By Brian Steele
Richard Williamson pulls his beat-up black pickup in front of Betty's Resale Shop, parking a few spaces behind a similarly decrepit truck that holds a couch, a 70s stereo, and miscellaneous knickknacks. He hops out, grabs a cardboard box from the back, and walks up to Mary Merker, who runs the shop. He's here to sell, and she's willing to buy.
Williamson takes out of the box a handful of small stuffed toys, a package of new insoles, a dented teakettle, an unopened bottle of Phisoderm soap ("That's from the 50s," he says).
"So how much you want for all this stuff?" Merker asks.
"Well," Williamson mumbles, "I don't know."
Merker reaches into her pocket and pulls out a crumpled wad of bills. "I only got nine bucks," she says.
Williamson doesn't hesitate. "All right. No problem. I'll take it."
Merker puts the items back into the box and sets it on top of a table next to the shop. It's now part of what's certainly the city's most haphazard stash of old stuff.
Betty's, which occupies two ramshackle buildings and two storage yards on the 3400 block of North Lincoln Avenue, is less a resale shop than a ridiculously overstocked garage sale. The buildings are loaded to the ceilings with refrigerators, avocado-colored stoves, worn mattresses, lamps, TVs, and boatloads of bric-a-brac. It spills out onto the sidewalk in front of the buildings, and that doesn't thrill some of the neighbors.
Merker's father ran a used-furniture business--also called Betty's, after his wife--for more than 20 years, but he died in 1986. The family owned the building where he'd kept his furniture, says Merker, who used to run a hot dog stand in Portage Park. "After my dad died, I told my mother, 'Let's open this up.' I just wanted to try this."
In the beginning sales were slow. "We only made $5 a day," says Merker. "We were starving." But the merchandise rolled in, and Betty's filled up. Merker, her brother Pete, and Betty bought an extra storage building four years ago, and last year they took over an old used-car lot up the street.
Betty's stock comes from all over the city. Merker, her mother and brother, and their few part-time employees regularly visit garage and estate sales. Often they'll tell the seller to call at the end of the day; they'll send out a truck and buy what's left over. The shop also regularly runs newspaper ads looking for used furniture.
Betty's does a brisk trade with a steady stream of itinerant scavengers--some driving pickups, some pushing shopping carts, others on foot. Many are like Williamson, who used to work for a Chicago salvage company. He'd been gone for a while, getting treated for cancer; Betty's will be a frequent stop as he tries to get back on his feet. "This place is great," he says. "Mary, she's a wonderful person. She tries to help out the workingman like me. She understands. She's working-class, like we are."
Merker says that helping people out is part of Betty's unofficial mission. "I try to help everyone," she says. "If somebody comes in with something, we see what we can do." In fact, few people who come in to sell things go away without at least some cash in their pockets.
But Betty's doesn't get rave reviews from its neighbors. Thirty-second Ward alderman Ted Matlak, who was longtime alderman Terry Gabinski's chief of staff, says he's been fielding complaints about the shop for years. He says it's been cited numerous times for violations, ranging from parking loaded trucks on surrounding residential streets to piling furniture on the sidewalk in front of the store. In April, Merker appeared at a community meeting and promised to address some of the problems, mainly the flow of merchandise onto the sidewalk.
When the changes didn't happen, Matlak asked city building inspectors to visit Betty's. According to the Department of Buildings, Merker was cited for clutter and ordered to repair some exterior walls and remove debris from the sales area in the 3443 N. Lincoln building. She was also required to provide architectural plans for alterations to the southernmost storage yard. A hearing is set for October; no hearing has been set for similar citations at the 3439 N. Lincoln building.
Matlak says that a few weeks ago Merker was again ticketed for putting merchandise on the sidewalk. "If she spent half the money fixing her building instead of fighting me, she'd be fine," he says. "I have no objection to her business--it's the way it impacts the neighborhood negatively."
Some of Merker's neighbors feel the same way. "The problem is that it's obviously an eyesore," says Ray Lekan, president and co-owner of the Paulina Market, a half block north of Betty's. "The way she displays things, it takes away from the neighborhood. She's trying to do kind of an old Maxwell Street-style operation that shouldn't really be in this neighborhood."
Another nearby business owner, who didn't want his name used, complains about all the trucks coming and going, sometimes in the early-morning hours. "I've seen 10 to 12 trucks parked around the shop at one time," he says. Those trucks often end up on nearby residential streets. One home owner, who's lived on Newport for eight years, says he can hear Merker and her crew yelling at one another and he sometimes sees trucks parked nearly bumper to bumper on his street.
Two doors south of Betty's is the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which has complained more than once to the alderman's office. "The chamber of commerce is never opposed to people doing business in Lakeview," says interim director Scott Horning. "However, we all need to follow the rules."
Merker maintains that the trucks aren't parking on the side streets as often, and she says she's trying to keep merchandise off the sidewalk. "We're trying to cooperate with them," she says. "We have done a lot of changes," among them enclosing the southernmost storage yard. They're also trying to buy another building or yard for storage.
Merker stops short of saying she feels unfairly singled out, but she says, "You can't correct a problem if you have someone hitting you all the time. I feel I'm being clobbered over the head because people want this place nicer." She adds that her critics might not understand the role of Betty's. "They think that this is junk. This is not junk. Maybe they have lots and lots of money, but some people don't. You have to make room for everybody. And I believe that there's room for everybody here."
Regular customers don't seem to have any complaints. Nothing at the shop has a price tag. Interested in a slightly scratched maple china cabinet? Ask Merker the price. Too much? Make her an offer--she nearly always takes it. "She gives you a good deal on things," says Lynette West, who's been coming to Betty's for 11 years. "She does a lot for everybody that comes around here. She's good people." West recalls buying a bedroom set for her daughter's birthday at Betty's, and Merker delivered it at 11 that evening. "How many other people would do that?"
"She has such an unusual assortment of things," says Venus Cramar, who's been browsing at Betty's for five years. "You never know what you're gonna find."
And that's the way Merker intends to keep it. "People really like coming here," she says. Then she adds, "We're recycling. If this store wasn't here, this would be going in a landfill." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Merker/ storefront photos by Nathan Mandell.