I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a crayon in my hand. By the time I was 5-years-old, I was drawing all sorts of things on cheap yellow paper my dad bought by the ream. The crayon was replaced with ballpoint pen, magic markers, colored pencils, pastels, paint brushes, sculpting tools, and by age 12, darkroom equipment. Going to art supply and camera stores as a kid was nearly as glorious as walking up the street to the corner store to buy my favorite candy. That’s right, for many artists and/or photographers, a visit to an art supply or camera shop is like unleashing an overzealous kid in a candy store! Nowadays, it’s hard to find old school art supply and camera stores – many have closed. In Chicagoland, you can buy art supplies at Dick Blick, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JOANN Fabric and Craft, and a handful of small shops. Of course, you can always buy art supplies online, but it’s not the same experience. I first encountered Utrecht in NYC and later shopped at the store on South Michigan Avenue. Utrecht is now partnering with Dick Blick, although they are still doing business online independently. My favorite Chicago-area store is Artist & Craftsman Supply, an employee-owned shop in the old school model – while there are stores across the U.S., the Chicago location at 828 S Wabash reminds me of defunct stores of my youth. Good’s of Evanston is an independent store that has been in business for more than 100 years. It’s more renowned for its framing services and has a certain slick look these days that is the antithesis of old school. Thank heavens for Central Camera, a truly iconic old school store in the South Loop that has been…
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, or at the very least, a few hours of sleuth work. When I saw this wonderful Vivian Maier photograph, circa August 1960, the first thing I saw was Donald Koehler, once billed the world’s tallest man at 8 ft. 2 inches tall. I love the two ladies standing in the middle of the sidewalk – both appear to be looking at and talking about Koehler. I can almost hear them clucking their tongues in amazement. A fellow standing against the light post also appears to be looking at him from afar. Koehler was days away from his 35th birthday when Maier took this photo and she had turned 34 on February 1. Photographer and subject were exactly 5 months apart in age to the day. I wrote briefly about Koehler in my first Lincolnwood blog. I remember seeing him get up after dining and walk through the aisle past my table at a little coffee shop on Cicero just north of Devon. I was very young, but an incredible visual sight like that tends to stay with you forever. His dad owned the card shop on Cicero, just north of Devon, in the same little strip mall as the coffee shop. The Koehlers didn’t live in Lincolnwood, but close enough in West Rogers Park. Believe it or not, Koehler had a twin sister who at a mere 5 ft. 9 inches tall was 29 inches shorter than her famous brother. He started growing abnormally at age 10, although it’s unclear when he was diagnosed with acromegaly, the pituitary disorder that results from excess growth hormone. This is the same disease that afflicted Sam Kappel, owner of Howard Clothes, who I wrote about in this blog. Koehler won…
The summer after 8th grade, I went downtown a few times a week to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Artist’s Studio program. The photo silk screening class was in the Pakula building at 218 S. Wabash. The painting class was in a studio on the campus building behind the Art Institute. On occasion, I would shop at the Woolworth’s on State Street and the Stop & Shop at 16 W. Washington. When I was about 18, I summoned the courage to walk into an X-rated book store located on Dearborn at Randolph, if memory serves me right. I hightailed it out of there when a freaky guy in a trench coat leered at me. Perhaps he would have flashed me, or my vivid imagination got the better of me. I was fascinated by Randolph Street, in particular the block between State and Dearborn. It had a similar kind of sleazy charm as Times Square in the 1970s, albeit on a tiny scale. The photographs featured in this blog provided inspiration for businesses to include and a search for materials such as matchbooks, postcards, and menus. This ephemera offers a glimpse at a street that was once vibrant and thriving with an incredibly cool and eclectic array of businesses. Sadly, by the time I ventured downtown, most of these businesses were long gone or had lost their luster. I primarily researched businesses between State and Randolph, west to LaSalle. Of course the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center’s north lobby is on Randolph at Michigan.
As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.
I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized. About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.
Lately I have been thinking about how much I adored North Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town in my youth. My parents took us to Old Town on occasion and every single trip was imbued with magic. I’m not alone in this adoration – in my research I found quite a few blogs devoted to this unique street. Of course Old Town is far more than Wells St. – it consists of the charming, tree-lined residential and historic district defined by the triangle formed by North Avenue, Clark Street, and Ogden Avenue. Commercial Old Town is the busy stretch of North Wells running from Division Street roughly north to Lincoln Avenue and a small piece of North Ave., east and west. To residents in the 1960s to 70s, North Wells was a fabricated medley of oddities targeted at suburbanites and tourists looking for an edgy, artsy thrill in the big city. This June 7, 1964 Chicago Tribune article certainly implies North Wells was a Disneyfied tourist attraction. “It’s far from the true Bohemian atmosphere the tourists think they are savoring, but North Wells street is fascinating, lively, colorful, crowded and a pot of gold for the merchants. Like any night-life addict, Old Town’s Wells street sleeps until just before noon when it opens one reluctant eye to welcome the day’s first visitors: the suburban matrons. Sleek and well-dressed, they motor in from the north shore or the far western suburbs to infiltrate the shops and restaurants. ‘They arrive at 11:30,’ says Kris Perkins, co-proprietor of Charlie’s General Store, citing their movements as precisely as an almanac predicts the orbits of the heavenly bodies. ‘They eat lunch until 12:30, then shop until 3 O’clock when they all leave at once to beat the traffic and get home before their husbands.’”
