By Grant Pick
As the owner-operator of Bass Furniture & Rug Company, at 114th and Michigan, Eddie Davis considers it part of his job to check out the merchandise sold by his competition, big chains in other neighborhoods--Wickes, Aronson's, Harlem Furniture, and Value City Furniture. "I'm looking at styles, what's available, what's movin' and shakin'," he says. "You stay informed by doing that."
One evening in August, after he'd pulled the grates on his own store, Davis headed to a Value City outlet in Calumet City to check out the prices on bedroom items. He noticed a woman shopping for a sleep set, and when she told him what she was looking for Davis passed her his card and said he could give her a better price than Value City.
Two days later the woman, looking vaguely skeptical, showed up at Bass Furniture and asked for Davis. "I'm Beverly White, and I met you at Value City," she said when Davis, a short man in a sport jacket and starched shirt, hustled up with a pleasant smile on his face. He showed her several bedroom sets, and she settled on a contemporary one. He then escorted her to the rear of the store, past the glassed-in office occupied by his wife, Yvette, Bass's bookkeeper-receptionist, to his own worn wooden desk. It was piled with invoices and orders, and the shelves behind it were filled with ledgers, tape decks, ceramic fruit baskets, gym bags.
True to his word, Davis, who'd bought the furniture at a close-out market, told White the set would cost her only $970, less than she'd have paid at Value City. White, a hotel waitress, appeared pleased. "How much is that magazine rack?" she asked, pointing to a gold metal stand on a shelf behind Davis's head. "This will cost you $9.95, and I'll have a guy set it up," said Davis, calling out to Gustavo Barrientos, a salesman everyone calls Goose. "Goose, can you bring this rack quicklike from the basement and put it together for this nice lady here?" White also bought a black leather backpack. Davis picked a wicker basket for carrying silverware off his shelf and presented it to her with a flourish: "This is from me to you."
White then wanted to see samples of carpet, which she needed installed within days. When she picked one, Davis said, "This rug comes from a mill in Georgia, but to be honest I can't get it for you next week. But within my power I will get you whatever you want--and at whatever price you want." White nodded approvingly, but she decided to put off choosing.
Bass Furniture has been a fixture in Roseland for three generations--through the good years and through the lean, when the neighborhood flipped from white to black. The Basses started the store in 1941 and kept it in the family until four years ago, when they sold it to Davis, who'd been with the store for 15 years. "It's the same store it was years ago," says Eric Davis, Eddie's oldest son and the store manager. "Oh, we do a little painting from time to time, but the same wood steps carry you upstairs and the same swinging door is on mom's office."
Eddie Davis, who's 58, hangs on by minimizing overhead, stocking off brands, cutting prices to the bone when he has to, and catering to his clientele as if they were shopping at Nordstrom's. "Eddie has maintained the Bass name," says Ledall Edwards, executive director of the Roseland Business Development Council, the local chamber of commerce, and owner of a men's store, Edward's Fashions. "He has a good attitude, and he's optimistic about things. He sees the potential of Roseland--and I certainly can't say that about everyone around here."
According to the 1990 U.S. census, Roseland has 55,000 people, but it has no supermarket, no pizza parlor, no bowling alley, no movie theater. The Roseland business strip, which runs along Michigan Avenue from 111th to 121st has a few national retailers--a Foot Locker, a Hollywood Video--but it's dominated by small sportswear and shoe shops owned by Koreans, Arabs, or Pakistanis. More than two dozen bars and liquor stores are scattered between 101st and 121st streets. Edwards says ruefully, "We're also a dumping ground for social-service agencies--methadone clinics and battered-women's shelters that bring in undesirables."
The best food on the strip is at Old Fashioned Donuts, a guilty pleasure in Roseland for years. A McDonald's came and went, and the only chain fast-food restaurant is a postage-stamp Pepe's on State Street. There are just two sit-down restaurants, the Ranch Steak House and the Coffee Pot, which are in a small strip mall near Bass Furniture. "Business is shit," says Coffee Pot owner Bill Manikas. "We close at four in the afternoon now--when the sun is shining--because people are scared to come out after that."
The fear is understandable. Some of the most notorious crimes in Chicago in recent years have occurred in Roseland. In 1994 Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old fledgling gang member who lived a few blocks from Michigan Avenue, shot and killed a 14-year-old girl, then was assassinated by older gang members in a nearby viaduct. This past summer Roseland held its breath as the bodies of six women, allegedly drug users and prostitutes, were discovered in vacant buildings. In July a suspect was finally arrested and charged with one murder. Asked about the serial killings, Ledall Edwards shrugs sadly. "There are a small number of people who wreak havoc in the community."
