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The Last Bait Shop on the Lakefront

Willie Greene remembers when the shores of Lake Michigan were chockablock with fishermen and a giant minnow tank was a great investment.


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The front door of the Park Bait Shop at Montrose Harbor opens toward the water, away from the high-rises that line Marine Drive. White letters nailed to the rust-colored wood spell out everything needed for a day of fishing: nightcrawlers, redworms, minnows, coho bait, tackle, coffee. Inside there's a doughnut tray for early risers and glass cases full of safety-orange bobbers and sinkers that look like Civil War bullets.

Willie Greene has owned the shop since the 1950s. He's 78 now, and though his daughter Stacey handles the day-to-day business, he's still hale and crusty enough to putter around. "Give me half-a-dozen Montrose fishermen, put 'em anywhere in the world, and they can catch anything," he likes to say. With his bait they've caught perch, smallmouth bass, rock bass, salmon, smelt, and "nice-sized crappies." On sunny days the line at the counter is full of Bosnians, Mexicans, and old retired farts hoping to talk shop with Greene. If you want his undivided attention, you have to stop in when it rains.

Greene caught the fishing bug early. When he was a student at Graeme Stewart Elementary he spent his mornings on the pier. "I knew there wasn't gonna be anything special until one or two in the afternoon, so I slipped out," he says. The Depression was still on then, and the harbor was crowded with men fishing for their supper. The regulars had nicknames out of Cannery Row: Harry the Jap, Diversey Shorty, Coffee George, Uncle Henry. They adopted Greene as a mascot, and warned him when his mother came looking for her truant son. "This Uncle Henry, he sort of took me under his wing," Greene says. "He used to say, 'Willie live or Willie die?' Before the Depression set in he'd been an executive of a food chain on the east coast. He ended up out here with the other guys. Didn't give a shit whether he worked or not."

Back then Montrose Avenue was the Great White Way for worms, with a half-dozen shops dotting the road to the lake. Greene got started in the business when he was 11, digging night crawlers out of freshly watered yards in Uptown and selling them to stores for $3 a gallon. He dropped out of Senn High School during World War II to join the navy; when he came home, in 1949, he seined for minnows and crawfish in the Illinois River, carrying his catch back to Chicago in a '37 Pontiac with the backseat torn out. Eight years later he took over the lease on the Park Bait Shop. It was just a concession stand then, but Greene added on a shed in the back with 10,000- and 5,000-gallon minnow tanks. Then in the mid-60s he opened another shop, at 63rd and Stony Island. "That was a gold mine," he says. "On Friday night they'd be lined up--'give me four dozen crawlers and tollway change.'" But after a couple years the city shut it down, telling Greene they planned to build a courthouse. It never did.

When Greene took over the Park Bait Shop, Lakeview was a neighborhood of first- and second-generation Chicagoans, people still in touch with rural or old-world traditions. They'd grown up fishing in Mississippi or Poland and wanted a honey hole they could reach by streetcar. Fishing was such a popular activity that features on the spring smelt ran on local TV, and at night, Greene says, "the whole lakefront was lit up with Coleman lanterns."

But all the old lakefront bait shops are gone. Only Greene remains, and he's not doing nearly as much business as he used to. The people who live near Montrose Harbor, he says, are the people least likely to fish in it. "A guy, if he doesn't have a job, he can spend a day fishing and not spend any money. It's a depression business. This neighborhood don't do me any good for that reason. In the 90s I was starving to death. Marine Drive, Lake Shore Drive, big buildings like that--they don't produce the people who fish. They don't have the time. They have the money and resources to do other things. They may own a place at Lake Geneva, but they're not the ones that do the fishing." There's no longer a beach bus either, and with all the soccer players and rollerbladers crowding the lakefront, the fishermen can't find a place to park. "They're trying to put ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag," Greene says. "There's more people involved with the park than the lake, because the people that want to do the fishing, they can't park."

On the way out of Greene's wood-paneled office visitors pass a photo of an era gone by: a crowded pier with so many men dipping bamboo poles into the lake it looks like a fishing derby. On the other side of the doorjamb is a sign printed with Greene's motto: THE TIME A MAN TAKES OFF TO GO FISHING IS NOT CHARGED AGAINST HIS ALLOTTED TIME ON EARTH. If that's true, Willie Greene should last another 50 years.

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


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