Elizabeth Cronin

Elizabeth Cronin

Elizabeth Cronin

Elizabeth Cronin

Elizabeth Cronin

loves this for you.

loves this for you.

loves this for you.

loves this for you.

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BY CARIANN BRADLEY / PHOTOS BY JULIET CANGELOSI / JUNE 19, 2019

THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED IN MAY 2019 IN WEST LOOP, CHICAGO

BY CARIANN BRADLEY / PHOTOS BY JULIET CANGELOSI / JUNE 19, 2019

THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED IN MAY 2019 IN WEST LOOP, CHICAGO

BY CARIANN BRADLEY / PHOTOS BY JULIET CANGELOSI / JUNE 19, 2019

THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED IN MAY 2019 IN WEST LOOP, CHICAGO

Midnight Woman Moon

Elizabeth Cronin founded Asrai Garden in Chicago’s Wicker Park in 1999. On their website, Asrai describes themselves as “a retail outpost known for stunning floral arrangements, luxurious fine jewelry, and magical curiosities,” but I just tell people they’re the shop version of an 18th century literature course — and I mean that as a sincere compliment.


Something to note — Asrai began twenty years ago before, what is now the modern floral industry, was integrating elements of gothic revival, magic and ritualism, and devotion to the unpredictable into the work. Now, many florists use these elements to express their brands as they paint the walls of their own shops black or dark green. Let’s pay homage where (at least I think) it’s due.


Elizabeth and her team have created a safe space for people who not only respect floral masterpiece, but need a place where you don’t have to check your peculiarity at the door. And today, that’s what our world needs more of.


Read my interview with Elizabeth below.

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C: I did a bit of research and read some of the interviews you’ve done about your shop, Asrai Garden. How do you pronounce it?


E: ‘Oz-ray’.


C: Okay, great. [Laughs] I’ve literally been saying ‘Az-rye’ for, like, years.


E: You should literally say whatever you want. I’ve never heard the word pronounced, I’ve just read it and liked it. So I made up that it’s ‘oz-ray’.


C: Okay, excellent! [Laughs]


E: [Laughs]


C: I know we talked a bit over email — I came through Chicago in 2015 for a music festival that’s in Wisconsin.


E: What music festival?


C: Eaux Claires. It’s Bon Iver’s music festival, in his hometown.


E: In Eau Claire! Yes.


C: I was passing through the city and I’d never been to Chicago before. My good friend Michelle and I stumbled across your Wicker Park location and met you guys.


E: Oh, awesome.


C: Yeah! You’ve mentioned it before in interviews that, in the past, no one has combined the things that Asrai Garden offers. It is really the first of its kind, and set the tone for a new generation of florists.


E: Yeah, they do now!


C: Exactly! Yes. Flowers are being presented in this aesthetic now. But you’re the one that started this.


E: Well, I knew of nothing that had, you know, the mix of flowers, jewelry, taxidermy, minerals, apothecary, when we started.


C: And you were 23, right? That’s how old I am!


E: Right. I had worked for a woman that owned a store called Bella Bello, and it had the start of all those things I love, which really inspired me. Like she had some of that, and I added more of what I love. I’ve always loved the natural history museum — I love any natural history museum. I was just like yes, that’s it. People always ask me, “What is this place?” I always just say that it’s all the things I like in one place! I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s all the things I find beautiful and interesting in a room with me. There was no real thought-out concept, it was more of, “Oh! This is pretty!!” It’s distilled down into what it is now over the years. And then the fine jewelry [was added] in the last ten years.


C: Do you think you’ve been accepted into the Chicago community well?


E: Yes.


C: I’m sure, I mean you’ve been around for twenty years! What has that been like, and what do you hope to ultimately give back to the people here?

E: It was interesting at first because I was 23. The people I was hiring to work at Asrai were generally older than me and that was quite awkward — mostly because I didn’t feel authorized to do so. So I think things have manifested in an interesting way where I definitely did some things at first where, as a 23-year-old owning a business, I felt like I had to have all the answers. People would ask me stuff and I’d be like, “Uh…” and then make up an answer on the spot to make it sound like I knew things. Gradually, over the years, luckily, I figured out humility [laughs] and I have found that it’s more beneficial to not know everything. I think it was like, I had these people around me, and I felt like I needed to have the answers for them — as opposed to letting it be collaborative. And I think if you ask any of the folks that have been with me for four or five years, the core crew, I am an extraordinarily collaborative boss. I’m like, “Do you guys have any ideas for this, this, and this?” or “Here are the four problems we have. Go. Anybody coming up with anything? Cause I got nothing!” Someone will be like, “What if we try this?” and I am always like, “Try it. See if it works.” I just don’t have that need to know anymore.


