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Alley Entrepreneur

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"I represent the externalization of not fitting in. I don't want to fit in," says Mark Thomas, leaning his chair against the banana yellow walls of his office. He's wearing black jeans and a black motorcycle jacket, and his long brown hair, which is usually in a ponytail, is hanging straight from his receding hairline to his shoulders. "So many people are fed up with the straight world but have to make a living. My complex is for those 'weekend warriors.'"

Thomas's complex is a group of four stores at Clark and Belmont called the Alternative Shopping Complex. The Alley is a place where teenagers buy clothes that give their parents nightmares; Architectural Revolution sells plaster casts of macabre objects. Taboo/Tabou is a lingerie and sex-toy shop, and Mad Max's Bargain Basement sells leftovers from the other three. Thomas, who's 38, opened the Alley in 1986, but he's been in the "alternative-store" business for more than 20 years.

"I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth," he says. "Got it knocked out, and it took a couple of teeth with it." He grew up in Gary, Indiana, where his father was police commissioner as well as a prominent doctor, but when he was eight or nine years old the comfort and security of his childhood was snatched away when his parents went through a "nasty" divorce.

Thomas's mother whisked him and his two sisters to Chicago. Yet Thomas says his mother was still reeling from the divorce when he was 16. "My mom couldn't take care of me, so I got a job in Old Town, at a knickknack hippie junk store. It was in the 60s and nothing was priced. I was taught how to size up people, and I learned merchandising, display, and sales."

Six months later Thomas left the store to work for an India-imports store behind Piper's Alley. "I took them from making $1,000 on a Saturday to $3,000." When he was 17 he met a man who owned a jewelry and candle factory, and he took the $3,000 in savings bonds that had been made out to him at birth and bought half the factory.

Thomas had been attending the exclusive Latin School, but when his parents decided they didn't want to pay the tuition he enrolled himself in Cathedral High School. "I had been through five schools in four years," he says, adjusting his wire-frame glasses. "I was a lost sheep. I had no idea who I was. I was obese. It was a very uncomfortable time in my life.

"I was the only Jewish kid at this Catholic school," he says, "and I was selling peace and penis candles I had made." After he'd been there six months his classmates urged him to run for senior-class president, much to the dismay of the principal. "Sister Barbara told me, 'You should not be allowed to graduate with your attendance.' She said, 'If you don't run for president, I'll make sure you graduate.'" Thomas didn't run, and he graduated. "I looked at it as one of those lessons in life--you play, you got to pay."

By the time he graduated in 1972 Thomas's factory had gone out of business and he'd sold off the assets for $500. "I took the $500 and bought 1,000 blowup posters of Burt Reynolds posing nude for Cosmo. I sold them wholesale at $1.50 each. I made $1,500 in two weeks."

While he was still in high school he had bought another jewelry factory for $1,800. "I enjoy casting jewelry the most. I'm a frustrated artist." In 1975 and '76 his best customer was a store called the Alley in the Woodfield mall. "They couldn't pay their bill, so we made a debt-for-equity swap. I took over half of the store. In three years it was the highest grossing store in the mall per square foot." In '76 he opened a second Alley store on Broadway near Diversey, in the heart of the gay community. It did well until 1983, when people started shunning the area. "AIDS was just being covered, and we got a 40 percent drop overnight. We took a dive like I've never seen a dive."

Around 1985 or '86 the Woodfield Alley store closed, and Thomas moved its T-shirts, incense, and jewelry over to the Broadway store. In 1986 his lease there was up, and his landlord gave him 90 days to vacate. While looking for another location, Thomas remembered an old garage he'd seen on Belmont. "The place had become a shooting gallery for heroin addicts," he says. He decided to move there anyway. "The walls were burned, and everything had to be remodeled." Yet he opened the new store the day after he closed the old one.

"I was broke and I needed to haul around the merchandise," he says, "so I bought a hearse for $2,300. A van would have been $15,000." He had flames painted on the sides. "I like to ruffle feathers," he says, scratching his beard.

The first day it was open the new Alley raked in 40 percent more than the Broadway shop ever had. Today the store is crowded and cavelike. Heavy-metal music blasts nonstop as a green-haired clerk waits on teen customers. Leather jackets in black, silver, and leopard skin hang from the wall. Baseball hats bearing the slogan "Stop Crime, Shoot to Kill, Chicago Police" are stacked in one corner. Black T-shirts emblazoned with "Fuck," "Slut," and "Fuck Censorship" hang in another. "The Bitch Boutique" section features black Lycra--minuscule dresses, cat suits, leggings, and miniskirts with skeletons on them, all overseen by a life-size doll in a see-through fishnet body stocking and Dr. Marten's. Another section showcases "Tiny Leathers for the Bad Seed," including leather jackets, sunglasses, and black T-shirts for babies.

Just around the corner is Taboo/Tabou, which opened late in 1991. Pictures from Madonna's new book line the walls, along with garter belts with chains, thongs with skull and crossbones, leather teddies, and harnesses. A glass case is stocked with "body butter," Kama Sutra honey dust, the Gourmet Sex Book, and the Cliterific vibrator. Taped on the dildo case is a sign that says "If you can't act like an adult, leave." Cindy, a busty clerk in black, says, "I get adults who laugh and giggle. They yell to each other, 'Hey, this butt plug is what you need!' What if somebody really wanted a butt plug? They're scared away."

Next to Taboo/Tabou is Architectural Revolution, which opened in '88; it has plaster columns, vases, gremlins, and gargoyles for customers to paint as they choose. Above Taboo/Tabou is Mad Max's, which also opened in '91. It's like an attic for the twisted, with its satin G-strings next to Brady Bunch shirts and polyester pants from the 70s, its plaster skeleton heads and cupids next to life-size cardboard cutouts of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Albert Einstein.

Sales have climbed steadily, and last August Thomas opened a second Alley in the Ford City mall. Last June he opened the Gargoyle Bar & Grille, 3220 N. Clark, which is filled with gargoyles and dragons, and features tarot-card and rune-stone readings. "The Gargoyle has global dining--we may have a Jamaican sauce with tortillas or a teriyaki sauce on slaw," he says. "I'm frightening the restaurant establishment. Because it's associated with the Alley's crazy retail market, they don't think it can be serious."

Thomas's four-year-old daughter, Alexis, poses for pictures in Alley motorcycle jackets and sunglasses. His wife, Adrian, designed Taboo/Tabou and helps select the stock. His employees range from anarchists to transsexuals.

Heather has worked at the Alley for three years. "Anything can happen," she says. "We've had cats fall out of the roof and bees all winter long. Sometimes we work 13-hour days. Mark drives his employees hard, but when I was having a rough time with my family he offered to send me to a counselor at his cost. I really respect him."

Hans stocks leather jackets at the Alley. Speaking with a fake German accent is part of his job description. "When I first started here I didn't talk that much," he says. "One time I said something like 'Hi, how are you?' to Mark. He said, 'You can do better than that.' So I said, 'How are you, you fat jerk?' He said, 'That's better.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Luthringer.

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