It's raining hard, but Alan Saks doesn't care. At age 61, he's president of Saxon Paint, a company his grandparents started 75 years ago out of a storefront on Roosevelt Road. The company's worth millions these days and has 50 branches, some as far away as Milwaukee. People who have seen his ads for Saxon on TV recognize Saks. He enjoys his notoriety. Life's been good to Saks--a little rain can't spoil his day.
"My daughter Jane--I have four daughters: Jane, Ruth, Beth, and Naomi, and my wife, Esther--likes to say, 'My dad's the luckiest man in the world. He likes his job.' That's me. I zip out of bed in the morning."
He's sitting in a north-side cafe, gulping a cup of coffee--he'll down about 30 more by day's end. "I'm not saying I don't have problems. Who doesn't have problems? But there are two kinds of problems. There's business problems like 'Alan, we're out of paint.' And there are problem problems. Like 'My brother's got cancer.' That's a problem.
"My mother once came to my father--it was the middle of the night. He was sleeping. And she said, 'Joe, I have a problem. I just smashed the car.' My father says, 'What do you want me to do, fix it?' You get my point? A broken car--that's no problem. Anything that's material that can be replaced with money is no problem."
"Unless you don't have money," I say.
He looks annoyed. "Of course, if you have no money, that's a problem." He picks up the bill. "Come on," he says, "let's go to Stony Island."
He loves all his stores, but the branch at 8915 S. Stony Island is his favorite. Twenty years ago the bankers wouldn't lend Saks money to build it because it's in a black neighborhood. Financing finally came from the Hyde Park Bank, and now Stony Island sells more paint than any other Saxon store.
Saks wheels his gray Saab onto Lake Shore Drive. The rain has stopped, and the grass in the park is green.
"I love Chicago," he says. "I'll never leave. My headquarters at 3850 W. Fullerton is just a few blocks from where I grew up. Except for a couple of years in the Army, I've lived my whole life here. I'm not like those sons of bitches at Sears. They made millions in Chicago. They soaked this city dry. Now they'll go to any state that'll give them the most land. That's like the guy who marries the nurse who puts him through medical school. Then, once he's a doctor, he divorces her--because a high-class doctor can't be married to a nurse."
He stops at the light near the Museum of Science and Industry and points to the beach across the street. "When I was going to the University of Chicago that was a lily-white beach. The blacks went to that beach on the other side of that spit of land. Now look. You've got white joggers and black joggers. Things aren't perfect. But we've made progress."
He cuts through Jackson Park and hits Stony Island at 67th Street. "People have the wrong idea about blacks. There's all this prejudice and fear. But fear is in the head. The biggest danger you'll face today is not that some black guy is gonna jump on you. It's that we'll get into a car accident. But you don't worry about that. You worry about some black guy beating you up.
"Crime. Everyone's afraid about crime. They're scared of crime because they don't understand the city. I understand the city--that's why I'm not so scared of crime. Not that you shouldn't be cautious. Just don't be crazy. Do you know I never lock my door?"
"That's right. And I keep the key in the car."
"Why lock the door?"
"So someone won't steal your car."
"So if I lock my door, someone can't steal my car?"
"Well, no, I didn't say--"
"Someone can't smash the window to steal the car?"
"Yes, they could smash the window."
"But you see, if I tell someone that I don't lock my door and I keep a key in my car, they'll say, 'Alan Saks? He's crazy.' It's 'cause they're so scared about crime."
He turns off Stony Island and starts to weave through clean, tree-lined side streets. The houses are brick--duplexes and bungalows; the lawns are trimmed. The neighborhood's quiet and empty-- presumably, its residents are at work.
"This is a black neighborhood," says Saks, shouting. "And is it a slum? No! It's middle-class--the black middle class. Twenty years ago I came here--everyone said, 'Alan, you're crazy. That's a black area.' I said, 'I'm crazy? Black people don't paint their houses?' We operate in black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods--it doesn't matter."
"Do you operate in North Lawndale?"
He looks regretful. "No. I'll be honest, we can't operate where people don't take care of homes. We don't go into high-income areas either, where people hire decorators. That leaves us with the great middle."
He turns onto Stony Island, drives two blocks past his store, and turns into a parking lot near 91st Street. "This is Sherwin-Williams," he says, dropping his voice as though someone were eavesdropping. "About five years ago they bought all the Berland paint stores in Chicago, and they got this place too. Now follow me."
