When you meet Eric Williams, the dynamic, creative owner of The Silver Room at 1506 E. 53rd Street in Hyde Park, you might not realize he was originally a finance major and a stockbroker – but that’s exactly how the career of one of Chicago’s most recognized retail entrepreneurs began.
As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early 1990s, Williams started selling t-shirts and sunglasses on the street to put himself through school.
A brief stint as a stockbroker turned him off the corporate world, and he started selling his products full-time around town, at street festivals, and in the basement of a Wicker Park boutique, Lit-X. A chance meeting with two New York vendors at Jazz Fest in New Orleans got him started selling silver jewelry, and with no comparable stores in the area, he opened The Silver Room – a hybrid jewelry, art, and apparel shop, as well as art gallery and event space – in 1997 in Wicker Park.
The ever-evolving nature of the store – both in the original Wicker Park location and now in Hyde Park – keeps Williams interested and engaged. He has honed his skills in creating a true neighborhood gathering place, where local musicians play and people want to take classes and spend time – one of the hallmarks of The Silver Room, or “TSR” as fans call it.
We visited Williams in his store to learn more about his continuing involvement in the Hyde Park area:
Q: What led you to move the store to Hyde Park from Wicker Park in 2015?
Williams: My lease was ending, and I was reevaluating whether or not I wanted to commit to another 10 years in Wicker Park. I felt like the neighborhood was changing, and it actually seemed to be losing some of the creativity and excitement that I had been so drawn to years ago. Hyde Park has actually turned out to be a better “fit” for The Silver Room. I get people thanking me for being here, and that is a great feeling. Also, Hyde Park seems to have a less transitory nature than Wicker Park. Many of my customers were born in the Hyde Park area and they are still here today. They bring their families and friends, and The Silver Room has become an extension of their living rooms.
Q: Originally a “pop-up” retail location, you recently signed a five-year lease for The Silver Room on 53rd Street – what factors guided your decision to remain in the Hyde Park community on a more permanent basis?
Williams: I wanted to stay in Hyde Park because I was welcomed by the community and everyone was so happy and excited for me to be here – that’s number one. Our employees are happy, we’re busier here, and it just makes sense from a business perspective. There’s a new energy for me here – something that I really needed. I like the level of collaboration here with the University, the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, the South East Chicago Commission, and other groups. I see Hyde Park continuing to grow and grow in the next few years, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Q: How many people does The Silver Room employ? Are any of the employees from Hyde Park or the South Side?
Williams: Right now we have six employees, and four of them are from the South Side. Two of them live in Hyde Park, and the other two live in Bronzeville and South Shore. Two of them worked with me at the Wicker Park location and are happy to have a shorter commute.
Q: What is your favorite thing about 53rd Street?
Williams: The authentic style of my customers in Hyde Park is so inspiring. I also love the diversity. There's a wide range of ages here that I didn’t see in Wicker Park. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and they really seem to appreciate what the store adds to the community.
Q: The Silver Room hosts French lessons, salsa dance classes, singles events, art shows, film screenings, spoken word nights, and more. How do you develop the programming for the community gathering aspect of the store?
Williams: I try to plan at least two of my own events each month -– usually an art opening and a spoken word event. Our upcoming art exhibit will launch during Black History Month and feature works by local artists inspired by the legacy of Muhammad Ali.
Many of the other events are dictated by the community. Probably 80 percent is community-driven, in response to what people in the area want to see. For example, right now we are collecting water for Flint, Michigan. We’ve already collected 50 cases of water – and this is all because of an idea from someone in the community. People see The Silver Room as a hub in the neighborhood, and we try to answer everyone’s needs as best as we can.
Q: Your collaboration with the University of Chicago on last year’s successful Harper Court Summer Music Series will be continuing this summer with four new events. What can the neighborhood expect in terms of performers, music styles, etc.?
Williams: Last year’s events included steppers, jazz, and Latin music, and the community really responded well to that mix. This year we’ll do more of the same, and probably add some blues.
Q: What are your favorite hangouts in Hyde Park? Where might people see you in the neighborhood?
Williams: When I’m not at The Silver Room, some of my favorite places are Rajun Cajun, The Promontory, and 57th Street Books.
Q: We’ve heard you even hosted a wedding at The Silver Room last year – how did that come about?
Williams: A long-time customer from the Wicker Park location got his wedding rings in Hyde Park and he really loves the concept of the store. He said he wanted to get married here, so we made it happen. It brought a tear to my eye that he would have one of the most important moments of his life at The Silver Room. It’s a retail store that’s more than just a retail store, and the wedding was one of the highlights of the year for me.
"Faces of 53rd Street" is a twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers in the 53rd Street retail corridor in Hyde Park. To suggest someone for a future profile, send their name and place of business or contact details to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.