The strip has police who patrol on foot. "The merchants and the citizens cooperate with the police quite a bit," says Fifth District commander Michael Shields, "but crime occurs anyplace in the city." This summer there were at least two armed stickups on Michigan Avenue, the last one a mid-morning heist on August 28 only three blocks from Davis's store. The manager and salesman at Fresh Line, a men's store, were bound with tape in a back room by three robbers who threw leather jackets into garbage bags and fled. Store manager Saeed Ahmed says, "Everybody is scared now."
Bass Furniture has 15,000 square feet in two adjoining buildings and a warehouse a block away. On the facade "Bass Furniture Co." is printed in large blue letters against gold paint. A terra-cotta eagle spreads its wings at the cornice. In the display windows are white sofas covered in plastic, an armoire, ceramic piggy banks, and curio cabinets filled with teapots and brass candy dishes. For security, Davis has completely closed off the back of one building.
All summer the entry chime needed a battery, and every time someone opened the front door it went off like a firecracker fizzling to the ground. But even when the battery's new the chime doesn't sound good. Davis says, "It beats the alternative--having nothing at all."
On a July morning the chime marks the arrival of Q.Z. Scott, who strides in without pausing. Like most Bass customers, he's checking out the merchandise--a sign says there's a sale, though the sale goes on all year long. The main showroom contains living-room sets, televisions, and stereos. Pictures of lions lolling in the bush and a woman showing cleavage hang from pastel Peg-Board on the walls. Bedroom and dinette sets, mattresses, bunk beds, washers and dryers, rug samples, and recliners fill the adjoining showroom, the upstairs, and the basement.
Scott, a maintenance worker who lives in the neighborhood, has bought plenty from Bass Furniture over the last half century. "Everything in my house," he says, and he seems to remember each item: a washer and dryer, a couch and love seat, a console TV, end and cocktail tables, and two lamps. Scott ambles back to Yvette Davis's office to make a payment on his latest acquisition, an entertainment center.
"How are you, Mr. Scott?" says Eddie Davis as Scott passes his desk. "How's the wife? I took good care of your sister-in-law."
Yvette announces that Eddie has a call. It's from a Florida manufacturer Davis is pressing to replace broken handles on some dresser drawers. "You see that you wrap them up right away so they don't arrive all smashed up," says Davis, his irritation gradually rising. "You know the handles I'm talking about?... I'm Eddie from Bass...B-A-S-S...no, not 312--773...Eddie Davis...what's your name?"
No sooner has Davis hung up than a stout woman approaches him. She says she's trying to buy a building, but the credit bureau is mistaking her for another woman with the same name who's behind on her bills at Bass. "I know your difficulty," Davis tells her. "I once had three Johnnys who had accounts here at the same time--an excellent Johnny, a bad Johnny, and a so-so Johnny. We'll straighten this out and give you a letter to vouch for you." As the woman leaves, Yvette Davis tells her, "Have a blessed day."
Davis sits down at his desk, and Barrientos shuffles up, whispering that he wants Davis to serve as an "Otto" on a prospective sale. It's an old sales technique, an Otto being the person who "approves" a salesman's offer, reassuring the customer that it truly is a deal.
In this case, a woman has found a living-room set for $1,250 plus tax at Value City. "That figure stopped her dead in her tracks," Davis says later. Goose has countered with a price of $1,099 for the same set minus a table or two but including tax and delivery. Good, Davis tells Barrientos, and the woman takes the deal.
"Now we may not have made the profit we could have," Davis explains as the woman, clearly happy, goes out the door. "But part of a loaf is better than no bread at all. If you sell something at 15 to 20 percent less you're better off. Besides, if that customer likes the furniture she'll be back."
The furnishings and appliances Bass sells aren't from brand-name manufacturers, except the televisions, many of which are Zeniths. The fabrics are velvet, chenille, or polyester blends, but not the finest quality. The frames on the beds and sofas tend to be pressed wood, particleboard, Masonite, or polyurethane. "Listen, everybody can't afford a two-, three-, or four-thousand-dollar bedroom set," explains Davis. "Someone coming here may be able to afford $799, if that. What we have looks like wood, only it isn't. And it may have been made by some company in China, not by Thomasville. Our price reflects the difference in material and in where it comes from." He tries to sell people on the notion that cheap isn't necessarily bad. "Thomasville is just a name," he insists. "It's not made any better than other stuff."
In the store the gospel music of WGCI AM radio is almost always playing. Davis and his family are members of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Lawndale, and they take their religion seriously. Eddie is a deacon who sings in the choir, and before church on Sunday he conducts Bible study at a halfway house for state-prison inmates. One hot July morning only one man showed up, but Davis listened to him describe his disappointment at the mother of his children moving with them to Freeport. "We're going to pray about that," Davis said before he embarked on a lesson. Davis also hosts a weekly cable-access program called Redeemed and Ransomed. "That's every Thursday at seven," he notes.
