End of an era for Southwest Side variety store

Written By BY MARK BROWN Posted: 07/03/2014, 11:44am

It should really come as no surprise that J&R Variety Store, regarded by its owner as the last of the old “five and dimes” in Chicago, is going out of business after 58 years at 63rd and Pulaski.

The surprise is that J&R has survived this long, outlasting all the Woolworths, Kresges and Ben Franklins — the other neighborhood-based, little-box stores that long ago made way for the big ones.

The explanation could be in the nature of the West Lawn neighborhood where J&R is located, one of the last in the city to turn over to a new wave of residents.

Or maybe it is just the nature of the owner, Mike Gehant, who will turn 52 on Friday and began sweeping the floors for his father, Kenneth, then the store’s manager, after school in the second grade in between doing homework in the basement.

“I’ve been here all my life,” said Gehant, who has been working at J&R full time for the last 28 years.

“Some guys collect stamps. Some guys collect Matchbox cars. This was my hobby. It’s a joy,” he said.

As Gehant tells me this, I can see from the pain in his face that this is no phony “going out of business” sale where the store will reopen under a new name in a few weeks or months. This is a traumatic end of the line for a man’s life work.

It was tougher three weeks ago when the sale first started, he says.

“When I put the signs in the window, I emptied everything out. And when I put the signs up, I was actually shaking and had to go sit down for a while and get a Gatorade. It was tough. It was tough. But it had to be done. It’s just time,” Gehant said.

The news has had a similar effect on many of his customers.

“Every day somebody comes in. ‘I can’t believe you’re leaving,’ they say. ‘Where am I gonna get this? Where am I gonna get that?’ ” Gehant said.

Now they’ll have to go to the big-box stores, he says, but many of his customers don’t drive, and the big boxes are farther than they want to travel.

As if on cue, a lady comes through the door and tells Gehant: “You can’t go out of business.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, and he means it.

Another customer, Jim Rajkovac, 55, told me the store’s closing is “the end of an era,” although as I say, that era ended for the rest of us a while ago.

“It just brings you back to all the stuff you had when you were kids,” Rajkovac said, then mentioned finding some roller skate keys at J&R a few years back.

You wouldn’t think there was a big market for roller skate keys these days, but Gehant assured me they sold fast.

A walk through the creaky wood floors of the store’s aisles is a walk through the retail world of my youth — from the sewing supplies and bric-a-brac to the rolls of “caps” for toy guns and rubber “league balls,” all squeezed into the same small store with women’s apparel and school supplies and pretty much anything else you might need. And if he didn’t have it, Gehant would try to get it for you.

Rajkovac admitted he was extolling the virtues of J&R Variety over the weekend at a gathering of friends when somebody challenged him by saying: “If you like it so much, why aren’t you there more?”

For this, he could do little more than shrug.

“I kind of moved out of the neighborhood,” he explained.

And there’s the rub. This neighborhood, a bedrock of the Southwest Side bungalow belt, is now mostly composed of new Hispanic residents who don’t feel the same nostalgic tie.

J&R used to have a chain of four or five variety stores in the greater Chicago area, but the others closed long ago, as has everyone else in the “five and dime” category, Gehant assured me.

Just the same, I can’t swear to J&R being the last, not having made a survey of my own. It occurs to me there are many stores in Hispanic neighborhoods especially that fill the same niche.

If you’re thinking that today’s dollar stores are just variety stores by another name, don’t tell that to Gehant, who says he always carried a better brand of merchandise and provided better service.

But it was the big boxes that took their toll.

“Everybody bypasses the little guy to go the big stores,” he said.

And now the big boys are having trouble, too.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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