Posts Tagged 'Business'

Farewell to the Six Corners Sears

The Sears store at Six Corners—Milwaukee, Cicero, and Irving Park—will be closing soon.  This was the last Sears within the Chicago city limits.  It was also the Sears I had grown up with.

The closing reminded me of a radio commercial from the 1970s. I can’t remember the product that was being sold.  But somewhere in the middle of the sales pitch, the announcer began a sentence by saying, “Next Saturday morning, when you’re at Sears . . .”  As if all Chicago went to Sears on Saturday morning.

Funny thing.  He may have been right.

The Six Corners Sears

In those days there were seven or eight Sears stores in the city. I don’t know whether the store at 63rd-Halsted was still in business.  But besides the Six Corners store, there were Sears at Harlem-North, Western-62nd,  Lawrence-Wolcott,  79th-Kenwood, and State-Van Buren.  The downtown store had particular significance for me.  One of my college buddies was dating a girl who worked there, and she introduced me to her friend, who eventually became my wife.

There was also a small retail store near the giant Sears headquarters at Homan and Arthington. I don’t think I ever shopped at that store, though I often walked through it on my way to a merchandise pickup.  I would select something in the catalogue, phone in the order, and come get it a few hours later—and didn’t have to pay a shipping charge.

Sears complex on Lawrence Avenue (1952)

But back to the Six Corners store. My first memory of it had to be when I was four or five years old.  Our next door neighbor worked in the candy department, and I thought it remarkable to see her behind a counter—it was just as impressive as when I spotted a bigger kid from down the street in the peanut gallery of a TV show.  I also noted that the escalators to the upper floors were narrower than those on the lower floors.  Less customer traffic going up to three and four, of course.

Still, the most fun I had in those days was in the shoe department. They had a machine that helped fit shoes by using x-rays.  Put on the shoes, stick your feet into the slot at the bottom, then look into the viewer to see if your toes had wiggle room.  Of course, that was before anyone knew about the cumulative effect of x-rays on the human body.  Frazzled moms would often tell their whining kids to “Go play in the x-ray machine!”

The Six Corner Sears also had a Hillman’s grocery store in the basement. The grocery opened an hour or so before the Sears, so if you got there early the first floor was roped off, and you went from the outside doors directly down the stairs to the basement.  For me, the best features of Hillman’s were the Scott Peterson hot dogs and Green River soda at the snack bar.  Later, when I got married and money was short, we usually shopped at Hillman’s because it was cheaper than the Jewel or the National.

The Six Corners Sears expands (1972)

The Six Corners Sears opened in 1938. For most of my younger years, the store always seemed to be expanding.  In 1972 they moved the automotive department to a separate building and put an addition on the store.  Later they expanded the parking lot by leveling the whole east side of Kilpatrick Avenue—including the two-flat where my aunt lived.  Eventually Sears forced out Hillman’s and took over the basement.

Then there was the Twelfth Street Store. Sometime around 1970, the owners of that discount store decided to challenge Sears’s Six Corners supremacy.  They built a new facility directly across Irving Park.  It flopped.  The only thing notable about this Twelfth Street Store was the roof-top parking lot, which gave you a dandy view of the surrounding area.

Today I do my Sears shopping at Golf Mill. I get to the Six Corners store only when I’m going to the magazine store across Cicero.  Many of the business of my young years there are gone—Woolworth’s, Northwest National Bank, Robert Hall Menswear, Klein’s Sporting Goods, the record store with the listening booth, the hairdresser my mom hung out at.  The Portage Theater is still with us, though it’s had its own problems.  Now that Sears is leaving, what will happen to Six Corners?

The view from the Twelfth Street Store parking lot

Along with Montgomery Ward’s, Sears popularized mail-order shopping.  In a printed catalogue, you were offered a wide selection of merchandise at a reasonable price.  You made your selections in the comfort of your own home, on your own schedule.  Within a short space of time, your purchases were delivered to your front door.