On the glass of Yvette's office are various admonitions: "No refunds, changes, exchanges without your receipt" and "Checks require driver's license or state ID." The office has a desk, a safe, an old cash register, file cabinets (with folders for every customer), and two computers. The store's records haven't all been transferred to the computers--Eddie isn't a wholehearted convert. "If a computer crashes," he says, "you need to take a physical look at a page."
Yvette, who's 57 and always wears a hat, has overseen the office for three years. "I was baby-sitting family members," she says. "But then I had surgery, and Eddie said he needed me at the store. I came in thinking he was going to hire another girl, but he never did." She handles the Bass paperwork, sends out late notices, answers the phone, and takes customer payments.
Davis, who's soft-spoken yet garrulous, is always either on the phone, coordinating deliveries and orders from suppliers, or gabbing with customers. He keeps several chairs by his desk. "When we were first married Eddie would be all over the place talking," says Yvette. "It was aggravating, but I got used to it. Now when I want to I tune Eddie out, and then he fusses at me. Customers don't have the same problem with him. Sometimes they don't have even a bill to pay--they just want to talk to Eddie."
Davis says that what he loves best is to join his brother-in-law James Robinson and Barrientos on the floor selling. "More than anything, I consider myself a professional salesman," he says. "Personality is key. You have to sell yourself. Nobody wants to deal with somebody with an attitude. If you have a bad night at home, you put a smile on your countenance, and you greet the person cheerfully. Every customer is different. One may say, 'I'm just looking,' and another will tell you, 'If I see something I'm interested in I'll call you.' But you have to keep up the interchange with the person. You smile and keep talking, even if it's just about the weather. 'Did you have something particular in mind?' you finally say. They'll own up to wanting a bedroom set, and then you take them over to the bedroom department and question them as to their needs. What style do they want? Queen Anne or French provincial? You show them a range of styles until they come across the one they like, and then you go from there."
Going from there usually involves Davis making lower and lower offers on price, though he doesn't openly encourage haggling. "You can try it," he says. "I'm just not saying it'll happen."
Nevertheless, he is willing to push the ticket price on goods close to the wholesale cost--as he did for the woman he found at Value City--because the overhead at Bass is low. He carries what he considers manageable debt, and all of his employees, except Goose and two warehousemen, are relatives, including Eric and daughter Erica Davis-Robinson. But he's quick to point out that employing family doesn't boost the bottom line much: "I still have to pay everyone."
The store's advertising consists of a mailer sent four times a year to people in the surrounding zip codes and spots on WBEE radio and television channels 62 and 47. In general, he says, "I watch and budget. I try to buy goods that will sell. We keep an eye on the pennies and don't splurge. We don't have the same markup as the big guys."
Three-quarters of Bass customers pay on time, and Davis is liberal with credit. "I understand that people don't always have A1 standing," he says. "Young people, for example, will take out three or four charge cards during college, and they'll run up awesome debt. I believe that God is the God of the second chance. I try to help people as far as giving them credit." If one of the two finance companies that clear prospective customers vetoes someone, Davis will go over the application and likely as not cut the person slack. "We don't OK everybody," he says, "but hopefully we make the right decisions."
Joseph Thomas was one of Davis's first customers at Bass. "When I went to him years ago my wife and I were just starting out," recalls Thomas, who was an appraiser with the Cook County assessor before he retired. "I didn't have bad credit, but it was questionable from a car I'd bought and paid off slowly, shall we say. Sears had turned me down. I explained all this to Eddie, and he said, 'Let me see what I can do.' He did magic, and he told me to come back and pick up my furniture. Little by little we bought everything in our first apartment from Eddie, and eventually he asked to come over. I think he was sizing me up--trying to figure out what else we might need--but we became friends." Both families lived in Avalon Park. Thomas coached Davis's son Erin in Little League, and the two men served together on the Hyde Park Academy local school council, where they sometimes had testy disagreements.
Thomas has continued to buy from Bass; he lists dinette and bedroom sets, two gas ranges, tables, lamps, mattresses, and the table his TV sits on. "It's a darn good table, though it may not have the attractiveness you can get somewhere else," he says. "The fact is, Bass stuck with me, and I'm loyal to them. Eddie's easy to talk with. I trust Yvette and the guys on the truck. There's no drinking and no growling. It's a pleasure to do business with them. Eddie's now selling to my daughter, and he stops by to stake out her place, the same way he did with me."
