A few mornings a week around ten o'clock, Angela and Frank Stritzel unlock the gate over their Western Avenue storefront, Stritzel's Appliances. Angela's window display, which changes twice yearly, currently features a meticulously ordered regiment of slightly faded toys: police cars, locomotives, flying machines, fake stuffed owls and fighting cocks, a demented chihuahua, a plush seal balancing a beach ball on its nose, a motorcycle-riding monkey, and a plastic duck decoy sitting inside an opened oven. Lately an American flag hangs from the stovetop.
Most days Angela sits on a stool behind the counter, surrounded by obsolescing hi-fi equipment and onetime novelties, hoping a customer will come in. She hasn't sold a major appliance in about a year, and there are only a few left. But there are plenty of unused 80s-era TVs and stereos, like a Fisher Studio Standard, a Grundig Super Hifi, and the Quasar Personal TV Projection System, a bulky black boom box outfitted with a small black-and-white picture tube. The Broadmoor Fourplay--a monitor attached to a game console offering TV, tennis, soccer, and the mysterious "Game"--proves that multimedia isn't a recent phenomenon.
Such state-of-the-art equipment commanded a serious investment in its day, and at Stritzel's it still does. A 25-inch Zenith color television from 1981 is marked at $559, though Angela says she'll bargain. The bulbous plastic toy cars, spaceships, and airplanes neatly lined up under the glass cases aren't exactly priced to move either, but she'll knock a few dollars off anything. Some items have been on the shelves for years, though there's not a speck of dust anywhere.
The Stritzels have invested well in real estate and say they're lucky they
don't have to depend on the store anymore. Business has been slow. Days go by when no one comes in. "Before," says Angela, "we sold a lot of appliances. Not anymore. Nobody wants to come over here and buy. Maybe we are too expensive."
But laughs are cheap at Stritzel's. A trio of miniature Godzillas form a menacing phalanx atop a refrigerator. A stack of Tune-a-Burgers--cheeseburger-shaped AM radios--sits in a display case. A plastic hatchet emits a bloodcurdling scream if thwacked, say, against Frank's head. They have an ample collection of bathroom drollery, including the Bub L. Beeper, a vaguely Clinton-esque figure who blows soap bubbles out of his butt. They also stock the Coin Commode, the Wee Wee Water Squirter, and a window-mountable obese figure that drops its trousers when a prankster manipulates a remote hand pump. Frank demonstrates: "People, when they get too nosy, they look at the window, he drops them, and they start laughing. When they start laughing, you do it again."
Frank usually drives away in his van after dropping off Angela. He can't sit still for long. He likes to drive to the lake and feed the seagulls, or check on the couple's other properties--a few apartment buildings in the neighborhood and Melrose Park, as well as a pair of small farms in McHenry County and Wisconsin. Angela stays in the store hoping for a customer. She turns on the radio, listens to the news until 11 AM, and then watches it on TV until one.
On a recent weekday Frank sticks around for a while, and they tease each other in their thick accents. He's been trying to sell the building for over a year now and wants to close the store. "She don't want to give up," he says. "I'm not going to bring you here no more, Mommy." For a seasoned saleslady, Angela is a little shy, blushing easily and giggling even more. But whenever Frank mentions this she gets her dander up. This time she threatens to hire a driver--"Ha ha ha."
Frank doesn't appear too anxious to move on. Just that morning he took down the For Sale sign to discourage a woman who was supposed to drop by to look at the building. She refuses to say where she lives, and Frank thinks that's a little weird.
They keep a worried ear on the news, but neither one says much about what happened September 11. It reminds Frank of his boyhood. He was born in 1931 in an ethnic German enclave of Slovenia called Gottschee, whose population was relocated by the Nazis in 1941. The town was given another ethnic cleansing by Tito's partisans after World War II. Frank and his family were refugees. He remembers days that still close his throat and make his eyes go glassy when he's asked about them.
Angela grew up in the country outside Graz, Austria, and went to trade school in the city, learning to be a saleswoman. After the war, Frank got a job in Graz as a waiter in an army mess hall run by the British. They met while Frank was shopping in the grocery where Angela worked. In 1952 some of Frank's friends who'd immigrated to Illinois found a Croatian farmer in Galesburg who agreed to sponsor him, and he asked Angela to wait. "She said yes, and sure enough I came to the States and I worked hard for about a year," he says. "Saved enough money for my trip back and forth. She didn't feel like she wanted to come right away. Her parents were against it. They didn't want her to go. But I think love was more important to her at the time than her homeland, so she came with me."
