Brimming onto the southernmost boundary of Ukrainian Village, Atomix opened in May 2001, around the first time Wicker Park coffeehouse mainstay Jinx shuttered. Milwaukee transplant Adam Paul (aka “Atom”) had thought it would open in two months, but the usual obstacles meant it took ten. It’s tough to open a small business in Chicago, says Paul, 37, “if you don’t know anyone. I knew nobody. I knew two people here and one was making a documentary [about the opening].” For six years, he was co-owner of a storefront in Milwaukee called Brewed Awakenings, also the duration (to date) of Atomix. Small businesses, he observes, “tend either to last six months or six years and I was lucky enough to have one that’s lasted for six years.” Real estate pressures have closed local mainstays like Filter, and the new Dominick’s half-a-block west is host to a Starbucks. Of independents, Paul says, “Maybe it’s just me, I don’t see as many of them opening. I think it definitely goes in waves.”
Faith’s a big part of the deal. “My first partners were both film students [as well] so I didn’t have a business background. We had no idea we were close to not being there. But since none of us had anything to do, we were just there all the time.” Picking at the Atomix vegan mushroom burger—without the mushrooms, “We ran out,” he says with a grin—Paul says, “I pretty much kept up the tradition of being here all the time. It’s financial, I mean, if I were here less, I probably would be closed. I couldn’t afford it.” He pauses. “I have to keep it going. I would say that it’s just been more and more difficult to keep up the enthusiasm. It’s what you’re willing to put up with and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like working here but I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a living. I’ve just managed to make that work.” His current employees are mostly ten years younger than him. “That makes me feel younger…I guess.” He laughs.
The room’s bright olive and blue walls have been the same since opening, overseen by a smiling wall-sized portrait of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. “I haven’t kept up with the look,” he says of the residential-hotel-lobby look of Starbucks. “This is a step up from Milwaukee, it’s cleaner, I’d say. People who come in are always worried that somehow [the chains are] encroaching on what I’m doing. People who try to be similar to Starbucks, I just don’t see the point. They have their cookie-cutter down. It’s pretty cool a lot of people come in from all around the United States and they say this reminds them of a place they used to hang out.” He pauses. “I think it is that, where they used to hang out. I studied real film in film school and now I run a business that’s kind of an anomaly. I feel like I’m riding dinosaurs.” (Ray Pride)
Atomix, 1957 West Chicago, (312)666-2649