Esther Pierce, a drug counselor, is loyal to Bass too. "My mother started going to Bass in the early 80s, when we were living in Altgeld Gardens. She was on social security, and it was hard for her to pay her bills on time. She was open with Eddie, and he worked out a payment plan. When I came to him I didn't have credit either--I was a volunteer in the schools, but I was out of a job. I needed a washer and some bunk beds. I explained to him that I could afford about $50 a month, and he worked out a plan for me too. Sometimes I pay more, or I'll go double up for a month. But if I'm late I'll just explain it to him."
His willingness to extend people credit sometimes lands Davis in trouble. Around 15 percent of his customers stop paying, and Davis has to refer the matter to an attorney. He admits that the percentage of nonpayers has risen in the last couple of years, and he acknowledges that he's too trusting "in some instances."
Some customers shop at Bass simply because they like Davis. "Eddie's a churchgoing man, and I like dealing with the right people," says Q.Z. Scott. Others come to Bass because it's convenient, including Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, who bought both a dining-room and a living-room set at Bass. "You get in your car and you're taking your dollars outside the community," he says. "That's the uniqueness of Bass--it's here."
It doesn't hurt that Davis is one of the few African-American store owners on Michigan Avenue, or that he's willing to make house calls. "A granddaughter bought a sleeper for her grandmother," he says. "We had it delivered, and the grandmother had it for four or five months when the granddaughter called to complain that the sleeper wouldn't close. So I went out to the grandmother's apartment in Calumet City only to find that she wasn't pushing this bar down right. I showed the grandmother the way. We're always helping people with their TVs--programming a set the customer had deprogrammed or pointing out how to use the mute button. This one woman said her TV wasn't working, and I went by and looked behind the set to discover she'd unplugged it. She felt real small."
Deborah Jackson, a teacher trainer for the Board of Education who became a friend of the Davises, bought her first piece of furniture from Bass 15 years ago. "Eddie just tells me what's best," she says. The only item in her North Pullman row house that came without Davis's input is a bar table her son made. "I just got those slipcovers yesterday," she says one afternoon, pointing to some champagne colored plastic covering a couch. "Eddie picked them out, called me in, and said I had to have them."
Jackson was invited to the wedding of Davis's daughter, and Davis tries to attend events that involve his customers. "When someone dies dad takes an hour to go to Gatling's [a funeral home on South Halsted]," says Eric Davis. "He shows his face and signs the guest book, and the bereaved know that Bass Furniture was there. They don't do that at Aronson's."
In 1849 a group of Dutch immigrants purchased 160 acres southwest of what's now 103rd and State and established a settlement. Abraham Lincoln called the place Hope, but that name was scuttled in 1875 when Colonel James Bowen, a German-born retailer and banker active in founding the Pullman company, chose the name Roseland, after the wild roses he found growing there in profusion. Roseland became part of Chicago in 1889. Residents first made a living in cattle and vegetable farming, and later worked at Pullman, Sherwin Williams, and the steel mills.
The retail strip along Michigan Avenue flourished, and by the time Roseland marked its centenary in 1949, it could call itself the third best shopping area in the city. It seemed to have it all--grocery stores, camera and jewelry shops, pharmacies, fur salons, and three movie theaters, including the 1,000-seat Roseland at 113th and Michigan. Monarch Cleaners, on 111th Street, advertised stainless-steel washers, and Gordons Women's Apparel boasted of summer dresses in "silk, Bemberg sheers, linens, chambrays, pique, shantungs and more." Roseland natives say you could find almost any household or personal item at department stores such as the Home Store and Gately's, so there was no need to shop downtown. Bass Furniture was only one of several stores that sold strictly furnishings.
Maurice "Morrie" Bass, who'd helped his father in a furniture store on Milwaukee Avenue, struck out on his own in 1941, opening a store at 114th and Michigan in what had once been a five-and-dime. Bass Furniture specialized in "all-wood furniture for working people," in the words of Gilbert Levy, who started working for his father-in-law in 1948. Levy remembers that Michigan Avenue bustled with trade through the next two decades. "The streets were crowded with people--why, you could hardly walk on the sidewalks. People didn't drive the way they do now, and besides Gately's had a big parking structure. You had a Kresge and a J.C. Penney, and the Roseland Theatre was nothing but first-run. We did well."
Bass did well enough to take over the building next door. A big factor in the store's prosperity was Bass himself. "Morrie Bass could sell any product to anybody at any time," Levy says. "He could have sold houses or airplanes. He could have sold ice to the Eskimos. He just happened to like selling furniture. How do I explain this? I can't. I'm no psychologist. But he was as good a salesman as you can imagine. I backed him up--taking care of the office, doing the buying, keeping the deliveries flowing. I held my own as a salesman, but I was nothing compared to my father-in-law."
