A young bearded man, Ian, came out of the basement.
“Cuckoo clock?” he said to Ted “Uncle Fun” Frankel, no context given.
“And the bell jar we just put out?”
The bearded man nodded and went back down into the basement.
Amid bits and baubles, vintage toys and old children’s books and circus posters and chattering teeth and googly eyes and New Kids on the Block trading cards and statuettes of aliens made from screws and bike chains, Frankel turned back and kept telling his story.
“The store just became more fun than dealing with clients,” the former graphic designer said.
Uncle Fun is closing shop.
You may have gasped a little at that. You may have said, “Awww.” You might have nodded sadly or you might be wondering what the heck an “Uncle Fun” is. But if you’re in the know, the toy/gag/novelty/vintage/sheer-goddamn-joy shop on Belmont has been a solace and refuge for the weird, where a buck can buy a gag gift and a smile.
“I always buy what I like and I don’t worry about money,” Frankel, 62, said. “I figure if I treat my customers well and give them a good price, they’ll come back and bring their friends.”
For nearly 40 years, they did. It was first at forerunner Goodies on Halsted, which opened in the late 1970s. Since 1990, the fans and friends have gathered under the grinning maniac barbershop-quartet-man logo on Belmont that indicates Uncle Fun.
The store’s last day is Jan. 26.
The decision to close is not economic, Frankel said. It’s a love story. For the last 9 1/2 years, he’s split his time between Chicago and Baltimore, where he runs Sideshow, the museum store for the American Visionary Art Museum of intuitive, self-trained and otherwise outsider artists.
He’s going to focus on that store and focus on his new married life. He and his husband wed in September.
“It’s been a really good run here, but my life is really moving to Baltimore,” Frankel said as the store continued to fill with patrons who braved the cold for what could be their last visit.
The cuckoo clock Ian had asked about was for Paul Octavious, 29.
Tall with designer glasses, Octavious wore a thick winter jacket decorated with a vintage pin that had a picture of a wolf on it, with the word “WOLF!” underneath for emphasis. It wasn’t an Uncle Fun purchase, although the “trash can of tin toys and snow globes” at his feet would soon be.
The wolf was the logo of a steel workers union from out east, where the photographer hailed from before moving to Chicago six years ago. His love of vintage predates even hearing the words “Uncle Fun.”
“This is like my dream store,” Octavious said.
Octavious comes to Uncle Fun on a regular basis and was one of the dozens who braved the second day of the Chiberian cold snap to load up on, in his case, tin toys, snow globes and a broken cuckoo.
Like many Uncle Fun regulars, including Frankel himself, Octavious uses the store’s bits and baubles in art projects. In his case, it’s with a camera, creating still-life photographs out of the store’s odd odds and endless ends.
“This is my supply closet,” the tall, wolf-pinned artist said, shrugging and wrapping a scarf around his neck.
“This is the slowest it’s been all day,” clerk Joya Salustro, 29, said, beaming a smile amid chats with and ringing up of the dozens of customers packing the store.
The temperature outside was 2 degrees, but felt like -14, according to Accuweather.com.
Salustro was a flurry within a flurry that busy night, a blur of red hair and smiles amid the din of people buying goods arcane and hilarious. She never stopped moving. She never stopped smiling.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had, actually,” Salustro said, flashing that same wide smile. “Even on your crappiest day, it’s better than most places.”
She has been working at the shop for two years and is one of the people Frankel credits with keeping it going while he split time between Chicago and Baltimore.
The customers, she said, keep the store a great place to work. A few pennies for an old plastic baby charm or a few dozen bucks for an amazing art book ensure that “even if they’re in a bad mood, they leave in a good one.”
“There are people who used to shop here at Goodies — and that’s 40 years ago — and they bring in their grandkids and they’re buying the same crap, the same joy buzzers,” she said.
“Crap” was said lovingly. So was “joy buzzers.” She never stopped smiling.
Salustro doesn’t know what’s next for her. She doesn’t have a job lined up, although Frankel asked if I would add what a terrific employee she has been for him and will make for someone else. Will do, Ted.
A young woman leaned over two customers in line to ask about plastic skulls. Salustro laughed.
“Skulls? Yeah. We’ve got heads rolling back here!” Salustro said, flashing a big, broad grin.
Come back Friday for more customer and employee farewells to Uncle Fun.
Read about more weird/wonderful places Chicago lost in recent years: