Holiday fun? Joan Cusack’s Got A Little To Share

By Cindy Dampier
Chicago Tribune.


You’ve got your standard holiday tale: The exhausted hero, wobbling through a season of blaring lights, family drama, and those same seven songs that are eroding his brain cells, reaches year’s end like a rat exiting a maze, grateful it’s over.

Well, we’ve got a different story to tell.

It starts in a little shop on a Chicago corner, where a beloved comedic actress spends her non-acting hours as a shopkeeper. But (here’s the hook) a shopkeeper with a taste for making magic.

“Not, like, magician magic,” says Joan Cusack in a tone that reminds you where you’ve heard that voice before, “but magiCAL. There’s a big difference.”

Inspired by the Hollywood-style magic she had seen firsthand, Cusack decided in 2011 to translate that feeling to a place of her own, one she could share with the public. “One of the reasons I opened a shop,” she says, “was I had been on all these different movie sets and I realized that environment can really impact you.”

She loved the accumulated detail that creates a sense of place in films. “If it was a period piece from the 30s, for instance, you would be sitting at a desk from the 30s writing on paper from the 30s with a pen made in the 30s. Those little details were fascinating.”

Her thought? To open a store that would offer a world of small things that could help people add wonder to their own homes.
“Making your home feel like a home is so wonderful, so important,” she says. “And you can create a magical feeling with little things. It doesn’t take a lot.”

With that in mind, she opened Judy Maxwell Home (named after Barbra Streisand’s character in the wacky comedy “What’s Up, Doc?”) and filled the store with gag gifts, crazy gum, interesting jewelry, artful and beautiful housewares, and the occasional giant beach ball. She drew on warm memories of zany Chicago landmarks like Uncle Fun, or Dr. Jazz, a 1970s ice cream parlor that featured roller skating waitresses and a Charlie Chaplin impersonator.

“It was just special,” she says. “You’d go there, and it was so clearly someone’s crazy passion to open the place. These days, you can do everything online. So if you’re going to take the trouble to go to a shop, it should be an experience.”

Though she freely points out that it is just a shop, after all, Cusack’s real role is to spread the experience around. You might find her laughing with a customer over a slightly bawdy greeting card, or jumping in to urge shoppers to smell a soap-on-a-rope she sourced from Jordan, after a visit there included sampling products used by none other than Queen Noor. Or pressing a lump of kinetic sand into a kid’s hand and taking obvious delight in her reaction.

“I don’t have to own a store,” she says. “What I really wanted was to make a place where people could have that kind of moment, that feeling of a magical place.”

At holiday time, Cusack’s quiet Save the Magic crusade goes into overdrive.

“People need to let go of the stress and bring the fun back,” she says. Tapping into childhood, she says, helps get the ball rolling: “I was in a family of 5 kids, so we waited at the top of the stairs, that whole thing … Finally (our parents) would let us know that we could come down. That was the best moment, charging down the stairs on Christmas morning. Kids want to feel that feeling, and it’s never the big things that create it. It’s the little things.”

Cusack has clearly given thought to what makes a holiday season both doable and delightful. So we got her to share her top 3 ideas for giving your own holiday story a happy ending this year.

-Remain calm. No, really. “That thing in the airplane about putting on your own mask before you try to help others is useful at all times, I’ve found. And there’s a reason that the sign in the elevator says, ‘REMAIN CALM’ if you get stuck in there. You’d think that if you were going to panic, that’s when you should panic, when you’re stuck in an elevator. But no. So, it turns out there is really no time that you are supposed to panic. Don’t do it. Just try to remain calm at all times.” Remember, she adds, “Stay in the bell curve. Crazy stuff is going to happen, sure, but you’re just going for a couple good moments here.”

-BYOTbring your own traditions. “You can come up with your own celebration,” she says; anything from finding a series of irreverent readings to assign to dinner guests to bringing back good old Christmas poppers. “It’s something fun at your table that’s not wine. I mean, granted, that takes the edge off,” she jokes, “but it’s also a depressant and, you know, it’s not really good for your kids.”

-Keep an eye out for treats. Stop by a spa (“a full-on, intense-a-rama experience”); watch a movie (“something bright in Technicolor, like ‘White Christmas’); sing along to a playlist of personal favorites. And, “if your husband or dad or kids always blow it, just throw a treat in for yourself. It’s not about being disappointed, so get yourself something nice. Then the pressure’s off. Everybody wins.”
Last year, Cusack and her team answered an unexpected holiday order by building gift baskets. Channeling Cusack’s signature sense of humor, her comfortably crafty side, and her knack for vintage-tinged style, the baskets became the highlight of the shop’s holiday season, and spawned a plan to rehabilitate the tired old gift basket into the kind of thoughtful surprise we all would love to give, or get.

Here’s how to do it:

-Go small. “You don’t need to buy people a big gift,” says Cusack, “And you don’t have to spend a ton of money.” A pair of cool bookends that echo his favorite toy are bound to make your brother smile, and could be the start of a basket of favorite things from your shared childhood.

-Stay local. Fill a hostess basket with overt references to Your home city, and subtler ones like invented-in-your-town foods or gadgets.

-Add something old. “Finding an old tin to package homemade fudge in adds another layer,” says Cusack. Instant points for one-of-a-kind originality.

-Wrap it up. “A package within a package builds suspense, and that’s fun” Cusack says. Think beyond rolls of gift wrap: Cusack uses hot dog wrappers (here wrapping cozy Sock Monkey Socks) but says anything different will do. “Try brown paper,” she says, “but only use string, no tape.” Next thing you know, you’ve got brown paper packages, wrapped up with string … just like the song says.

-Make functional fun. A hardworking item, like this cutting board, doesn’t have to look basic. “It’s form and function and fun, because why not?”

-Insert laughter. “People need to laugh,” Cusack says. “It’s so good for you.” Add at least one giggle-worthy item, from an Emergency Clown Nose (“They really work!” says Cusack) to a silly greeting card.

-Make everything count. The beauty of a gift basket? Even the container can be part of the gift, like this beautiful, hard-working laundry basket.

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