Like Eddie Davis, Bass extended credit and encouraged loyalty among his customers. Ruth Liggett began buying furniture at Bass in the 1940s. "My father worked the mills, but he wouldn't bring any money home," says her son Jerome. "Then he got sick and went on social security. My mom would scrape up money playing policy. Mr. Bass looked out for her because she was a poor person." Levy recalls, "Mrs. Liggett came in like clockwork to pay. If it was the 15th, there she'd be with a smile on her face--you could figure out what day of the month it was by her showing up." Davis says that only recently did she stop appearing to retire her debt; now 96 years old, she's confined to a wheelchair at her Altgeld Gardens row house, yet her son says her eyes still brighten at the mention of Bass Furniture.
"We would get people and then their children and grandchildren," says Levy. "With a family business like ours, repeaters are very, very important." He guesses that a quarter of Bass customers had bought from the store before, and Davis says the same is true today.
In the mid-1970s the Pullman company began laying people off, and the steel mills started closing. The whites who'd dominated Roseland began heading for the suburbs, and blacks, depending on federally insured mortgages because they'd been redlined by conventional lenders, moved in. But hundreds of people defaulted, leaving Roseland strewn with abandoned houses and buildings. Many of the retail businesses along Michigan Avenue chose to leave.
Gately's, headed by John Gately, opened a suburban outlet in Tinley Park, and in 1981 the Roseland store closed. "Mr. Gately had lots of theft," recalls John Edwards, Ledall's father and the founder of Edward's Fashions. "Some snowblowers were stolen off his dock, and that was it. He came to the chamber of commerce and told us he was leaving. He was very distraught. Six months later Gately's was gone." After Gately's went, other stores quickly followed.
But not Bass Furniture. In 1979 Morrie Bass sold the business to his son-in-law. "It was strictly a business deal," says Levy. "He didn't give anything away." Levy was determined to stay. "I have lived and worked with blacks all my life," he says. "I've been in their houses, and I have an idea of what they want. If you know what the income level is, you know what to buy. So Roseland changed. Instead of stocking Thomasville and Drexel, we went to a lower-priced product across the board. Maybe a bedroom set would run several hundred bucks on the low end, though there was a point where we wouldn't go cheaper because we could no longer guarantee the product."
Levy's wife, Roslyn, came in to do the office work, and the next year Levy hired Eddie Davis as a salesman.
In 1950, when Eddie Davis was seven years old, his father moved his family north from the small town of Morton, Mississippi. The son of a farmer, Jacob Davis was seeking the promised land in Chicago, and he found it as a mechanic for a company that assembled truck trailers.
Jacob and his wife, Rhodine, raised Eddie and his three sisters in apartments on the south side, primarily in Kenwood. They were members of the storefront Friendly Baptist Church at 42nd and Cottage Grove, which eventually became Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist. "My father was the Sunday-school superintendent," says Eddie. "Every Sunday when the church door opened, he opened it."
Jacob Davis, now 78 and retired but still as talkative as his son, says he always had a simple personal philosophy: "Whatever you want to be in life, be the very best. This started with my great-grandfather on my mother's side, who was a blacksmith and made molasses. In my work I was always the top. I told my daughters, 'If you want to be a prostitute, well, I may not like it, but be the best at it.'" He was a strict father. "I was firm, very firm--we had rules and regulations to keep them out of trouble. They couldn't be out at certain times. We had meals together. When I got home from work they were home, washed up, and ready to eat." The Blackstone Rangers and Vice Lords were around when Eddie was young, and he credits his father's influence with keeping him out of them. He remembers one of the things his parents taught him was that "to gain respect, you must show respect, and it doesn't matter who the other person is."
Jacob remembers Eddie as "a little puny child and sickly." When he was nine his limbs suddenly weakened, and he ended up in Cook County Hospital. "They examined me so much my body was like a pincushion," Davis says. The doctors thought he might have polio, and his family and their minister prayed for him. Jacob remembers, "One day I went in to see Eddie, and he said, 'Daddy, if they put me on the floor I can get well.' So they laid him out on a blanket, like he was a baby, and two days later he was able to turn over. Then he sat up. Then he walked, and he came home." Eddie had missed a full year of school and was held back a grade, but he says the experience taught him an important lesson: "I learned to be grateful for each day."
When he was 15 Davis became a member of the Friendly Gospel Singers, a quartet started by his father and the church pastor that would eventually go on tour and cut three records. After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1961, he attended Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King) and Midway Technical Institute, where he trained to be an auto mechanic. He served as a cook with the army in Germany, and after he came home he took business classes at Prairie State College. He also took a test for the New York Life Insurance Company. "That exam was nothing but adding and subtracting," he says. "Now I may not be scholarly, but I know my numbers. When they called and told me I hadn't passed, I knew what it was--they were prejudiced." So Davis got a job as a mechanic with the CTA.
