Ask Zach Jacobs about the differences between Europe and America, and you might hear something like this: Travelers in Europe are in constant contact with each other, through an endless network of rail routes, cheap hotels, and cafes. Travelers in the United States have virtually no contact at all, especially in the midwest. With Chicago marooned between the coasts, visitors are more likely to arrive by plane than by any less hurried, more congenial mode of transportation. The city's only lodging options are pricey hotels and rat-bitten flophouses. And the tourists who pack River North and North Michigan Avenue aren't travelers so much as people on vacation.
Against the odds, Jacobs and partner Mark Blasingame want to create a place where international travelers in Chicago can meet, swap stories, plot travel plans. They own the Map Room at Hoyne and Armitage.
"I want people to come in and get involved with travel," Jacobs says excitedly, grinning under a mop of long blond hair. "This is a place for local and foreign travelers to come and discuss their travels, to get information about travel."
Formerly a commodities trader at the Mercantile Exchange, the 30-year-old Jacobs fled the yuppie realm in 1990 to travel. He learned to scuba dive in Florida, then became an instructor. Later he taught scuba in Jamaica, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Before becoming his business partner, Blasingame was Jacobs's competitor at the Merc--and best friend. They were rivals by day, buddies by night. Travel companions for years, they once followed the Grateful Dead through Europe. They opened the Map Room--the name taken from a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark--last December.
The Map Room's red walls sport a collection of framed maps. In the back, huge relief paintings of the continents pop out of the black walls and ceiling. Africa looms nine feet high, the Sahara a massive golden swirl above green jungles. Asia sprawls across another wall and climbs onto the ceiling. Couches make the room a cozy spot to quaff beer and dream up new adventures. "When you come here, you're not in a bar in Chicago," Jacobs says. "You're anywhere you want to be." He keeps 100 rolled maps in a bin behind the bar; on request customers can unfurl any part of the world.
At the end of the bar, an American who's just returned from Indonesia and Australia chats with two other men--one from Morocco, the other from Algeria. They're discussing the differences between the two North African countries. This is the kind of meeting Jacobs and Blasingame want to see more of, but predictably they've had a hard time attracting their ideal clientele. (When a man and woman seated at the bar's other end are asked if they'd come to the Map Room for its travel angle, the man looks around and says, "Uh, no, we never noticed that.")
For now the Map Room's travel contingent seems limited mostly to the bar's owners, employees, and a small core of friends. Jacobs and Blasingame themselves are models of the kind of customer they'd like to bring in: young, slightly hippie-ish types who somehow manage to romp abroad for months at a time. Also of that mold is Map Room bartender Tommy Fiorelli, who claims to have visited more than 50 countries.
But Jacobs and Blasingame have plans. They hope to lure foreign visitors by posting calendars of Map Room events at the AYH youth hostel in Edgewater and at consulates and embassies. They plan to distribute fliers to hotel concierges and--budget permitting--place ads in the visitor magazines found in Chicago hotel rooms.
On the local front, they're starting a travel club that'll meet every Tuesday at the Map Room--to hear about travel opportunities, see other people's slides, win free trips. Jacobs and Blasingame already have given away one trip, to Jamaica, and would like to award four per year. They're also organizing discount ski outings, river-rafting trips, and scuba jaunts, including one to the Bahamas this month.
For 1994 Jacobs is working on a "Beer Around the World Tour." Patrons would be given a "passport," and each new beer they sampled--from the bar's soon-to-be-expanded international selection--would have its own stamp. After accumulating a certain number of stamps, drinkers would win T-shirts, beer mugs, etc. Another future event could be a monthly full-moon party inspired by the psychedelic ceremonies of a bar called the Bamba Shack on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. And Jacobs says he's looking to hire bilingual bartenders.
In the meantime, he's been scouting Miami for a second Map Room location. "My goal is to have 200 Map Rooms," he says, looking up at the continents around him. "On islands all over the world."
The Map Room, at 1949 N. Hoyne, is open nightly from 5 PM until 2 AM, Saturday till 3 AM. The first meeting of its weekly travel club--on the subject of white-water rafting, complete with a guest speaker, a slide presentation, and a film--will be held Tuesday at 7. Call 252-7636.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.