They settled at first in a pocket of German immigrants near 47th and Cottage Grove, but white flight soon took them to the north side. Angela clerked in a grocery. Frank found a factory job, then spent two years in an army water-purifying unit in Korea. When he returned, he worked as maintenance man in several high-rises. Angela got a job at Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square, where she could speak German all day. They bought their first building that year, a three-flat at Clifton and Fullerton, for $16,500. Over the years, they sold some buildings and bought new ones, always trading up. Frank says, "We were always lucky enough with the one that we bought and sold that we bought a bigger one for it."
In 1975 they bought a building at the corner of Lincoln and Giddings that happened to have several empty storefronts. They filled one with stoves and refrigerators and began selling them to the property owners Frank had done maintenance for in the past. Angela, who by then had been at Meyer for 18 years, quit to sell the appliances, while Frank made the deliveries. "Every time I turn around she said, 'I sold this. I sold this.' I had to get a helper."
"I love it," says Angela. "I like to be a saleslady."
Business slowed when Lincoln became a one-way street between Leland and Lawrence. They moved a block west to Western and began selling hi-fis, then toys. "Because customers come in," recalls Angela, "and they asked, 'You don't have no toys?'"
In the mid-80s they moved again, a few doors south to their present location in a former bakery. Business has slowly decreased. They still have stacks of old German folk music from the 50s and 60s on 45s and eight-track tapes. "People were buying like crazy," Angela says. "Years back." Gradually they stopped ordering new merchandise.
Frank cranks up a version of "Spanish Eyes" by Trio Berolina on an Electrophonic AM/FM Multiplex. "See," he says, punching the program button. "That's eight-track. You know how that goes. You never know, somewhere along the line they might have an interest in that."
"Nice song, eh?" asks Angela.
During the gulf war Frank and Angela sold a lot of Desert Storm merchandise, some of which is still on display. But two of today's four potential customers want flags. Angela happily directs them to the florist down the street. An elderly couple is looking for a cabinet oven, which Angela doesn't have in stock anymore, but the three spend a few minutes griping amiably about the high price of tomatoes at the farmer's market up the street.
Their only other visitors are the woman who won't give her address and a neighborhood realtor who wants to sell the building for Frank--but won't name a price.
"You want to put it on the market, Frank?" asks the realtor.
"No!" interrupts Angela.
"You a business lady now?" responds Frank.
Frank says one of the reasons the building hasn't sold is because he will only sell it as-is. Last May he had heart surgery, and he won't even consider hauling out the junk that's accumulated in the back of the store. He says the realtor will have to wait a while. "I go to the hospital, the price goes down approximately $10,000," says Frank. "So you better come back when I am getting sick."
By three o'clock, Frank is tired of sitting around the store. He announces that he's going out.
"When you come back?" asks Angela.
"You like me to come back?"
"Of course. You brought me here, you have to bring me home."
"See, that's the problem."
"All right," she says. "Don't stay away too long."
"Don't sell everything while we're gone, because I would get upset," says Frank, getting in the van. "She don't want to stay at home. And sometimes it's funny. If I say I won't bring her in she says OK. Then she starts walking. She walks from our home to the store just so she can open up. She doesn't come in every day, but she likes to come in as much as she can, hoping somebody would come in. I suppose she is used to it, because she was a saleslady all her life."
Frank knows of a grocery store that throws away enormous quantities of stale bread and old vegetables, which he collects and feeds to the goats and rabbits he keeps out in the country. He'd like to spend more time on one of the farms, but he knows the peace and quiet would drive Angela crazy.
On days like these, when Angela is working, Frank drives to Wilson Avenue beach and pulls out a bag of bread. Almost instantly the gulls start screeching and hovering just above his head. Their eyes are black and fierce and hungry, and they stare down at him screaming as he holds up pieces of bread. One by one they swoop down, snatching them from his hand. When the bread is gone Frank heads back to the store. "Where you were?" asks Angela. It's late, 4 PM. They lock the gate and head for home.