He met Yvette, then a clerk at Standard Oil, in church. "I wasn't interested in her at first," he says. "I sang in the choir--had since I was nine years old--and she joined up. She was a beautiful young woman. I was seeing a couple other young ladies at the time, but God has a way of making adjustments." They were married on June 1, 1968, shortly after they bought the house in Avalon Park where they still live.
They had no dining-room set, so Eddie headed over to Tasemkin Furniture, then at 46th and South Ashland. "I went through two or three different salesmen in search of that dining-room set, and the last one gave me to the owner's son, Leslie Steinberg," says Davis. "I said I'd give them X dollars down, and I'd pay off the furniture in 90 days." Steinberg asked Davis if he'd ever done any selling, then offered him a part-time job. Davis says, "They needed a black face on the floor because they didn't have one."
At the end of 1968 Davis quit the CTA to go with Tasemkin full-time. "There were five salesmen," he says. "The first salesman would get the first customer, the second salesman would get the second person, and so on. Well, when it came my turn they wouldn't call me, unless some lady was looking for a plant stand. They just didn't want to relinquish me their turn." Often he'd be handed the black customers, whom he says the other salesmen looked down on. "A guy would come in the store, a black, and the others weren't in any hurry to get up. But I didn't let any of that deter me. One day a little lady came in and wanted a dinette chair. 'You should take her,' a salesman told me. I did, and she bought a gas range and a refrigerator too--and paid cash for it all. Another time I sold a bedroom set for $3,000 or $4,000. I rubbed the other guys' noses in my success."
But he also learned from them. "I'd stand within earshot of the other salesmen, and I would take bits and pieces from each one," he says. "How to qualify a buyer--are you working, for who, and how long? I picked up a little about decorating. I would incorporate it all into my own style. I would go out on the dock and get my hands on the furniture. I knew who made what and how it was constructed. Leslie Steinberg taught me about paperwork." Davis was promoted and for eight years managed the store's outlet in Chicago Heights. "I treated the place like it was mine," he says. "It took 45 minutes to get there from my house, but if the alarm went off at three in the morning they called me, not the Steinbergs."
In 1981 Davis was back at the Ashland store as manager. Before Thanksgiving that year, Michael Steinberg, Leslie's brother, asked Davis if he would put off a trip he'd planned so the Steinbergs could go on a trip to Europe. Davis agreed, but noted that the weekend after Thanksgiving he was already committed to go to Mississippi with the Friendly Gospel Singers. "I was gone Saturday and Sunday," he says. "I was back Monday morning at 8:30--the store opened at nine. I walked into the office, and Michael says, 'You're fired.' I gave him the two or three keys I had to the store, and I went home and fell into bed--I was exhausted from my trip. On Thursday I called Michael and asked him if his decision was final. He started hemming and hawing and said he couldn't stop me from filling out an application for salesperson. In that way he let me know it was over."
Five years earlier, Gil Levy had asked Davis whether he wanted to work at Bass, and now Levy made another offer. Davis liked his new job. The store was closed on Sunday, enabling him to go to church, and Levy gave him plenty of responsibility, including sending him to national furniture shows. "Soon I was managing the store--pricing, doing inventory and buying, and signing the checks," says Davis. "I was here six or eight months tops when Gil and Roz went on the first vacation they'd had since he had bought the store from Morrie. After that they never stopped."
Levy, who's Jewish, says he valued Davis's commitment to his faith and appreciated his live-and-let-live attitude. "That's where you don't try to convert me, and I don't try to convert you," he says. "Everybody was happy." A warm friendship developed between the two men. "Oh, we had arguments and discussions, but we had a good rapport," says Levy. "Eddie's knowledgeable about the business--he's a much better salesman than I ever was. If you want to know, he's as good as Morrie Bass was. And Eddie's as fine a gentleman as I know. After working with the man for 15 years, give or take, he became part of me, a friend and almost a son--you can leave out the 'almost.'"
Levy and his wife had three sons of their own, yet none of them showed any interest in taking over Bass Furniture. Levy says that when he was in his 60s he thought about going out of business. "Then, I thought--maybe Eddie. I started talking to him."
In the early 1990s Davis, with Levy's encouragement, approached banks for financial backing to buy the store, its inventory and accounts receivable as well as the buildings. Harris Bank offered Davis a 7-year loan, but Davis wanted a 15-year one. Pullman and South Shore banks turned him down. He went to Seaway National Bank of Chicago, now the nation's second-largest black-owned bank. "I filled out all the forms, and they kept upping the amount they wanted me to put down," says Davis. "When they got to $125,000, Gil said, 'Screw them--you don't need them.'"
