Virtu | An Interview with Julie Horowitz Jackson

February 11, 2016
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This Valentine’s Day, step into one of Chicago’s prettiest places, and step out with a unique gift you can feel good about.

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“We sort of play Cinderella and match the right piece to the right person,” said Julie Horowitz Jackson, eyes twinkling from her perch on the couch in the center of her store, Virtu.

Around her, cases of beautiful, handcrafted stone jewelry line the walls.

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I knew instantly that I was going to like Julie. We both have past lives in DC and Rome, we both have a passion for paper, and her attention to and care for her customers comes through in her Instagram feed, which I appreciated. Coincidentally, we met through an Instagram meetup.

Virtu, located in Bucktown, celebrates it’s 15th anniversary this year. Julie’s background is in graphic design and photography, but one day she needed a sympathy card and nowhere in the neighborhood had one.

“I decided that it would be a place to sell nice cards and gifts, and it’s made me really happy to be able to solve people’s problems. If someone comes in and says, “I have a birthday at 5 o’clock what am I going to do?” I can help. Paper has always been my passion, and the gifts were a natural component,” Julie says.

Though there is a large selection of gifts of varying kinds, jewelry is where Virtu shines. The collection is stunning, high-quality, and growing all the time.

“I have customers I’ve had since day one, and some that move away and call for orders, or shop online,” she says. “I do a lot of facetime with customers, which I think is very important. It has been our passion to raise the jewelry collections to the levels they’re at now.”

While talking with customers, Julie tries hard to find them the perfect piece. She wants them to be comfortable and to find something wearable. As she gets to know her guests, she starts shopping with them in mind.

“One regular customer I know is my blue girl. Her company logo is blue and purple, and all of her store decor and her attire is purple or blue. When i get opals or other stones in I call her, and there are about 65 people just like that. When I buy for the store I have customers in mind because I know them. This is like my gift to them,” she says.

The Importance of Art and Buying Local

While talking with guests she also takes the opportunity to educate them on the artist and the craft.

“When I moved here and decided to open Virtu, there was nothing like me. There was nothing like a handmade store, there was no craft, and people thought craft was macaroni and glitter. In fact, that was the headline of one of the first articles ever written about me: “Find craft, it’s not all the macaroni and glitter that you do in 3rd grade,” She says. “It’s been my joy to educate people on the importance of craft.”

To help promote the artists she sells, Julie hosts trunk shows, and the new Virtu website will feature photographs of the artists’ hands, so guests see the connection. The artists, from jewelry to paper, are American.

“When starting, it was very important to me to support the work of American artists,” Julie says. “There’s so much work out there that doesn’t get seen and it gets knocked off all the time. Chain stores are around the corner and you can buy whatever you want there and that’s fine, but I would prefer to get a gift that’s thoughtful and created by a person rather than a machine.  I feel like the work we do here is of that level and people feel really good about giving the things we have to offer.”

Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t support art in the same way as other countries.  Julie’s husband is a painter and opened Color Wheel Studio across the street from Virtu when their son was born and they realized art wasn’t available in school.

“Neither of us would be who we are were it not for the safety and sanctity of art programs that we could escape to every day in high school or grade school, and we both had some very specific experiences that children now will never get,” Julie says. “I think it’s really important that art and music be taught in schools.  All 180 artists I sell at the store have had some sort of art teacher or mentor who really led them on their path.”

Sitting on the couch in Virtu, I found myself nodding enthusiastically. I was homeschooled through 8th grade for very similar reasons, as many of you know. My parents wanted me to have art and dance and lots of time outdoors. At the time I didn’t think about it, then in high school I thought maybe their decision was strange, and now I am so thankful. My parents also both own their own businesses, so Julie’s dedication to artists, and to supporting local community stores, is one I am very excited about.

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“When people shop with me my son gets to have soccer lessons and food on the table,” Julie says. “This is how it is for all local businesses. When shopping at big box stores in this neighborhood that have taken over local spaces and bought them out because the rents have raised outrageously, none of that money is staying in our city. No taxes get paid here from those bigger stores. What they sell doesn’t affect our economy in any way shape or form.”

For each category of items in the store, there is a local Chicago artist alongside others from around the US.

“I work with the highest echelon of all the artists around the country. Our customers are really looking for something one of a kind, so in order for me to carry someone I have to be impressed with their body of work, they have to surprise me, it has to be bold, it has to be functional, and it has to be well-crafted,” she says.

A comfortable shopping experience

Despite the high level of craft at Virtu, there is zero pretentiousness. Guests are free to wander around without being disturbed, or can ask for help whenever they need.

“I hate when I walk into a store and someone says ‘what are you looking for?’ Sometimes people don’t know and they have to discover all the tiny nuances. In the cases alone we have hundreds of little pieces of jewelry. I find it’s more about discovery,” she says. “We have something for everyone, just not everything in the store is for every person.”

Julie often offers wine and snacks, and one of her favorite parts of her job is getting to know the people who walk through her door.  

“I find it starts just by telling the story of the artist and the story of the piece  In the 18 years I’ve lived here and the 15 I’ve had this business, I’ve become so close to my customers just by talking to them. I talk about my guests not my customers, because they really are our guests. It’s a beautiful experience.”

If you’re looking for a last minute gift for Valentine’s Day, look no further.

“Valentine’s Day is hilarious here,” Julie tells me. “The same group of guys comes in at 4pm on Valentine’s Day that comes in at 6pm on Christmas Eve.”

No matter how last minute you are, she can help you find the perfect piece for your partner.

“Men trust us. It’s like having a family jeweler,” she says. “I keep track of what people have, and know what pieces compliment each other.”

If you’re not looking for jewelry, Virtu carries a wonderful selection of caramels, chocolates, and handmade cards. And of course, Galentine’s Day gifts.

“I celebrate all the women in my life because I would not be here if it weren’t for the monthly wine dinners we have, or the get togethers and coffee, and so they each get a valentine from me,” she says.

Makeup cases, jewelry, pens, ceramics, notecards… There are plenty of gifts to give the women in your life. A particular favorite are the Beth Mueller vases with sweet sentiments on them.

Whatever you’re looking for, chances are you can find it at Virtu, and will leave not only with a beautiful gift but also a bit of warmth in your heart, no matter how cold the weather is in Chicago this Valentine’s Day.

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2035 N Damen Ave.

Chicago, IL 60647

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