The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.
It was really nice that so many family members reached out to me and commented on my first Howard Clothes article. This yielded a good deal of insight and information, which inspired the desire to write this epilogue. Based on my communications with family members, I found out Elaine Winik is the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel. I also discovered she wrote a book entitled Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. I decided to purchase a copy on Amazon and gave this to my dad to read first. After all, it was his family with the connection to Howard Clothes and to Minnie and her mother Mollie Sennowitz. Elaine’s book filled in a lot of blanks including first names of people who were unknown to me when I wrote the first article, and had escaped my dad’s memory at this point in life – he is 92 after all. A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of talking to Elaine on the phone, and she graciously sent me a few clippings and photos that I have added to this blog. My dad got a real kick out of this passage from Elaine’s book: After living with us, grandma came to my parents and said that although we all were wonderful to her, the house wasn’t kosher, and besides, she missed her Yiddish-speaking contemporaries. If mother and dad would pay rent to “the greenie,” (all immigrants were referred to as greenhorns) her newly arrived cousin from Russia, she would live with him and his wife. Of course we could come and visit her there. She also mentioned that it would be very nice if my parents would furnish the apartment for the “the greenie” as he had no money at all. They did, as they asked.
While cleaning out my parent’s basement, I discovered a bunch of old newspaper clips from the Apollo 11 moon landing, dated July 21, 22, 23, and 24, 1969. The clips themselves are intriguing, although essentially worthless from a monetary standpoint. I actually found myself more fascinated by the ads. I have highlighted a few of the business of yesteryear that once upon a time graced the Windy City. Although I have blogged about other defunct Chi-Town shops, this article only features retail stores for which I found ads – a subsequent article will cover a few cultural venues unearthed in these clips. Benson-Rixon Benson-Rixon men’s store had multiple locations, including the flagship location at 230 South State Street – now home to a McDonalds on the ground level. This is not a store that my dad frequented – he was a Brooks Brothers guy through and through! This store has a fascinating history – in the ad it is called Benson-Rixon, but other references refer to the store as Benson & Rixon. Hans A. Rixon, born in 1864, the son of a German manufacturer of woolen goods, immigrated to Chicago with his family. In 1886, he started clerking for Charles Rixon at 701 Milwaukee Avenue and served as the store’s general manager. In 1890, he opened his own gent’s clothing shop at 851 North Avenue, continuing this business until 1895. He then combined his business with Mr. Rixon’s business, moving to 1730 Milwaukee Avenue. In 1896, Mr. Rixon became a partner and vice president of the Benson-Rixon store, originally established by Paul J. Benson and Albert Rixon in 1889. According to an excerpt from the History of Cook County, Illinois, by 1909, the gentlemen owned three stores.
When teen pop idols Davy Jones and Don Grady died, I wrote tributes to both of them. When a pantheon of greatness like Roger Ebert dies, it is a bigger challenge to write a worthy piece. Roger Ebert is as synonymous with Chicago as Oprah Winfrey, Vienna Beef hot dogs, Wrigley Field, Deep-dish pizza, and Studs Terkel. Roger Ebert made me proud to be a native Chicagoan – I took other aspects of the city for granted, but never Roger Ebert. He was without a doubt the greatest film critic that ever lived. There have been others of considerable talent – the legendary Pauline Kael at the front of that list, but Ebert wrote in a natural, conversational style without any pretense. How is it possible to be so knowledgeable about film without sounding pedantic or pretentious? I think many of his colleagues hit it right on the head – Ebert was just a regular Joe at the core – a chubby, bespectacled, brainy geek from downstate Illinois. And he basically stayed that way despite fame, acclaim, and fortune. Think about it – he probably met more famous movie stars and directors than any person on earth – even Barbara Walters, yet never came off as elitist or snobby. Here are a few tributes to Ebert from his Chicago buddies/colleagues: Neil Steinberg Rick Kogan Richard Roeper Jim Emerson Dan Gire I first discovered the powerful magic of movies when at age 10, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Some Like it Hot – we were going to meet my dad at the Chicago Auto Show and had to leave the house before it was over. But my earliest memory harkens back to the age of 3 or 4 – very vague and I cannot remember the film, but a little girl who was paralyzed etched an indelible image…