As far as the community, I grew up being around Wicker Park, so it was a community I was already part of. My parents met in Wicker Park; they both worked there. My mom and dad had their first dates there. I hung out there all throughout grade school and high school. I don’t know that I thought much....well, you know, I did — I’ve always been community-minded. I always have made Asrai a place that people could come in and spend three hours trying everything on, enjoying and detoxing from whatever just happened to them out in the world. And like, no pressure — you don’t have to buy anything, you can just be in here; spend time, smell the things, and just be. Over the years, I’ve definitely heard from people that...like after a terrible day, someone walked to my flower shop and just decompressed before they went home and took it out on their family [Laughs] or whatever.


As far as employees, we’re like a family. Especially the crew that’s been with me for years. We’re just family.

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C: I’ve followed you on Instagram since 2015, when I was passing through, and I feel like you’re pretty open about yourself. I’ve seen you mention your sexuality and things like that too. Are you pretty open with everyone about that stuff?


EC: Oh, yeah. Because it all happened in front of them, you know? Like, I was married, twice. To men. And after my last divorce, I stopped ignoring the suspicious feeling I had that I liked women. [Laughs] Then I actually just chose to do something about it. I’ve been dating women ever since, and I’ve dated men as well. I definitely consider myself queer. Both politically [laughs] and sexually.


C: Do you think if you hadn’t owned this space, and created and cultivated it, that you would have been confident or empowered enough to figure these things out in your life? Like do you think it’s helped?


EC: I don’t know...maybe. You know, it could be. Because this space has been home to me more than anything else in my life. I’ve owned the store almost half my life, and yeah...that’s an interesting question. I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t do this. [Laughs] I’m sure I’d figure it out, but yeah. I’m not sure I know how to answer that question. But what I do think has been helpful about this is that a lot of people know me. Like, a lot of people know me. My partner hates going out most of the time with me because we cannot make it from point A to point B. [Laughs] It doesn’t ever take five minutes, it takes 35 minutes, because I have to stop and have 17 micro-conversations. It’s funny because small talk is not necessarily my jam, but yeah. So I guess through having this space — it’s hard to say how it could be different because I don’t know what my life would be. I don’t know what I’d be doing. It certainly can’t hurt that I’ve built this space and made a community of all sorts of people.


I also grew up in a house where my mom’s community was very racially diverse and there were a bunch of lesbians and gays around all the time. [Laughs] It was also a funny thing for me that it sort of took me so long to start dating women. I was like 37 or 38. [Laughs] I didn’t grow up in a tiny town where it wasn’t okay. You know? I grew up in a house where there were literally gays and lesbians around me all the time; they were my mom’s friends. So it’s a strange thing that it took me that long.


C: I’m from a small-ish town in North Carolina. It was in the Bible belt. [Laughs] It was an interesting place.


EC: [Laughs]


C: I’m in Nashville now, so still the Bible belt. It’s a liberal place, but it’s still the south. Like okay, I’m going to go outside, but I’m likely to see confederate flags and shit.


EC: Yeah, my best friend just moved from there because she was sick of that.


C: Yeah! It’s getting really old, and I know it’s going to take a long time for it to change.


Also, just as a side note — your aesthetic 100% influenced my brand.


EC: Aw!


C: It’s been so inspiring for me and just the space — just like you said, this is a safe space for people to come. That’s exactly what I want to do with Midnight Woman, just on the internet.


EC: Yeah. Well, you’re doing it!


C: Thank you.


EC: Reading all of [the anonymous submissions] was beautiful.


C: Thank you so much. And also places like The Wing, the all-female coworking space — that’s what people are trying to do is to create these safe spaces. I just think that’s the most important thing. Even though you and I do very different things, I think we have similar missions.


EC: Totally.


C: So, you’ve just inspired me so much. Thank you.


EC: Aw. Gosh, that’s really nice. Thank you. [Laughs]


C: Of course! I just admire what you’re doing. From the outside, just coming in it’s flowers, but there is a lot more here. There is a lot of good beneath the surface of what this place stands for.


EC: Yeah, there really is.


C: I wanted to ask, what would you say to someone who is queer or just anyone who is trying to reckon with their story or with themselves? What advice would you have for someone trying to process or externalize themselves or something that’s happened to them?


EC: Oof. First of all, just find your tribe. Find other people that make you feel safe, and then just figure it out together. I think that is the best thing that you can do. I have so many friends that work in amazing capacities in this city, building safe and inclusive spaces. Like, those are available. It honestly breaks my heart when I think about those kids living in small towns. [Pauses and breathes] Yeah, it’s really sad to think about, but there is always an “other” at your school. Find your people. Be honest with them.


C: Yes.

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The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say.

The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say.

The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say.

The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say.

The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say.

EC: Be honest about what you want and who you want to be, and what you’re interested in. The good news and the bad news is there is the internet. The bad news is that the internet can be a terrible place where extra bullying — and all the stuff I didn’t have to deal with because I was a kid in the ‘80s — is happening. The good news is, you can very quickly find the people who make you feel like less of a freak and less of an “other.”


The even better news is that, in the last few years, even politically, there are people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Abdullahi Omar who have not typically been represented in politics — those people are fighting. This group — the young twenty-somethings right now — has fire in their hearts! They are hungry to make a difference. It is very exciting. Super exciting! I think the less you hide yourself, as long as you’re safe, and the more you’re willing to be honest...find places that will nurture that, and stay there. Really grab onto them.


