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Babushka Heaven



As soon as my mother told me the news, I caught the first bus home. I hoped I wasn't too late. Our old friend suddenly had a week to go, two weeks max. "Archer Big Store is going out of business," she'd said.

I grew up on the southwest side, and the news was a kick in the stomach. Archer Avenue Big Store was the southwest side. It was the symbol of my childhood environment, even though I'd never been inside. It explained my roots and the origins of my residual southwest-side repression.

The Archer Big Store helped me show my wife, when words failed me, why I can't bring myself to wear an earring. I tried to explain that I am a babushka twice removed. Babushkas are those simple-living Eastern European immigrants who love sausage and kraut, polkas, bingo, the pope, and the bungalow life on the southwest side, and who remember the good old days when there weren't any communists, lazy-no-good-I-won't-works, noisy teenagers down the block who drag-race their cars down the alley like a bunch of wild Indians, vegetarians, women who swear, black mayors, or men who wear earrings.

Babushkas loved Archer Avenue Big Store, a sort of hybrid of Sears and a Salvation Army store. A sensible, trustworthy store with many good bargains. Babushka heaven is probably just like the Big Store, with Saint Peter holding the door open.

My mother didn't go to the Big Store much, being a babushka once removed. She's not a card-carrying babushka like her Czechoslovakian ancestors. She hates bingo and can laugh at a good pope joke. But when you're born with babushka blood, you die with it. You can dilute it, but you can never wash it out--no matter how many transfusions you get by hanging around Marxist frugivores.

So once I took my wife past Archer Avenue Big Store and told her my theory that a Bohemian immigrant opened a big store on Archer Avenue and named it Archer Avenue Big Store. My wife watched a few babushka ladies bustle in and out, and I think she got the point. She doesn't bring up the earring as much anymore.

The Archer bus goes right there, to 4181-93 South Archer. As I approached that afternoon, I felt a guilt and need for forgiveness. I was so removed that I had never been inside the Big Store. Here on her death bed was my jovial, octogenarian spinster aunt who never failed to send me a birthday card, and I had been too self-absorbed to even call.

But I was still welcome. The doors were propped open on their kickstands. It was just as I expected--a well-lit, expansive space with department names in clear block letters on distant walls. No surprises. Trustworthy. You step immediately onto a black ribbed rubber mat suitable for wiping slushy boots. Good traction too. Sensible. The changing aromas reflected the potpourri paradise within. Sometimes a rubbery smell, like a hardware store. Sometimes that shoe-store smell.

I had entered a miscellany department that could have been called Bingo Prizes. The various items arranged neatly but randomly across sturdy wooden counters gave it that five-and-dime look. Sesame Street towel. Lots of fuzzy stuff: fuzzy toilet-seat-lid covers, fuzzy oval throw rugs. Fuzzy squares with elastic straps--toilet-tank covers? No fuzzy bathroom slippers. Must've sold out.

A box of buttons with Pope John Paul's picture on them, commemorating his 1979 Chicago tour. Those were the glory days around here. The pope said mass a block away at Five Holy Martyrs Church, and they named that section of 43rd Street after him.

In the boys' clothes, Six Million Dollar Man pajamas marked down 50 percent from $8.95. Fifty percent off on men's plaid polyester pants too.

Store manager John Brdecka Jr. stood behind the customer-service desk. All I wanted to know was how the store got its name. He said his father came over from Bohemia and opened shop here in 1922. "He started with a little store, and then he got a big store." The little store was called Archer Avenue Store.

John Sr. is still around at age 95. He just decided it was time to sell. John Jr. didn't know who the buyer would be or what their plans were. "I kid people. I tell them it's gonna be the world's biggest storefront Baptist church."

In the women's section, leopard- and tiger-skin coats for $79! A grandmotherly woman emerged from the fitting room wearing a white ruffled blouse and did a slow model's spin. Her lady friend commented in Polish and then said, "It's pretty."

The women's foundations department was the soul of discretion. Behind the counter were several identical sturdy white boxes containing unmentionables. The lid had been left off one, and you could see a girdle. On the bottom shelf in the corner were buxom plastic torsos.

Sinatra's piped-in song ended with a flourish: "Tell her you love her as you say good-bye." It seemed like a fine exit cue. But what about a souvenir? I chose the pope button. Fifty cents. A fossil for my grandchildren. My first and only purchase from the Archer Avenue Big Store.

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

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