The latest from our series highlighting extraordinary people on the Northwest side of Chicago that are true local heroes, as nominated by their neighbors. This hero was nominated by Anne Miskewitch.
Joe together with his wife Melissa Basilone have made a name for themselves on the Northwest Side as the owner/operators of several popular gathering places: Thrift & Thrive, Sputnik Books and Records, and Perkolator Coffee. These businesses have one thing in common: they are passion based.
“It’s totally self-serving! We wanted a great resale shop and a place to have coffee! I jest. But all of these ideas came from things we wished we had in the neighborhood. You can sit back and ask ‘ When is someone going to do something?’ Or you can be that someone. At some point you have take responsibility.”
The couple lives in the Portage Park neighborhood with their two children. Joe appreciates that they can live and work in a small radius and be truly immersed in the community.
"Being lucky enough to live, work, play, and send my kids to school in the same neighborhood is very reminiscent of that 1960s TV family. Sometimes we just have to take a step back and say, 'Wow, this is an amazing opportunity. Don't blow it!'"
Joe is originally from Nyack, about 20 miles north of New York City. Melissa hails from New Mexico. The two met in Gainesville, Florida, in the late 90s, where Joe had opened up… what else? A coffeehouse.
“People don’t know that Perkolator is my SECOND coffeeshop.”
Joe has a long history in coffee, working for many years in retail for Intelligentsia and then Caribou Coffee before starting up his own ventures. He and Melissa left Florida in 2001 and first lived in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village before making their way to the Northwest Side. Frequent trips to Jefferson Park’s Sicilia Bakery introduced them to the area and in 2008, the Basilones moved to their current home in Portage Park and set down roots.
“We liked it here because it felt like a distinct Chicago neighborhood, not overrun by chain stores—and this is before we were business people! We appreciated the collection of neighbors and mom-and-pop businesses that together made this place feel like a community.”
In 2011, the couple joined that business community, launching Thrift & Thrive, inspired by their personal interests and upbringing. Melissa also loved thrift store hunting while growing up in New Mexico. Joe was raised by his mom and grandparents and has fond memories of thrift-store shopping with his grandma, ‘Nan’ Wanda Hennessey, now aged 93.
“Nan was a frugal woman but on these days, there was no spending limit. We’d spend $15 and I’d come home with a brand new wardrobe. I have always felt that I was born a generation or two late. Part of that is growing up with grandparents and parents who always spoke about the 'good ol' days,' and that is definitely reflected in my taste in music and of course, how we decorate our businesses. We want to give people the neighborhood they reminisce about having, or always wanted to have."
Thrift & Thrive was also inspired by the stark contrast Joe couldn’t help but notice here in Portage Park.
“We were seeing our neighbors lose their houses and lose their jobs. Then we’d be driving through the alley and see like-new furniture put out for the trash. There are a lot of haves and have-nots in our neighborhood. We view Thrift & Thrive as the neighborhood trading post where people can drop off unwanted items that others can purchase at a reasonable price.”
While many other thrift stores are backed by large national nonprofits, Thrift & Thrive is uniquely local.
“Our primary focus has always been, and will continue to be, reinvesting 90 cents of every dollar back into this community.”
In 2014, Joe and Melissa launched Perkolator, a coffeeshop serving up much more than coffee. They have a full breakfast and lunch menu, and all the snacks and caffeine needed for in between. Walk in on most days and you will find the place busy and bustling.
“Perkolator doesn’t belong to Joe and Melissa Basilone anymore—it belongs to Portage Park. We’re grateful for the team we have working there and the community that supports it.”
Adjoining the coffeehouse is Sputnik Records and Books, which sells lightly used reading and listening pleasures perfect to go along with your cup of joe.
Until recently the couple also owned and operated a fourth business, Charley Noble, a unique sandwich shop that closed in late 2018 after a whirlwind year. Earlier that year, Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“We had a tough year last year. Melissa’s battle with cancer changed our trajectory and put in perspective how we spend our time. Our goal of providing everything for the community had to take a back seat.”
Charley Noble as a fledgling business was doing well, but the stress of running four businesses, raising two kids (now age 8 and 13), and chemo was too much for anyone to balance.
“It was having an impact on us.”
The Basilones are using 2019 as a time to regroup.
“Cancer taught us to slow down and really smell the roses. Be happy with the abundance we have. I was collecting business like toys—I don’t want to be a hypocrite for my children.”
Joe also knows there’s always room for improvement.
“We want to strive to do more with what we have—to deliver a dialed in experience with our current businesses.”
His message to area residents is a rallying call:
“Get out from behind your screens and get out in your community. Likes don’t put dollars in registers and keep local businesses open. They don’t keep community programs funded or neighborhood teams cheered on. Get out and be a part of your community.”
“We all have something to give. For us, it’s this. If we didn’t love what we did, we’d be out of business. That’s the single characteristic across all failed businesses—when the genuine passion is gone. Owning a business is like caring for a house plant, you have to love and nurture it.”