C: I agree, 100 percent. Working with Hayley Williams on her l’Odet feature and on Bonnaroo – you know, she has a hair dye company? I don’t know it just makes me think of those people that are the “others.” The people that are involved with her brand are like, “That girl with the blue hair,” or whatever that stereotype is in your head of an “alternative” person, or someone that really has something beneath the surface. It’s just been really beautiful to see that community in Nashville and see her company pulling people together over, you know, blue hair.


EC: The south definitely needs it. [Laughs]


C: They definitely do! There actually is a really big creative community in Nashville. Coming into it though, as a college graduate at 22 years old, I was not taken seriously. I was disregarded by a lot of people because of my age, even in starting this brand. Hayley definitely isn’t one of those people, and I’ve found the people who believe in me and the work I’m doing, regardless of my age. But yeah, just finding the safe places has been imperative. Finding these young people and connecting with people over this — it’s been really encouraging.


EC: Yeah. And I think, yes, in smaller towns, there are still “others.” I feel like here in Chicago, [whispers] I don’t want to say soccer moms because I have friends who are soccer moms, [laughs] but you know, “blue hair” isn’t a thing in Chicago. “Blue hair” is still a thing in Nashville because everything is so flippin’ buttoned up! That was how I found my tribe in the early ‘90s, I was like, “Who’s got Manic Panic in their hair?” Like, you’re probably into some weird music like I am, and you probably don’t want to go to a sorority party or go cheerleading. Those things are fine if that’s what you like, then do that, but I was looking for “other” people. Luckily, Manic Panic was a thing, and I could find them by colored hair. [Laughs] It feels like a funny thing, but that outward, first impression is there. It draws you to them.


C: You mentioned [to me earlier] that the event happening at the Ace [Hotel] right now is all about inclusivity and everything. You’re surrounded by that here, and the friends you’ve made.


EC: And there are a lot of people in Chicago who are not surrounded by that, but I choose to surround myself with it, and it’s our community. Queer activism and fighting for inclusivity in Chicago is strong and vast and feirce. It’s great. In whatever ways, even if they’re small, we’re all trying to do our part.


C: That’s awesome. It’s really encouraging to hear. I love coming here and meeting people like you that are making these spaces and making necessary changes. We’re all coming up on an election — there is a lot of work to be done.


EC: There is a lot of work to be done. And I also think that the more voices…you know, I’m just another white female voice. Quite honestly, we don’t need to hear a ton more white voices. We need to be asking people. You know, if you’re talking about inclusivity, you also need to then be living it. We need to be asking all these questions, “How do you find your tribe? How do you feel safe? How do you do these things?” to people that are not white and not cisgendered. Those are the people to be asking.


I can do what I can do, and I am trying to learn and be humble and teachable in everything. Ideas aren’t coming from me, you know? Reaching out to people of color, people in the trans community — those are the people that I think we need to be asking the major questions, so that we are hearing what they actually need and what they want. Generally, other than a few instances with men, I’ve led a pretty safe existence. It’s [about] continuing to make sure to elevate the voices of people who do not have that luxury [of a safe existence]. That’s the most important thing we can do in our communities.


C: Absolutely. And I want you to know that I really appreciate you talking to me and being part of Midnight Woman. You are supporting us, and those things are important to us as well. I’ve spent the last couple months putting together a board of directors of people who don’t look like me or think like me.


EC: Awesome.


C: Knowledge is power, and I know hardly anything. I’m an infant in life and activism and social justice. [It’s important to me to] bring Asian-Americans into our circle, and other people of color,  and people with different sexual orientations. My worst fear is someone looking at me, Cariann, and disregarding Midnight Woman, the platform, because I am a white, hetero-presenting woman. That’s really important to us, and I hope to touch on that at Bonnaroo as well.


EC: Totally. And if you keep doing that work and centering other people’s voices, they won’t see that of you. The best you can do is elevate others, give others a safe space where they can say what they need to say. If someone calls you out on saying something that’s racist that you didn’t realize, or whatever, you can just hear them and apologize and do the work to do better next time. There is just so much white fragility around all of that. It’s interesting. I learn all the time. There are people I follow on the internet that I learn from all the time. I learn from friends, having honest conversations with them. That is the best you can do, so keep doing it.

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Have you been to Midnight Woman? That's our sister. Submit anonymously here.

For general inquiries, please contact us at hello@midnight-woman.com

 

For advertising opportunities, please write to us at goldie@midnight-woman.com

 

Have you been to Midnight Woman? That's our sister.

Midnight Woman is an online platform that welcomes contributors of all kinds to submit personal experiences anonymously.

We aim to redefine the way we talk about what's happened to us, no matter the subject. l'Odet exists for the named to encourage the nameless.

Midnight Woman is an online platform that welcomes contributors of all kinds to submit personal experiences.

We aim to redefine the way we talk about what's happened to us, no matter the subject. L'Odet exists for the named to encourage the nameless.