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Chi Lives: coffee, a cruller, and a Les Paul to go

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Tom Catalano looks on approvingly as three clean-cut, dead-eyed guys slouch under a wall of electric guitars. Members of the Ukrainian rock band Yavyshche, they're scarfing gyros before heading off to practice.

"A lot of musicians come in here to eat because they like to watch the videos and hear the surround sound and look at guitars," says Catalano, the owner of Tommy's Rock & Roll Cafe, a music store and sandwich-and-doughnut shop near Chicago and Western, on the edge of the little Italian neighborhood called the Patch. "But we get the whole gamut: Hispanic customers, black customers, white customers, city workers, suit-and-tie guys, and young kids all come in here."

Catalano says the place is a success because he runs a clean ship and serves good food with friendly service. But the visual impact of rows of bright, shiny, lacquered Strats, Gibsons, and Ricks catercorner to rows of sweet, shiny, glazed crullers, bismarcks, and bear claws must trigger some primitive pleasure receptor in the brain to keep guitar sales going at odd hours.

"I've sold many guitars at 7:30 in the morning," says Catalano. "Some guy'll stop in for coffee and a doughnut and start eyeballing them. I'll say, 'If there's anything you'd like to see up there I'll pull it down.' And he'll play it right here. They don't blast it, but I'll say, 'Wait until it clears out if you really want to hear this guitar scream.'"

Catalano has dabbled in psychologically manipulative business practices before. In 1969, when he was 19, he, his brother, and a friend opened a head shop called the Ox--featuring a wide selection of bongs, pipes, and black-light posters--inside the buffet-style Paul Bunyan restaurant in Old Town. Years later he ran a place in a mall in Matteson he named Zoo Cookery, selling candy, ice cream, cookies, hot pretzels--and stuffed animals.

About four and a half years ago, the owners of the doughnut factory next door moved to Addison and sold their outlet business to Catalano, who had been distributing their doughnuts to fast-food restaurants. Almost immediately he and his partner--his son, Tom--started making changes, adding 25 kinds of sandwiches ("gravy sandwich--69ยข"), rearranging counters, adding seating, installing a slushy machine. But it wasn't a until a year and a half ago, when he was thinking of opening a separate store to handle the guitar trade he was running out of his house, that he thought of combining the two. "I was thinking, I've got people over there already and it would be really cool to have pictures up and guitars hanging and music videos going on. I'll make it a rock 'n' roll cafe." In the week between Christmas and New Year's they hauled in the guitars and amps, put up some Tom Petty, ZZ Top, and Van Halen posters, and perched a huge TV that plays Fleetwood Mac and Eagles concert videos on top of the refrigerator.

The renovations are ongoing. A few weeks ago a neighborhood photographer hung up her collection of 22 autographed stills of Elvis impersonators. "I used to play with that guy," says Catalano, pointing to a photo signed "Tony Rome." "We used to do a 50s set where we'd dress up in leather coats with our hair slicked back and sunglasses and that kind of stuff. And then we'd do a Vegas show where we'd wear vests and shirts and he'd drive up in a limo. We even did weddings for all these Elvis-crazed people. I stood with him for three or four years until it busted up like most bands do." Now there are plans to expand into the back of the factory with keyboards, drums, and PA equipment.

Catalano has lived on the same block in the Patch his whole life, and he's played guitar in rock and blues bands almost as long. His first guitar was a Teisco--a cheap, mass-produced Japanese model--and he and his brother took lessons from an old guy in the neighborhood who was really an accordion teacher. "We went to lessons for a few months, just learning a note here and a note there," he says. "We got frustrated just learning these little 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' songs." Instead they bought a chord book and taught themselves Beatles tunes. Eventually they began playing clubs and dances, and along the way Catalano cultivated a guitar collection, buying, selling, and trading as he fell in and out of love with them.

"It's like when you were 19 and had a girlfriend and you really liked her, but then you saw another girl that tickled your fancy a little bit more," he says. "I guess it's the same thing with guitars." Catalano estimates he's fallen out of love with about 25 guitars he once swore he'd never sell. One of them--a black hollow-body Guild Deluxe Jumbo 12-string--is hanging on the wall with a $1,495 price tag. "I bought this guitar for myself," he says. "It's a beautiful guitar, a rare guitar. I've never seen another one like it. I really loved it, and then after a while..." He trails off. "It's just a fickle kind of thing. That's who I am."

Tommy's Rock & Roll Cafe, 2500 W. Chicago (773-486-6768), is open Monday through Friday 6:30 AM to 6 PM and Saturday 7 AM to 4 PM. --Mike Sula

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

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