Does this business model sound familiar?  Move forward to the twenty-first century, and you have Amazon and other companies doing the same thing, but using the internet.

We are told that online stores are killing off brick-and-mortar stores.  If Sears eventually goes down because of this competition, it will be a stunning piece of irony.

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Best Wishes from Leo (12-29-1923)

Today some 160 Chicagoans received New Year’s greetings from Leo Koretz.  The cards were inscribed with verse:  “If I could be transported/ This moment to your door/ I’d bring you smiles by dozens/ And good wishes by the score/ –Leo Koretz”

Leo Koretz

Those 160 people certainly knew Leo Koretz.  He’d convinced them to invest $10 million to develop oil land in Panama, then disappeared with the money.  His plan turned out to be a giant con.

So where was Leo now?  The cards had been mailed in Chicago.  As it turned out, he was in Nova Scotia, living it up with assorted women.

Koretz was extradited, convicted of his swindle, and sentenced to state prison.  He told reporters he’d never serve his time.

Before he could be transferred from the county lockup, one of his lady friends brought him a five-pound box of chocolate.  Koretz ate it in one sitting and keeled over dead, as he’d planned.  He was a diabetic.

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Chicago’s April Fools

What do Rod Blagojevich, Paul Harvey, and Jack Dempsey have in common?  They’re all on my list of Chicago’s April Fools—people who made foolish decisions, and should have known better.  Last night I was on Justin Kaufmann’s “The Download” on WGN-Radio, and talked about all of my April Fools.  Here’s the link—  http://wgnradio.com/2017/03/30/exploring-the-history-of-chicagos-most-notable-fools/

The Prairies of Montrose Avenue

Back in the days before autos were common, most Chicagoans traveled by public transit. That meant by streetcar.  If you were starting a business and wanted customers to have easy access, you set up shop near where the streetcars ran.  By the 1920s commercial strips had developed along most of the car lines.

The city encouraged this development with zoning regulations. Blocks along arterial streets were reserved for commercial construction.  The lots there remained vacant while the nearby side streets filled up with homes.  Then, when enough people were settled in the neighborhood, businesses would be eager to buy and build on those commercially-zoned lots.

Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

1959—Our prairie, looking in from center field toward home plate

That’s what happened in my Portage Park neighborhood. Grandpa Price built the second house on the 4300-north block of Mason Avenue in 1922.  By the end of the decade, the block was filled with bungalows and two-flats.  Meanwhile, a few isolated stores had sprouted up along the commercially-zoned vacant lots on Montrose Avenue.

Then the Depression hit. Then World War II hit.  Then the postwar auto-boom flight to the suburbs hit.  By the time I came along in the 1950s, most of Montrose Avenue from Central west to Narragansett was still commercially zoned, and still vacant.

We called those vacant lots along Montrose “prairies.” This seems to have been a term used in all parts of the city, as readers’ comments indicate.  In our neighborhood, the local boys would clear a prairie and set up a baseball diamond.  There were at least five of them along Montrose.  One of them even had a backstop.  Looking back, I wonder who paid for it.

Montrose Avenue, 2017---Where are the prairies of yesterday?

2017—Montrose @ Menard, and where are the prairies of yesterday?

Our particular prairie was at what’s now 5919 West Montrose Avenue. Unlike most of the other prairies we weren’t a corner lot, so our baseball field was only about 80 feet down the right field line to the old Sinclair gas station.  But like most of the other prairies, we had to deal with dog owners using our beloved ball field as a canine toilet—in those days, they weren’t expected to clean up afterward.

Sometime around 1960 the city relaxed the zoning along Montrose, and all those prairies were soon filled with yellow brick houses and apartment buildings. Today it makes for an interesting streetscape, bridging two eras.

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Tucker On Trial (10-4-1949)

The Tucker Torpedo had been hailed as The Car of the Future.  Today, automaker Preston Tucker went on trial in the Chicago courtroom of Judge Walter La Buy.

