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Minouchic Boutique: a grown-up treasure trove, a too-hidden community gem.

From the age of 14, two years after moving with her family to Evanston from Haiti in 1972, Mary Toussaint worked for fashion stores around Chicago. In 2013, she opened Minouchic Boutique, her own resale-new-and-specialty shop at 1900 Asbury.

“You name it, I’ve worked it,” says Mary, a soft-spoken, impeccably dressed Evanston Township High School grad who received her fashion-design degree from Ray-Vogue College of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago).

Sisters Mary (back) and Lynn Toussaint

“I just decided it was time to be my own boss.”

We’re chatting during one of my recent visits to the boutique, so-called because it’s a play on Mary’s nickname, ‘Minouche.’

Mary’s 94-year-old mom rests on a chair behind the jewelry-laden sales counter. Lynn, Mary’s sister, balances atop a ladder, rearranging artwork. A public defender by day who insists she doesn’t have a fashion bone in her body, Lynn helps Mary with the operations side of the business.

The two have worked relentlessly to realize Mary’s dream.

Emigrating to the US as a 12-year-old was challenging for Mary. She says kids at school called her the N-word and teased her about her limited English. They insisted she came from Jamaica, pulled her hair, and otherwise bullied her.

“I got into a lot of fights,” she remembers.

A lighter memory was the first time Mary experienced snow.

“I carried an umbrella so it wouldn’t mess up my hair,” she says.

Years later, it’s snowy and cold outside today, but the shop is cozy: we’re surrounded by colorful African clothing; shelves bursting with purses–vintage and new; jam-packed racks of designer consignment outfits (think Chanel, Ferragamo); and new and gently used items–dressy and casual–from shoes and boots to jeans, shirts, and sweaters. Scarves of cashmere, wool, and silk spill from baskets; statement and every-day jewelry sparkles in glass cabinets.

Minouchic is a family affair, but for Mary and Lynn the ties that bind extend to the broader community and across the Caribbean.

The lively paintings Lynn is hanging, by Haitian artist Herold Alveres, are also for sale. Born without arms, Alvares paints with his mouth and feet. Lynn, who loves Haitian street art, met Alveres 10 years ago on one of her frequent visits to Haiti. When a painting sells, Mary sends him the profits.

Mary always knew just the kind of boutique she’d own: it would focus on resale and offer new items too, and she’d find a storefront near 1917 Dodge, her childhood home in Evanston’s historically Black 5th ward (created as a result of racist red-lining).

“I grew up around Foster and Simpson,” Mary says. “I knew that residents here could use better pricing, high quality things in great condition that they could afford. I wanted to serve the community.” And, she adds, fashion “flips” every 15 years. “Old becomes new again, so selling and buying resale is good for the environment. There’s less waste.”

Robin Rue Simmons, former 5th ward councilmember whose office is next door to Minouchic, is a frequent shopper. She happens to stop by.

“There’s usually something in the window that I ask Mary to wrap up,” she laughs.

For years after Minouchic opened, business was good. Customers came from around the corner and as far as Highland Park for deals on high-end merchandise, unique thrift finds, and brand-new items … or just to browse and chat.

Minouchic Boutique at 1900 Asbury

“Mary has been a fashionista since her teen years, so I trust her advice,” says Lisa Laude, host of Lift Up Your Life Radio, whose family, also Evanstonians from Haiti, has been friends with the Toussaint family for 30 years. “And she’s so warm and friendly, you always have a great conversation when you stop by.”

As much as she focuses on fashion, Mary relishes her connections with customers and the Evanston community.

“I hear different stories and I learn something new every day,” she says. “I often feel like I’m a therapist. Customers talk about their lives, their families, happy and sad. Sometimes we both end up crying.”

And she’s generous. Mary has clothed financially strapped families for funerals and provided coats to others. Sometimes a passerby comes in looking for money for food.

“I just give them my lunch,” she shrugs.

Each year, she takes on the hardest-to-place teens from the Mayor’s Youth Summer Employment Program and trains them in retail. “They always come to me with the difficult ones because they know I’ll pay attention to them and train them. And I like doing it,” she says.

In addition to promoting Alveres’ art, the Toussaints host fundraisers at Minouchic for the nonprofit Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, which works toward the health and stability of Haiti and Haitians (Lynn chairs the organization). And four times a year, Mary sends barrels of clothes, toiletries, and food to Bainet, the Haitian village where she and her nine siblings were born.

But the last few years have been rough.

It began about three years ago, Mary says, when road restructuring reduced parking spaces near the store from about eight to two.

Then in March 2020, Covid-19 hit. Like most retailers, Mary’s business ground to a halt. With no government assistance, paying the rent became a challenge. Bills mounted.

As summer–and the vaccine–neared, Mary hoped.

But in July 2021, the virus struck home: Mary, her elderly mom, and her older sister Nancy, who’d lived together for years, got Covid. Mary cries talking about it. The least ill of the three, she cared for her mom and for Nancy, who was diabetic and had a lifelong mental illness.

Again, they closed the shop. Tragically, Nancy died at home unexpectedly one morning, devastating the family.

Me --with Rachel Hershinow of Stella Boutique, Ande Breunig, Our Evanston, and Annette Jean-Jacques, Black Women of Evanston

Still mourning, Mary was determined to reopen the boutique. She held a couple of holiday shopping events. Rachel Hershinow, owner of Stella Boutique on Central Street attended a recent one.

“I was so happy to finally stop into this store,” she says. “It was chock full of goodies! Men’s and women’s clothing, accessories, art. I always love a good treasure hunt, and Mary’s warmth and passion for her store were displayed throughout.”

But business has been sluggish, days go by without a customer, and now it’s the Toussaints who need support.

Lisa Laude hopes that proves to be true for this family.

“The Toussaints are a beacon of light in our community,” she says. “I hope the community will help take care of them.”

Rue Simmons hopes Minouchic reemerges.

“I love the store, I love the owner, I love the family,” she says.

“As an environmentalist, I love resale. And I love small businesses. Black businesses. Women-owned businesses. Minouchic is a neighborhood place. And then--well, I just love fashion.”

Mary believes the strength of Evanston is in its people.

“Evanstonians go out of their way to help those in need,” she says. “You always find a helping hand.”

Lisa Laude hopes that proves to be true for this family.

“The Toussaints are a beacon of light in our community,” she says. “I hope the community will help take care of them.”

Support Minouchic Boutique: go and meet Mary and check out the merchandise, and if you can, contribute to the GoFundMe.


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