Even South Holland Bank, where Bass Furniture kept its account, turned him down. "I had some type of experience and good credit--excellent credit, really," says Davis. "No one gave me a satisfactory answer about being turned down. I don't think it all had to do with Roseland, but with my being African-American."
Levy found the rejection by South Holland Bank "surprising and perplexing." (South Holland Bank president Dan Ward declined to comment.) In the end Levy financed Davis's purchase of the business, and Jacob Davis contributed too. Morrie Bass financed the purchase of the buildings, which he still owned, and Davis paid Bass directly until he died last year. Since then Davis has engineered the acquisition of the buildings through a loan from South Shore Bank. Levy, now 74, often returns to Bass Furniture to visit. "When I walk in the store," he says, "it's like going home again."
The old Gately's sign still hangs over Michigan Avenue like a ghost. In July cement slabs on the building's exterior loosened, and the exterior had to be removed. The grand old Roseland Theatre, sold at a tax sale, is empty and decaying. Rents on Michigan Avenue are low--$6.50 a square foot--but there are plenty of vacancies. "We used to sell to the worker, but there isn't anybody engaged in industrial work now," says Don Cohen, proprietor of Herman's Army Store, which has been on Michigan Avenue for 75 years. "Two-thirds of our dollars come during the cold months, but the winters are warm now. I like this business, but you can't go on forever. My knees are wearing out."
Gately's massive parking garage is closed, even though merchants complain about the lack of parking. "That's the number one need--parking, with a security guard around it," says Cohen. Other retailers carp about the Arab and Pakistani stores, whose employees openly hawk their wares on the street. "We are upset about it," says Myung Yang, who owns Chicago Shoe Mart. "It's not right to grab customers on the street."
Bass is the only furniture store left in the area now. Venditti Furniture and the Home Store closed in the late 90s. "Business had fallen off very badly, and we saw our future in Country Club Hills and the south suburbs," says Renee Kaminsky, co-owner of the Home Store. "It was difficult for my husband. He was the third generation, and his father was--and is--still alive. There were mixed emotions."
Since 1992 a Walgreens has dominated the corner of 111th and Michigan, and the Foot Locker is reportedly prosperous. The local chamber of commerce has tried to improve the retail strip's image by putting up decorative street banners, and it has tried to bolster solidarity with merchant meetings and an annual awards banquet. But Ledall Edwards says the chamber's efforts can't have much of an effect because consumers still have to go outside the neighborhood to get good clothes and groceries or to see a movie. The large number of bars and liquor stores doesn't help. "Nobody wants to locate in an area when the number one industry is liquor," says Reverend James Meeks, pastor of the 11,000-member Salem Baptist Church. In November 1998 Meeks led a successful campaign to vote four precincts in the area dry. But the stores banded together and sued, and the case is now before the Illinois Appellate Court. To Meeks's dismay, the liquor retailers are still open for business.
The local merchants are also frequently the object of thieves. "We're broken into twice a year," says Yang. "They get in through the roof, they come through the walls--everywhere. And as soon as you figure out some other way to protect yourself, they come up with something new. We have a problem with stealing too, even by our employees."
Levy says that when he was still at Bass, "We had minor problems. You'd walk around the store and a lamp would be gone. A car came through the front window once, but the insurance company took care of that." Davis says that since he's owned the business, thieves came through the roof once to steal a couple VCRs, and he had to fire someone he suspected of taking an air conditioner and some televisions.
Meeks blames the problems in Roseland on former Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw, who was in office from 1979 to 1998. "Shaw was an independent alderman who strived hard not to be connected to the machine," says Meeks. "When that is your posture, your power to get things done will suffer." Shaw, now a commissioner on Cook County's tax-review board and an occasional Bass customer, counters that he tried to stop white flight, which he says doomed Roseland commercially. "The white businesses that left preferred that black dollars come to them," he says. "It's a form of racism in reverse, and you see it in every changing neighborhood. But the new businesses that are there--the Walgreens, for instance--I brought in."
Alderman Beale, who was supported by Meeks, says, "What you have now on Michigan Avenue is a bunch of garbage. We've taken a downslide with nothing there to stabilize things. The only people who shop there now are hip-hop teenagers. Our working-class dollars go outside the community. Roseland has hit rock bottom. There's no place to go but up--and Bass Furniture is going to be one of the key parts in that."
Davis says that when he bought Bass Furniture he never thought about changing its name. "Bass has a good name and reputation in the neighborhood," he says. And he's never considered moving the store or closing it. "I can personally go to any furniture store and get a job, but if I have a choice I want to work and maintain what's already here," he says. "Customers shouldn't have to go to the malls 45 minutes away. And I believe that if you set your mind to something you can survive in slow times."
