Memories of Maxwell Street

Although the shops have been replaced by restaurants and university offices, with a little imagination one can see the proprietors sweeping in front as they prepare for another day.

An undated vintage photo of the Maxwell Street Market.

An undated vintage photo of the Maxwell Street Market.

Chicago Sun Times archives

One Sunday in 1969, my father drove our family to the Near West Side, and we had lunch at Manny’s, an old-school Jewish cafeteria with a checkout counter that was a shrine to the coffee shops of mid-century America — the fortress-like cash register, nothing electronic about it, the pad of artificial grass on the counter’s glass top, the spindle on which guest checks were impaled, the display of Joyva halvah bar and Wrigley’s gum, the cup of wooden toothpicks and the boxes of cigars in the case below.

Manny’s, of course, is still there, but the counter and photographs of local politicians on the walls are long gone.

After lunch, we threaded our way through the crowd on Maxwell Street. As we paused at a table piled with merchandise in front of a men’s clothing store, a salesman said, “How about a nice blue shirt for the young man?” He asked my size, and my father nodded for me to go ahead. “Fifteen,” I said.

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The salesman held out a packaged shirt at an attractive angle while extolling its quality for the price. My dad appreciated good salesmanship and said OK.

The Italian-brand shirt was the Maxwell Street version of the button-down shirts I normally wore. It was made without a front placket over the buttons, which I thought must be a European feature, and its collar points were a tad bit long, in keeping with late ’60s fashion.

The shirt was a bargain, but it wasn’t junk — its thick blue oxford cloth felt great and ironed beautifully. I wore it regularly during my high school years and valued it for the memory it preserved of our Sunday trip to Maxwell Street.

Four years later, when I was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I went exploring one morning and encountered a man sweeping the mosaic-tiled entryway of his small shop on Halsted between Roosevelt and Maxwell.

Opening the door, he beckoned me inside, where I encountered a neat, tightly packed array of men’s clothing and all manner of accessories, from watches to wallets to hats. Smiling at his suggestion that I upgrade my wardrobe, I said I was recently back from a year in Israel and just killing time between classes.

Israel — he thought that was wonderful. He’d been there once years ago but hadn’t found the time to go again because he was always working. He’d made a good living from the store, raised a family, had a home in the suburbs.

His son used to work there, but he became a lawyer and didn’t care about it anymore. The owner said he didn’t know how much longer he could continue and was thinking of closing the store. He asked if I would like to work there — I could come tomorrow after classes. Regretfully, I didn’t show up.

The mosaic-tiled entryways still exist on the one block of Maxwell that has been preserved, from Halsted to Union. Although the shops have been replaced by restaurants and university offices, with a little imagination, one can see the proprietors sweeping in front as they prepare for another day.

David Caplan lives in West Ridge.

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