#748: Rise and Fall of the American Stuff Store

February 6th, 2017

It’s a bolder smell than taste, although the flavor lingers the longer I ┬álet it steep.

The smell wafted full and strong from the box, but put in water it’s gentle and nudging. I like it more with each sip, but can’t explain the taste, either by experience or by ingredients. According to the side of the box, the ingredients in masala tea are tea and masala flavour, with one of those superfluous U’s countries that get worked up about cricket seem to employ.

At the end, it tastes like cheap chai I bought from a corner store.

The spot in Albany Park is a stuff store, a relic of a time when getting whosits and whatdats to your neighbors was an honest graft that could a few rooms for living, a book of family photos and maybe a kid or two to college.

The model doesn’t work anymore. Online ordering and increased competition has freed us from the tyranny of supporting our neighbors and building communities. We turned on each other for a few cents off.

The travel agent rides Uber while the taxi driver orders Amazon. The bookstore owner drowns her woes in CostCo Cheez-Its and the corner store operator uses the empty hours for Kayak alerts on the cheapest of fares. We cut each other out of the equation and there’s no way around it. The world’s hard when all those others don’t support us.

The stuff store was a ceiling-packed Middle Eastern affair. It offered the comforts of a dozen countries, familiar homeland snacks and spices from Turkey, India, places Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and probably even a Christer or two.

The back half of the store was full of plates and teapots and silverware. Odds and ends. An everything store. There were rolls of ornate silver and gold paper, aimed to be cut like butcher sheets. My cohort fingered some silver curlicues. I still don’t know if it was for wrapping or cupboard lining.

I turned a corner and startled a man kneeling on a prayer mat flicking through an iPhone.

By the register stood an old man in a turban and long beard down to his chest. He called over a young man in a track suit, hair in a tight fade, to check me out. An old woman in gown and head scarves limped off slightly to help me get to the register.

I don’t know where to go with this story. It’s rude to call them America, when they don’t need my OK to be brown and Yankee. I can wax poetic about corner stores, but I book flights and buy bulk like the others. I don’t particularly plan to go back when there’s a whole city left of oddness and only 250 more stories to tell them in.

So unsure of a big, dramatic point, I’ll end this story with what I can: The store at Kedzie and Wilson is a well-run business with cheap prices and good service. Everyone was very nice and helpful and I was surprised both by the variety and the quality of product.

I like it as a store. I like it as a business beyond nostalgia for a Mom-and-Pop economy that I know more from movies than my own life. I hope a stuff store can last when everything’s a flick of a finger away from showing up at your doorstep.

Four stars out of four. Would buy again.

Read about a store that didn’t make it

And another

What's this?

You are currently reading #748: Rise and Fall of the American Stuff Store by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.