He gets out of the car and casually strolls through the front door. He offers the counter clerk a friendly "good morning" and walks to the store's rear.
"What do you see?" he mutters.
I look around. There's not much more than a bunch of paint cans. No clerks in the aisles. No customers. No decoration.
"Not much," I say.
"Exactly," Saks says, a huge smile on his face. "That's the point. Now let's go to Saxon!"
Driving there, he bubbles with anticipation. He pushes open the front door that leads into the huge store. Salesmen amble up and down the aisles, which are stocked with goods--paint, paint rollers, lawn chairs, mini-blinds, plants, paintings.
"Alan," exclaims a female employee, who hugs him.
"Ora," Saks exclaims back.
They kiss. He hugs Carolyn, another female employee. Someone pats his back. People are laughing. It's like a party. Saks is almost bellowing.
"Jerry, Jerry," he calls out. "You've got to meet Jerry," he says to me.
Jerry Phillips, a slender black man with a natty mustache, strolls over.
"Let me tell you about Jerry," Saks announces in a voice so loud the whole store can hear. "Jerry's the biggest damn pain in the neck in the world."
Phillips is smiling.
"But I'll tell you about Jerry," Saks continues, his voice suddenly dead serious. "He's the best paint salesman in Chicago. You come in here looking for inexpensive paint, and you'll walk out with our best paint--because Jerry knows that no customer ever said, 'I'm sorry, you sold me the good one.' Right, Jerry? Has any customer ever said, 'Would you sell me something lousy that I don't need?'"
"No," says Phillips.
"That's right. Now, tell him how long you've been selling paint, Jerry."
"Thirty-two years?" I say. "But you're so young."
"That's the whole point," Saks says.
"I started when I was eight," Phillips explains.
"With Saxon?" I ask.
Saks snorts. "Not with Saxon," he says. "With another company. You work your way up. You start sweeping floors for ten cents an hour. Next thing you know, you're selling paint. I was selling paint when I was 16. We all started this way. That's the essence of Saxon. We know the paint business from the bottom up. Now come over here and meet Mike, our store manager, and Bernie, our district manager."
Mike Pomorski and Bernie Halloran are two husky guys with friendly smiles and hearty handshakes. Soon everyone's talking at once.
"I've got 17 years in the business with Saxon," says Pomorski. "I started out as a stock boy."
"I started selling paint because we were poor and my family needed the money," says Phillips.
"You've got to look at our mini-blinds," says Halloran.
"How much paint do you sell here?" I ask.
The talking stops. All eyes fall on Saks.
"I can't tell you," he says.
"Because I don't give out that kind of information. Should I tell Sherwin-Williams my business?"
"I mean, we've got across the street a corporation with 2,000 affiliates that makes $2 billion, and I should tell them my secrets so they can try to run me out of business?"
"Not that they could run me out of business. We're survivors. I have this saying, 'Dinosaurs die, but cock-a-roaches live forever because they're more adaptive.'"
Phillips, Pomorski, and Halloran smile. They've heard the saying before.
"I tell anybody, 'At Saxon we're cock-a-roaches,'" Saks continues. "We're more adaptive. We change. We survive. Do you get what I mean?"
"Yes," I say.
"Look at these prints we sell: Ansel Adams, Nagle. Is this junk?"
"I mean, some people think black people don't have taste. But that's stupid. Black people have taste. They're the forerunners. They've been buying mini-blinds for years. We're selling mini-blinds all over the north side. But we still sell the most out of this store. Right, Mike?"
"Right," says Pomorski.
"We sell the most paint out of this store. Right, Bernie?"
"Right," says Halloran.
"Professional, high-quality people live around here," says Saks. "They come here to buy paint, and they wind up buying enough accessories to redecorate their homes."
Suddenly he sees a young black woman buying mini-blinds. He walks over.
"Are you happy with the sale?" Saks asks her.
She looks up, surprised.
"You're Alan Saks."
"I've seen you on TV."
Saks looks at Phillips, Pomorski, Halloran, and me.
"Do I get a discount because I recognized you?" she asks.
Saks roars with laughter. "No, we charge you more."
And with a chorus of good-byes from his employees, Saks, still laughing, walks out the door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.