Hot Air

The Stradivarius Of  Stores

Some of us d’un certain âge remember these brands:

  • Kenmore
  • Craftsman
  • DieHard
  • Silvertone
  • Toughskins

Need a memory jog? They all were sold exclusively at Sears. My first transistor radio was a Silvertone. The blue jeans my mother bought me were Toughskins — although, for some odd reason, she insisted on calling all jeans “overalls.” And, speaking of outmoded appellations, how many of us recall that jeans once were called “dungarees”?

Anyway, the Bloomington Sears store has been closed since spring. The old structure is coming down as we speak, to be replaced by a Whole Foods Market.

At one time, Sears catalogs were in just about every home in America. I, personally, could not wait for it to arrive in the mail when I was an adolescent. I’d spend endless hours in the basement conducting a disciplined study of the lingerie and bathing suits sections. At that time, the catalog was known as “The Wish Book.” Indeed, inspired by its pages, I wished for a lot back then.

Acc’d’g to Sears’ own historians, the catalog served “as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” The catalogue was so comprehensive that, at one time, it contained actual wall paper samples, swatches of men’s suit materials, and paint samples.

One year, very early in the 20th Century, the catalog offered a “Stradivarius model violin” for $6.10.

Sears Craftsman tools became exceedingly popular not only because they were well-made but because they carried a lifetime guarantee. More than a few customers returned 30-, 40- and fifty-year-old tools for exchange at their local Sears.

In 1924, Sears switched on the transmitter of its own radio station, first briefly known as WES (for World’s Economy Store) then WLS (World’s Largest Store). WLS by the 1960s would become one of the nation’s premier rock ‘n roll and pop music stations. A significant portion of my life was spent with my transistor radio glued to my right ear, tuned to WLS. And every week I’d hike down to Frank’s dimestore to pick up my copy of Dex Card’s Silver Dollar Survey, a listing of the latest Top 40 songs.

Sears’ first store to be opened outside the US was in Havana, Cuba (1942).

In 1974, construction workers topped off the 110-story Sears Tower at 1454 feet, at the time the tallest building in the world. Because Chicago is so flat, traffic reporters set up shop on the 103rd-floor Skydeck so they could keep an eye on rush hour gridlock through their telescopes.

The College Mall Sears had been a Bloomington fixture since it opened there in 1965, so it had a (mostly) good half-century run. It’s now being reduced to a pile of rubble:

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Sears “Ghost” Sign

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Who Are Jason & Ginger?

In case you missed it yesterday, here’s my Big Talk interview with Jason Fickel & Ginger Curry.

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And stay tuned next week Thursday to WFHB’s Daily Local News when I chat with entrepreneurs Jane Kupersmith (Hopscotch Coffee) and Joni McGary (Lucky Guy Bakery). We’ll delve into the world of female business-folk and find out if and how dames help each other succeed.

Near Nirvana

On this date in 1969, I experienced my greatest day as a Cubs fan.

I’d been staying with my sister for the two weeks between the end of Riis Park day camp and the beginning of school, mainly because my mother was afraid I’d burn the house down. Several years before, my pal Louie LeFemina and I reenacted a World War II air battle in my basement, complete with my brother’s airplane models, a big box of matches, and several forms of combustible material. We’d caused no damage to the house but did destroy several of bro Joey’s models, including a Japanese Zero, a P-51 Mustang, and a Douglas Dauntless dive bomber. (BTW: Because it was my house, I got the American planes and Louie had to settle for the Japs’.) That was the thing about Ma — she never could shake the memory of a sin, cardinal or venial, committed by any of her spawn. If she were alive today, she’d probably still be telling people that I play with matches in the basement.

Anyway, one bright Tuesday AM at sis Charlotte’s pad, she and her then-husband decided to take their kids and me to the Cubs game. He was a Chicago cop and had the day off. She, natch, was aching to get the hell out of the house for a change. It was a spur of the moment, late-ish decision so we piled into Charlotte’s husband’s vintage 1957 Chevy and sped down the Kennedy Expy toward the then-center of the universe, Wrigley Field.

