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What fond memories do you have of lost Chicago?
December 17, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I've been thinking about cool Chicago stuff that's gone. Svoboda's Nickelodeon Tavern in Chicago Heights, a bar and grill with an antique amusement collection. Riverview amusement park. The Pickle Barrel restaurant with peanut shells on the floor, sandwiches and burgers and the balloon twisting guy. Skeet shooting on the lakefront — never did it, but it was fun to watch. So, how about it? What other fond memories do you have of things no longer around Chicago?

— Stan Shmenge, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Fond memories? Yes, my memories are fond. I bet Robert Scott would have had fond memories of his expedition to the South Pole, if he hadn't died. My childhood experiences in Chicago were nowhere near as grim as that, although there were points of similarity. The snow, the privation, the bitter cold … ah, those were good times. However, despite what some old bullshitters will tell you, we never once had to slice open the household horse and crawl inside to escape being frozen to death. We had a Buick. If you want to know what it was really like back in the old days, listen to your Uncle Cecil. I'll tell you stories no one will believe.

There are a great many aspects of lost Chicago for which one might shed a tear, but high on anyone's list would surely be eccentric downtown shops. Eccentricity of course is in the eye of the beholder and hasn't entirely disappeared. I imagine, or anyway hope, you can still buy onyx chess sets in the establishment formerly known as Marshall Field's, although as a matter of principle I haven't been in personally to check. I'll also say I would never have believed you could make money on a shop dealing solely in caramel-covered popcorn, although in downtown Chicago now we see proof it can be done. So I won't say there's no room in the urban ecosystem for unusual retail concepts. But two have largely disappeared from the Loop: fly fishing departments and hobby shops.

The fly fishing department I have in mind was at Abercrombie & Fitch — the old Abercrombie & Fitch. Few remember it now, but Abercrombie was once an upscale sporting goods store, whose Chicago outlet as I recall was on Wabash. It catered, so far as I could tell, to the Winnetka crowd, or at any rate a subset of it — men who smoked pipes and wore tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, and came to Abercrombie twice a year to outfit their safaris. You could buy big-game hunting rifles there, along with croquet sets, golf clubs and dogsleds. (Well, the New York branch had a dogsled. I can't say I saw one in Chicago.)

But the pride of the place in addition to the firearms section was the fly fishing department. I had no interest in it myself, but went there sometimes with my friend Pablo, an avid fisherman even as a boy. I was always happy to go downtown, since it meant an opportunity to ride the Lake Street El, consume 40-cent steak sandwiches, and walk backward down escalators — to experience, in short, about all the excitement the human body could stand.

The drawback was that eventually you had to go to Abercrombie's and listen to Pablo and the salesman get into an hour-long discussion of fly fishing. I was good for about two minutes of this before my attention began to flag, at which point I would consider wandering off in search of the brassiere department, which always ended in frustration because Abercrombie didn't have a brassiere department. Instead, having ascertained that Pablo and the salesman would be indefinitely engaged, I'd head out to the All Nations Hobby Shop.

I'm not one to engage in careless praise, but few will contradict me when I say All Nations was the finest hobby shop in the history of the universe. I say this fully aware that a considerable fraction of the populace has no idea what a hobby shop is. Primarily such stores sold plastic scale models, made by companies with names like Athearn and Monogram and Revell. I know for a fact that you can still purchase these products, because I've looked them up online, but the industry is much diminished, no doubt due to fierce competition for youthful leisure time.

In those days, however, we had no video games or Facebook, and so on wintry Saturday mornings with nothing else to do we went to the hobby shop, we being understood to mean the male members of the Adams clan, of which I was senior omniscient. At first we patronized the neighborhood store, which had an eclectic collection of kits, skewing toward the military end of things. Model airplanes figured prominently, but you could also find battleships, submarines, missiles, tanks, artillery, and other warlike gear, plus a smattering of sports cars, trucks, and similar objects of boyish fascination. (It was rare to see a girl in a hobby shop, although I have a vague recollection of doll-like objects being available; as I think on it now, however, these were model monsters, with scars and exposed brains.)

Each kit had numerous parts, many of them tiny, which were to be assembled in accordance with detailed numbered instructions, a process that could take days. It's fair to say a good deal of extraneous detail was omitted by the more impatient participants, because the fate of the typical military model was to be blown up with firecrackers or filled with lighter fluid and thrown off the porch. I however was more punctilious about it, believing this to be in the national interest. To this day, were a crisis to arise, I'm sure you could find lots of ex-ten-year-olds capable of assembling a Nike Ajax antiaircraft missile, but if they're anything like my brother they'll slobber glue on the warhead and mount the thrusters cockeyed on the launch rail, to say nothing of omitting the decals. Should the Iranian air force come with nukes, therefore, be sure you stick with me.

Diverting as all the above was, I recognized at some point that there was a higher level of model making, in which specialties might be discerned. One of these was model trains, and having come from a family of railroaders it was to this group I was inevitably drawn.

For model railroad buffs, All Nations Hobby Shop was, if not the Rome, at least the Constantinople. I believe the store was on Madison, and in photos looks surprisingly small, but that's deceiving. On walking inside you saw a panorama of shelves spread out along the walls, stacked to the ceiling with boxes of model this-and-thats, no doubt including a few howitzers and jet fighters, but mostly trains. I didn't personally count the inventory, but I believe they stocked scale-model versions of every piece of railroad rolling stock then extant in North America — and I don't mean every type, I mean every piece, period.

I didn't have the money to buy virtually any of it. The better model railroading equipment, which was what All Nations carried, was pitched to an older market, and so was more expensive, and of course you couldn't have just one boxcar. I had some trains, acquired by virtue of assiduous begging prior to Christmases and birthdays, but these were mostly toys. I once spent an afternoon in Mrs. Meinke's class computing my model railroading needs and what I could afford based on the cash flow from delivering the Austin News, and concluded I would have adequate funds in approximately four hundred years. This left me in a hopeless and disconsolate state, but periodically I visited All Nations anyway, purchasing a spring or a model rivet pending the day my financial condition improved.

Ultimately it did, but by then my attention had drifted. At some point in the dismal '70s, All Nations went away, unnoticed by me. (So did Abercrombie & Fitch, although the latter was eventually reconstituted as a clothing store, the fly fishing department mercifully being omitted.) It's difficult to imagine a hobby shop surviving in the Loop now, unless a niche arises for LaSalle Street traders who, having cornered the market in alfalfa, decide they're going to treat themselves not to cigars and brandy but a Delaware & Hudson caboose.

But this isn't a story with an unhappy ending. Years later a hobby shop opened up near my house. I took the little researchers there a few times to purchase B-17s and such, till one day a sign announced a going-out-of-business sale — everything half or more off, including a formidable inventory of trains. Here was an opportunity. The kids demanded their own locomotives, showing an impressive eye for quality, and naturally I felt the need to purchase a couple additional items just to fill things out. Before I knew it I had spent, well, a lot. We took it all home and set it up in the basement, and for quite a while thereafter had an extravagant display, with a tangle of switches and crossovers and multiple circling trains worthy of Casey Jones on drugs. Eventually it had to make way for a Ping Pong table, so we packed the trains away. Maybe someday I'll take them out again, maybe I won't — the essential goal had been accomplished. Some will deride this as a sign of eternal adolescence, but to me it merely shows a dream deferred isn't necessarily a dream denied.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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