Lorraine Moskal plugs in one of the giant Christmas figurines on the counter of her store. The two-foot-tall caroler, towering over the ceramic animals and music boxes that crowd around his feet, swings into action as "Greensleeves" begins to chime from deep within his bowels. His head moves a little to one side and pauses, then a metallic grinding begins to compete with the music. Lorraine quickly switches him off and starts another, a maniacally grinning elf. "These here musicals are one of our most popular items," Lorraine says. "They're all electrical." The elf chimes a happy tune, and the stack of Christmas presents he's holding sways precariously.
In the shade of massive oak trees along Archer Avenue in Willow Springs, with the Palos Forest Preserves and several vast cemeteries for neighbors, stands Tarnow's Grove Hall of 1,000 Bargains, a white warehouse in a wooded glen. The building's dormitorylike facade gives few clues of the business being carried on inside, where big-ticket collector's items like $400 china music boxes rub shoulders with foot-long cigars and school supplies. An encyclopedia struggles to maintain its dignity next to The Complete Inside Story of ZZ Top. Endless shelves divide the cavernous main room into a maze of Baby Gymnasiums, red-white-and-blue Scrubba scouring pads, and mysterious items like "The Chicken Planter." Precious Moments abound. In a clearing in the room's center a stern, four-foot-tall nutcracker stands guard. "You never know what you're gonna find here," says Lorraine. "I'm out every day looking, at trade shows and auctions. Every day we bring in something new. We have a lot of Hummel."
Lorraine spends her days hunting down treasures and opens the store in the evening. The tradition of evening-only hours is one thing that's remained constant in the store's long history. Another is low, low prices; practically every item bears evidence of repeated and often drastic markdowns. Lorraine works every day, although lately she is assisted in her searches by her daughter and her grandson. Will her daughter continue in the family business? "No," admits Lorraine. "She doesn't want any part of it. The little guy, maybe..."
The only other person working today is a woman named Bee ("Just plain Bee; you wouldn't get the last name right"). While Lorraine takes another in an endless stream of phone calls--most seem to concern store hours--Bee leads the way to what used to be the bar. The bar?
"The women would shop and the men would drink," Bee explains. This smaller room is also crammed with merchandise. A long piece of pegboard rests on and partly obscures a well-worn mahogany bar rail. "There's still a bar under there," Bee says. "This was a tavern and that was a dance hall and a skating rink. I skated there. They had cockfights, and they had everything in there."
Cockfights? Is that legal?
"Daley, years ago?" Bee waves her hand. "Forget about it."
Lorraine and her late husband Bruno first laid eyes on Tarnow's Grove 35 years ago. They bought it, according to Bee, "five minutes later." A banquet hall and community center, Tarnow's Grove was named by Polish immigrants after a city in their homeland. When the Moskals turned it into a store in 1959, they decided to retain the popular name; adding the "Hall of 1,000 Bargains" part, Lorraine is quick to point out, was her idea. According to Bee, customers flocked from as far away as Ireland and Wisconsin. Of course, that was back when they still had the ski jump.
"Where you get up on skis and go down?" she says helpfully. "That was next door." She turns to a table in the middle of the room, piled high with wares. "Have you seen Felix the Clock?" she asks. I admit I haven't. She fishes around amid Tidbit Trees and ceramic trolls on logs, finally producing a monstrous Garfield wall clock. I fend off the pitch, and head back toward the register, where Lorraine is hanging up the phone again.
"When we came here we used to have a hitching rail out there," she says. "'Cause the horse trail goes right behind our property, you know? They would tie their horses up here and come in the tavern and drink." Bruno's tavern withstood the approaching tide until 1986, when Lorraine's stock took over the room for good.
I spot a solitary automobile compass, hanging on a hook by the register. I've bought three car compasses in the past year; one leaked oil, one refused to stick, one simply went mad. This one has been marked down four times, from $10.98 to an even dollar, and I bite. As Lorraine begins to ring up my purchase, Bee says "Give him a card." Lorraine reaches into the change drawer and tosses me a one-sided $100 bill, folded in half. We all chuckle. The other side lists the store hours; Sunday's times have been painstakingly revised with a ballpoint pen.
Bee wanders off as I search for a real bill. As I find one and hand it to Lorraine, she calls from the middle of the store, "Did you see this here item? We have everything." She holds up a red address book. It's pretty spiffy, but at $5.98 it's no deal. All bargain hunters have to draw the line somewhere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.