Compared to other Saturday afternoons at Warshawsky's, this probably is a slow one. Two of the four or five cashier lines are unoccupied, and the large sales space in front of the counter is wide open. At least half the customers are being helped. Others are standing around the fringes, looking bored, waiting for their numbers to be called.
I take number 58.
"Forty-four!" calls one of the countermen.
"Hey, what about 43?" argues a distant customer.
"I already called 43."
"Didn't hear you. Gotta speak up."
Another customer--long-haired, tattooed, in his teens, accompanied by his pregnant wife or girlfriend--says he needs a radiator bypass valve for a '74 Impala. He's got the old one in hand, but he's not sure he's identified the correct part number from the vast Warshawsky's catalog. He shows the catalog to the counterman. The drawing of the valve, he fears, doesn't match the grimy part he's holding.
"You got it, bossman," the counterman reassures. "You got it."
For more than 75 years, Warshawsky's, at 1916 S. State, has attracted huge numbers of back-alley mechanics, do-it-yourselfers, hot-rodders, four-wheelers, and the occasional professional wrench. They come from all over, from the south side to the North Shore, shopping for everything from fenders to floor mats.
The other part of Warshawsky's business, meanwhile, comes from out of town. The store's 200-plus-page catalog, jammed with fine-print product descriptions, is known nationwide. The catalog's cover depicts Warshawsky's as a modern kind of art-deco building backed by a blue sky and surrounded by open space. Car enthusiasts arriving from other cities are sometimes disappointed; it's an aging building in a crumbling part of town.
Don Ariola of New York City is waiting for his order at the pickup counter. "I've been coming here a lot," he says. "I started ordering stuff from Warshawsky's when I was in high school." Now 35, his employer has him on temporary assignment in Chicago. He drives a vintage '69 Camaro. "When you drive an old car, it's hard to get parts," he says. Warshawsky's sells engine parts that even Chevy dealers don't stock.
A sign out front bills Warshawsky's as the outlet of "Everything Automotive." The catalog supports the claim: Air-conditioning compressors. Stereo subwoofers. Cellular phones, real and imitation. The CB test meter. Starters. Roll bars. Horns that make animal sounds. Engine valves. Repair manuals. U-joints. Brakes. Shocks. Struts. The original Winky the Cat. (A rear-deck-mounting stuffed animal, Winky's red eyes light up together to signal a stop and blink individually for turns. "For off-road use only.")
One window display shows off hood ornaments. Shiny silver bald eagles and flying horses with translucent colored wings. Not just a few; more than a hundred, lined repetitively on plain painted plywood. No signs, no words. In another window are colored plastic lenses for Mars lights on emergency vehicles. Dozens of colors and sizes. Do the state police shop here? Another window has fake-wood cup-holding trays. In another window are chrome-plated engine parts. In still another are antitheft steering-wheel locks.
Inside, past the standing tire rack near the will-call counter, is a four-foot-high mountain of automotive rubble. Enough cardboard crates to cover the floor of a good-sized room. Each crate contains an astounding array of items. Antennas, tool trays, seat covers, steering wheels, even a tail fin for who-knows-what model of car. Spray paint, a squirt-gun squeegee, windshields for motorcycles, and a six-inch-wide roll of sheet metal for "large-hole muffler repair." Some of the stuff is still packaged; some is loose. Some is priced; some not.
A small woman is rooting through the rubble for a particular kind of floor mat. She finds it and heaves it into a shopping cart ten feet away containing two other identical mats, then continues to search for another.
A 20-ish kid browses idly. His baseball cap says "Love Means Having to Say You're Sorry Every Five Minutes."
Some come to browse; others arrive with a mission. Two middle-aged men in flannel shirts move about the store with conviction; they're looking to purchase a particular transmission. High rollers, they're treated like celebrities, escorted to the will-call counter by an employee. One man's back is grimy from having worked recently under a car. The other man, maybe the brains of the operation, chats with their hostess.
The store stands proudly on a corner on South State, with an overhanging sign assuring passersby this is the ORIGINAL Warshawsky's. On Ogden at Kedzie is another auto-parts mecca called Warshawsky & Warshawsky. At one time, I recall, the Yellow Pages listed Warshawsky & Sons. But the people in Warshawsky's front office won't explain the connection.
"It's against company policy for anybody here to give out information about the business," a spokesman told me. "That is, anybody but Mr. Warshawsky, and he's out of town."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.