Now 46 years old, Tucker had been involved in the auto industry since his teens.  At heart he was a promoter.  According to a friend, Tucker was such a great salesman that “he could sell a Chrysler to Henry Ford, and a Ford to Walter Chrysler.”

Preston Tucker

Preston Tucker

In 1946 Tucker launched his own car company.  He leased the largest factory building in the world, the 475-acre Dodge Chicago Plant at 76th and Cicero.  The plant had been used for making aircraft engines in World War II, and was now vacant.

Tucker soon produced a stunning prototype.  It was sleek and sexy, “the kind of car Flash Gordon would drive,” someone said.  The Tucker Torpedo was also ahead of its time in many of its engineering features.

To finance his venture, Tucker sold stock.  Then he ran into production problems.  Only 50 cars were produced.  The Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Tucker’s stock sale.

Tucker claimed that Detroit auto companies were behind the probe, trying to stop a potential rival.  In June 1949, Tucker and seven associates were indicted in federal court.  They were charged with multiple counts of mail fraud, conspiracy, and SEC violations.

In 2016 we assume that the identity of jury members will be protected.  When the Tucker trial opened on October 4, the newspapers actually printed the jurors’ names, home addresses, and occupations.  Among those deciding Tucker’s fate were an electrician, a garage owner, a phone company exec, and four housewives.

On the same day the trial began, another judge ordered the lease on Tucker’s Southwest Side plant cancelled.  The building reverted to the federal government.

Tucker Torpedo proto-type

Tucker Torpedo prototype

The trial lasted three months.  The defendants were found “Not Guilty” on all counts.  Tucker was free, but had no factory and was deeply in debt.  No more Tucker Torpedos were ever made.

Preston Tucker died in 1956.  Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, was a sympathetic account of the automaker’s story.  Jeff Bridges starred.

Portions of the onetime Tucker auto plant are now the Ford City Mall.  The surviving Tucker Torpedos have sold at auction for as much as $2.9 million.

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Whitcomb Judson’s Bright Idea (8-29-1893)

Whitcomb Judson was a Chicago inventor.  In 1889 he’d developed a type of streetcar that ran on compressed air.  When that wasn’t commercially successful he turned to the problem of fasteners.  Legend says he was tired of wasting time lacing up the high-top shoes then in fashion.Judson

Judson came up with a hook-and-eye system that was opened and closed by a sliding fastener.  He called his invention the clasp-locker.  Though he first applied for a patent in November 1891, he did not receive formal approval until August 29, 1893—123 years ago today.

Soon afterward Judson successfully exhibited the device at the Columbian Exposition, and later founded the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture it.  In our own time Whitcomb Judson’s clasp-locker is in common use under a different name.  We now call it a zipper.

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Chicago Under Construction in the 1970s

Some months ago I posted a few pictures of the old Senate Theatre on Madison Street, as it fell to the wrecker’s ball in 1976.  I also took some pictures of local construction projects during that same era.  Here are a few of them—

1971--Touhy Avenue @ Kedzie

1971–Touhy Avenue @ Kedzie

This is now the Winston Towers complex.  Note the old gas tank in the background, at Pratt and Kedzie.

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1972--North Avenue @ Sedgwick

1972–North Avenue @ Sedgwick

In 1972 the city widened North Avenue between LaSalle and Orchard, so all the overhead wires for the trolley buses had to be redone.  Less than a year later, CTA junked the trolley buses and had that new wiring taken down.

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Kimball Avenue @ Lawrence

1974–Kimball Avenue @ Lawrence

CTA was replacing the 1907 terminal of the Ravenswood (Brown) ‘L’ line.

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1976--Diversey Avenue @ Nagle

1976–Diversey Avenue @ Nagle

Thunder Mountain Ski Resort didn’t work out, so The Brickyard Shopping Mall was under construction on the onetime site of the Carey Brick Works.  More recently, the mall itself has been rebuilt.

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1978--Clark Street @ Roosevelt

1978–Clark Street @ Roosevelt

Dearborn Street Station had been closed, and the Dearborn Park development was being built on the old railyard.

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