Evanston —Reasonable people may differ over whether the Alley Gallery is a hidden treasure. That it’s hidden, however, is indisputable. Even once you’ve found the eponymous alley in downtown Evanston, you won’t see the gallery itself until you’ve ventured a good ways in, to the pocket courtyard it shares with a shop called Bookends & Beginnings. All paned glass, stained wood, cedar shingles, and worn brick, the Alley Gallery’s single-story façade looks like something you might dream of stumbling upon on your best day in Paris.
Inside, the Alley sprawls. The front room of the shop, which opened in 1985 as a custom-framing operation (which it still is), features display folios full of everything from Rothko prints to a Snakes on a Plane poster. To your left as you enter is an ever-changing “vignette” of home furnishings by interior designer Shannon Cahill. To the right is a white-walled gallery space called the Saw Room, which exhibits the work of local artists. Near that stands the habitat of Jessica, the yellow-headed parrot who’s been in residence at the Alley since 1986. Together with an opera-heavy playlist, her talk supplies the soundtrack for the store’s genial atmosphere. Jessica’s likeness is available on an enamel lapel pin, by the way, for $15.
Ceramics, greeting cards, artworks, antiques, and tchotchkes of all kinds — some for sale, some not — create a feeling of infinite browsability, as if the Alley weren’t a business, really, but the home of an especially discerning hoarder. The real wonder of the place, though, is hidden in rooms behind the counter, past the worktables and storage racks. Owners Darren Oberto and Ross Martens and staffer Chris Greene are all excellent visual artists, and these rooms are their studio space. (Another staffer, Avram Eisen, crochets his art at home.) Have a look around; the artists are fine with visitors.