Salma Mukhi, the 55-year-old owner of Salma Fabrics & Boutique, was in the middle of a call with a relative from Pakistan when her daughter Rabia gestured for her to answer the store phone to speak with a client.
“I think she’s more busy than Barack Obama,” quipped Rabia Mukhi, 27, Salma’s youngest daughter, who works as a real estate agent in north suburban Morton Grove and helps out occasionally at the store, located at 2316 W. Devon Ave. in West Ridge.
Salma is the matriarch of a large and tight-knit family—she has five children and 14 grandchildren. She came to Chicago from the Punjab province of Pakistan in September 1985 to join her husband, who was working at a gas station in the city. She moved the family to West Ridge on the Far North Side, and they spent much of their time on Devon Avenue’s Desi corridor, which, at the time, was one of the only communities of South Asian migrants in the United States.
Salma decided to open a fabric store on Devon Avenue after a five-year stint selling electronics at Buyers Flea Market in Humboldt Park. “That’s where I learned my English,” she said.
“My mom has always had this thing for fabrics,” Rabia explained. “She would make clothes [in Pakistan] and people would be like, ‘Where’d you get this fabric from?’ That’s when she thought, ‘Oh, people like my choice, let’s just start.’”
Rabia remembers essentially growing up with her siblings in her mother’s store.
“We used to bring our backpacks here, do our homework here,” said Rabia. “We were never allowed to mess with the fabric.”
When business took off after a few years, Salma moved her shop to its current ground-floor location on Devon Avenue. Salma’s husband has since moved back to Pakistan for health reasons, and two of her daughters moved to Los Angeles to start families there. She communicates with each of them with daily phone calls. The rest of her children, however, have not veered too far from Chicago, which Salma considers “home.” Salma lives in Morton Grove now with her two sons, whose families live together in the same house. Her remaining two daughters, Rabia and Huma, live in Morton Grove and Aurora, respectively.
Salma’s son Faisal, 33, owns Libas Boutique, which sells menswear and accessories, and is located just west of Salma’s store.
What started as a second-floor office space has since turned into a family-owned enterprise that stretches down the 2300 block of Devon Avenue. The three storefronts act as a community hub for Salma’s family, friends and customers. They share language, culture, food and values.
Almost every day, Faisal’s wife, Zainab, brings large trays of homemade food for the employees of the three stores—and any other family members or friends who happen to be there.
Children and grandchildren play and eat and wander through the three stores while their parents work and shop. Neighbors and friends stop in to say hello and chitchat with Salma in Urdu.
“Where she is, that’s where home base is,” said Rabia.