The store now grosses roughly $1 million a year in sales, a little less than what it took in at the end of the period when Levy was there. By comparison, figures from Furniture/Today show that in 1999 Wickes Furniture, headquartered in Wheeling, grossed $8.2 million per store and Plunkett Furniture, based in Hoffman Estates, grossed $5.2 million per store. Davis says the unit sales for those chains are higher in part because they sell their products for more money. "I make an honest living," he says, "and when my debts are paid off I'll make a comfortable one."
Jacob Davis says, "The way I see it, you lay down your bucket where you are," a saying of Booker T. Washington, the original apostle of black economic empowerment. "If old Mr. Bass made out all right and Gil did too, why can't Eddie make a living out of the store? It isn't going to happen overnight. You have to be long-suffering sometimes. He may work a lifetime there, and his children will reap the harvest."
Davis is on the floor from 9:30 AM until 6 PM six days a week, breaking only to eat a brown-bag lunch and, two afternoons a month, to tape Redeemed and Ransomed. After closing he and Yvette spend time on administrative matters before heading home. Davis is proud of the jobs he provides. Barrientos was a Guatemalan immigrant with only a slim grasp of English when Levy hired him as a salesman in 1991. "Back then I went by the name of David," says Barrientos, who was in the U.S. illegally. After almost three years Levy learned the truth. "Get your papers in order, and you can come back," he told Barrientos, who quickly got resident-alien status and returned.
Barrientos, who's now 33, mastered English by studying a language textbook and reading the Sun-Times. When he's not selling, he often listens to the problems of other Hispanic immigrants at his desk by the display windows. "A lot of people get letters from the city and the government, and I figure things out for them," he says. Davis doesn't mind. "Even though he's assisting people on my time," he says, "I don't hold that against Goose. We have to help each other when we can."
Davis wants to help turn around Roseland. He attends meetings sponsored by Beale and meetings at schools, and he's treasurer of the Roseland Business Development Council and a member of the Roseland Redevelopment Planning Board, a two-year-old community organization. He recently joined a business advisory panel Beale organized.
Davis is hopeful about the community's prospects, but the neighborhood is still decrepit. Beale says it has 300 or so abandoned buildings, and a Sun-Times study published last year showed that Roseland had 696 bank foreclosures in 1998, more than any other city zip code area. The 1990 census put the median annual household income at $28,600, more than $2,000 below the city median.
But a recent study by Social Compact, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that studies poor neighborhoods, shows that the median household income in a large section of Roseland is $50,881 and that 73 percent of houses in that section are owner occupied. "There are people in Roseland with purchasing power and a population able to support business," says Issa Lara Combs, Social Compact's managing director.
Two years ago the development arm of Salem Baptist Church turned a building at 115th and Michigan that had been occupied by a drug and liquor store into the House of Peace, an upscale Christian bookstore. "I wanted to take over the largest liquor store, and I wanted to show developers that we are serious about redevelopment," says Meeks, who oversaw the spending of $1 million on the project and persuaded Mayor Daley to attend the opening in November 1998. Salem Baptist also intends to build 45 houses at 101st and Michigan, and the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services is now finishing 40 rental town houses and apartments at 105th and Michigan. And Southside College Preparatory Academy--one of six new regional magnet high schools, located in the old Mendel High School--is getting a $25-million refurbishing.
Beale pushed through an ordinance, approved by the City Council in July 1999, that allows the city to condemn 273 parcels of land along Michigan Avenue, three-quarters of them vacant; the buildings include the Roseland Theatre and the old Gately's building. "When you can assemble a lot of properties into a package," says Pete Scales, spokesman for the planning department, "it's more attractive for developers." Beale says the land or rehabbed buildings might be used for a community center, parking lots, a Dominick's. "We are actively talking to Dominick's," he says, though Mike Mallon, Dominick's real estate vice president, will say only, "We continue to look at lots of opportunities throughout the area." The Matanky Realty Group wants to build a small mall near 111th Street, and Beale says businesses such as Old Navy, Denny's, and Applebee's have shown some interest. But one developer says, "It'll be a special type of operator to be the first to come in." Beale is also looking into making the area a tax increment financing district, which would allow the city to sell bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements and development.
Eddie Davis plans to apply for a city rebate grant that would let him redo the front of his store--put in new windows, decorative brick trim, and security grates on tracks inside the store. He also wants to acquire the overgrown vacant lot across 114th Street for parking. "Eddie has a vision," says Beale.
But upgrading his property isn't the most important thing for Davis. "Whether we look good or bad, we'll still be around selling furniture," he says. "Bass has been here for 60 years, and we want to be here for another 60--selling good merchandise at affordable prices and being kind to our customers."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.