Charlotte and her husband (I won’t mention his name for a variety of reasons but mainly because it’d make me nauseous) were still young enough to like to listen to WLS and WCFL on the radio, so as we cruised down the Kennedy and turned left onto Addison Street, I was able to groove on the likes of “Sweet Caroline,” “My Cherie Amour,” “The Marrakesh Express,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” and “Sugar, Sugar.”

I was in heaven.

The day was warm but not at all oppressive. Occasionally, between the trees, I’d catch a glimpse of the dark silhouette of the John Hancock Center, brand new that year and at the time the world’s second-tallest building. My heart swelled.

The Cubs were in first place, roaring through the National League, seemingly on the cusp of capturing their first pennant in — gasp! — 24 years and — maybe, just maybe — their first World Series title in 61 years. They were led by third baseman Ron Santo, an Italian, like us. Santo was feisty and emotionally demonstrative, just like us, too. I had a sense that in a fairer world, Santo’d be part of my family.

Ron Santo Pizza copy

Santo At His Park Ridge Pizza Joint

Charlotte’s husband dropped us off at the main gate at Clark and Addison, where we learned that all the grandstand tickets had been sold out. The ticket guy told us to hurry around to the bleachers gate where there might be a few tickets left, so off we dashed. We were able to cop seven ducats for what I recall being a grand total of five bucks — three adult tix plus four kids’ — yeah, it was a different day and age.

Just as soon as the ticket guy took our dough and passed the ducks to us, he slammed shut the window. Apparently, we were the last people to buy tickets that glorious day. We sat under the scoreboard, high in the centerfield bleachers.

And so the game. Kenny Holtzman, at the time Sandy Koufax’s successor as baseball’s most eligible left-handed Jewish bachelor, was on the hill. Fab. I loved Holtzman. If he and Fergie and Billy and Hickman, Kessinger and Beckert, Hands and the Vulture, Phil Regan, the lot of them, plus the fiery manager Leo Durocher and, of course, Ronnie, weren’t actually blood kin, well, by rights they ought to have been.

Santo hit a bomb with two runners on in the bottom of the first. The ball soared high over the left field bleachers, bouncing off the Waveland Avenue pavement and hitting the yellow-brick apartment building across the street. It was a mammoth shot, especially considering the wind, a gale, was blowing in.

Later, in the seventh inning, Henry Aaron led off with a similarly breathtaking blast. His shot, too, soared high over the left field bleachers but then, as if the hand of god intervened, hit the brunt of that incoming gale and appeared to be pushed back toward the field of play. Left fielder Billy Williams, his back pressed so tightly to the bleacher wall that he almost disappeared into the ivy, had kept with it and finally gloved Aaron’s smash for a harmless out.

Then it was only a waiting game to see if Holtzman would throw a no-hitter. He did. Fans jumped down on the warning track from the bleachers, an 11-foot drop that caused any number of sprained ankles. I made a move to go down on the field, too, but Charlotte grabbed ahold of my arm and wouldn’t let go.

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Santo Embraces Holtzman After The Final Out

A week or so later, the news spread through my sister’s Schiller Park neighborhood that Holtzman himself lived in the apartment complex just across East Park. Naturally, I made the trek across the baseball diamonds and into the complex’s parking lot. Other kids were gathered around a sporty white convertible Pontiac Firebird. And — wouldn’t you know it? — just at that moment Kenny Holtzamn walked out his front door and made his way to the Firebird. The other kids crowded around him, holding out pieces of paper and pens for his autograph. I had neither paper nor pen but I didn’t care; I was thrilled just to be in the presence of such a titan.

Soon, the Cubs would fall into one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Their failure to go to the World Series in 1969 was one of the defining moments of my youth. I knew for certain at that tender age that life was not fair and things would not turn out the way I’d wish.

It’s lesson I’ve kept with me for 47 years now. Until this year. Things will turn out as I wish: I’ll be in Grant Park this October for the Cubs 2016 World Series championship victory parade.

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