Sarah Staskauskas first entered the heady world of rock and retail in 1981, when she, her brother, and his wife opened a vintage store in Rockford called Pinkadelic. "A couple of the guys from Cheap Trick came in," she remembers. "We were so excited--Robin Zander was in here! And we got on the news, because it was such a weird little store for Rockford."
But after about a year and a half they closed up shop, and Staskauskas, then 19, moved to Chicago "'cause it was the nearest big city." Eventually she landed a job at Exit, as a waitress and then a bartender. "I never saw the light of day for, like, four years."
After Exit she worked at rock clubs and bars, including Club Dreamerz, Crash Palace, the Rainbo Club, the Empty Bottle, and Lounge Ax, becoming a familiar face in the growing local rock scene. She picked up a guitar herself, playing in a band called Cherry Rodriguez. "That kept going through different band members, and everyone seemed to be PMSing at the same time." Her son was born in 1992, and about a year and a half later she joined her current band, the Dishes. For a while the members performed in matching outfits, wearing orange China-chop wigs or dressing as a 60s girl group. "But," she says, "I think those days are over."
Onstage and behind the bar Staskauskas wore sexy ensembles, some of which she sewed herself or made out of secondhand finds. She'd always wanted to open another store where she could sell vintage stuff as well as her own designs. "I didn't have the guts to do it by myself," she says. "Everybody I approached in the past, they were into it, but then when it came right down to it they backed out." Then Evelyn Weston, a coworker at Lounge Ax and until recently a student at the School of the Art Institute, expressed interest. "She was so gung ho about it. She is the most organized person I've ever met--and thank God, because I'm not."
The two found a storefront on Chicago Avenue near Damen early this year. "It was a wreck," says Staskauskas. "I've renovated my own apartments before so they're livable, but this was worse than I've ever seen." With help from friends they got it ready in a month and a half. "There was no heat. I had my snowsuit on. And then the whole time we were renovating I was working, going to school [at Columbia College], and I had to go find stock."
Before the store opened in March, Staskauskas persuaded some of her friends to help out with a couple of benefits at Lounge Ax and Roby's. Pitching in were Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Cash Money, and Staskauskas's sister-in-law Liz Phair. "We had a few people giving us negative vibes because it was not the normal way of opening a business," she says. "We opened this store basically on benefits--and some of our money. But if we hadn't had those benefits we couldn't have opened." At the Lounge Ax benefit, she had models parade in bathing caps with switches of red hair attached to them; at another party cum fashion show she had several models who were striking poses on the runway cut down by black-clad assassins wielding knives.
Hot Damn--"My mom, she's very distraught about the name; she wouldn't write 'damn' down"--features secondhand items Staskauskas, friends, and customers have found, as well as clothes she's modified and her own slinky designs. A rack devoted to local designers holds Shane Gabier's frayed-edge skirts and dresses and Alison Jones's satin dresses and drawstring skirts. Weston's jewelry is there, as well as homemade candles and salt and pepper shakers and pocket mirrors. On the walls are rock posters by Steve Walters and others plus photos, paintings, and clocks. "We'd like to have more local designers," says Staskauskas. "I just like the idea of it being really mixed--the old with the new."
Staskauskas is still bartending, still playing music, still taking classes in Columbia's early-childhood-development program. She hopes to teach someday--unless the store takes off. "I feel like I'm having a nervous breakdown," she admits. "I keep holding myself together. 'OK, I have to do this, I have to keep it together--I have a child.' If I don't I'll lose everything."
She might not have a problem, given her talent for saying the right thing to make a sale. Not long after Hot Damn opened, she says, a customer was considering a shirt he'd tried on. "I said to him, 'You know, Jeff Tweedy wore that shirt.' He said, 'Oh, really? Well, my friend really likes him. I guess I'll take it.'"
Hot Damn, 1937 W. Chicago (312-666-3266), is open 12 to 8 every day except Monday. --Heather Kenny
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.