Most people who come into Meyers Ace Hardware are on a first-name basis with owner David Meyers, and they're looking for ordinary household items, such as screws or steel wool. But a few years ago, a jazz trumpeter named Drew Nugent arrived in Bronzeville from Philadelphia. He bought a toilet plunger, asked Meyers to autograph it, then rubbed it against the wall in Meyers's back office.
Nugent may be the oddest pilgrim Meyers has encountered, but he's far from the only one. That's because Meyers Ace Hardware has a more colorful history than most hardware stores: before Meyers' parents bought the building in 1960, it was a nightclub called the Grand Terrace. Before that, it was the Sunset Cafe. The space where Meyers's office is now was the stage. The wall where Nugent rubbed the plunger, which bears the image of a woman with claws beating a bongo, was the backdrop. (It's been reproduced on a keychain, available for purchase at the front counter.)
Meyers keeps a collection of framed photos and newspaper clippings from the club's glory days. The Sunset was a "black and tan," one of the city's few integrated clubs and the only one, a reporter for the Chicago Messenger wrote in 1925, where a black person would be treated as an equal. Louis Armstrong played there. So did Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. Earl Hines led the house band; in the 20s, Al Capone, who had a 30 percent interest in the club (for "protecting" the owner, Ed Fox), would slip him $100 bills.
"I'd love to turn this place into a jazz museum," Meyers says, "but I don't think it's big enough."
Meyers himself isn't much of a jazz aficionado, but he enjoys the attention the store's been getting as an offbeat tourist destination. "We had a German tour group come to an African-American neighborhood to see a store run by an Orthodox Jew," he says. "Tell me God wasn't laughing."
- Al Podgorski/Sun-Times Media