashmere coat with a mink collar — which she got for around $70.

“You find treasures to make your day,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, I saved money.’ What are we saving it for? If you want to look good and the prices are good, buy whatever you like and live your life.”

Crème de la Crème is open Monday to Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

The thrift store is filled with unique finds in clothing, jewelry and home decor. (Mao Reynolds | The Phoenix)
Mao Reynolds

Mao Reynolds