Louis Armstrong’s horn wailed where the glass case of pliers and wrenches now stands. Cab Calloway hi-de-hoed by the breakroom microwave.
The stage went out six feet farther, David Meyers said, gesturing to the glass case as we took the steps to his office.
“I want to make this a museum inside of a hardware store,” he said.
Meyers Ace Hardware seems like a lot of other over-stuffed stores in a moderately low-income neighborhood – Bronzeville in this case. It’s jammed with merchandise, wash cloths for 99¢, hangers for $1. Bedbug killer advertised in the window. Toys, tents and other non-hardware merch that ended up on the shelves somehow. There’s a turnstyle after the entrance and a tall man paid to guard against the inventory walking out the door one plunger or child’s doll at a time.
But in the 1920s and 30s, this was the Sunset Cafe, the hottest of the hot hot nightclubs. “Chicago’s Brightest Pleasure Spot” where both blacks and whites could dine and dance to a “Colored Revue Extraordinary.”
“All is lively, lurid, noisy and ‘hot’ in a Negro night club, and the proceedings get much ‘hotter’ as the night wears on,” a man named John Drury wrote in a 1931 Chicago dining guide I happen to own. “Here, also, are the Negro ‘blues’ singers, the amazing tap dancers, those high-yellow chorines (chorus girls), and those snare drummers and saxophone artists who seem almost possessed by wild demons.”
I handed my copy of that book to Meyers in the hardware store back room. He handled it gingerly, as people accustomed to handling old things do.
He nodded as he read along.
“It was known as ‘black-and-tans’ because both blacks and whites went there,” Meyers said, confirming the book’s description of the Sunset.
Meyers and I were the only whites around today. His family bought the building from Louis Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser in 1960. It has been a hardware store ever since.
“I’m trying to build up my tourist business,” Meyers told me moments before an employee named Raoul cut in with a question about Scotts Turf Builder.
David Meyers is a polite, slight man on first-name terms with all his employees. He wore a baseball cap and a promotional vest from Gorilla Glue the day I visited. You’ll have to ask for David at the counter; he’s the one to see about the breakroom wall.
The back wall of the breakroom and of David’s office is what remains of the club that brought Satchmo to Chicago, where Benny Goodman, Sun Ra and Earl “Fatha” Hines would heat up the Thirty-fifth and Calumet crowds those noisy, lurid nights. It, or rather the mural of jazz men painted on it, was the backdrop of the stage that once went six feet into the wrenches.
This piano player whose head is now cropped by cabinets looked over Satchmo’s shoulder as he blew his horn into the hot lights of the black-and-tan crowd. This saxophone artist who now looks like he’s kissing a vent once backed Rudy Grier’s Autumn Follies, music by “Sun Ra & Orch. 3 Shows Nitely.”
Now these painted jazz men watch hardware store employees clock in, clock out, hang their coats, nuke their lunches. They look on as Meyers does the inventory, payroll and other work that’s kept this business open for 50 years and two generations.
After the Sunset Cafe became the Grand Terrace, Wednesdays were Mambo Nights. Now they’re Senior Days, offering 10 percent off all purchases.
David Meyers had to return to work to handle a particularly tricky customer question about sizing screens. He asked if I needed anything else. I told him I just wanted to take some pictures of the glass case of tools. He left.
Alone, I did something corny. I closed my eyes and listened for what’s left of the jazz. I listened for Louis, Cab, Benny, Fatha, Sun, Rudy and hundreds more I’ll never know. I listened for the cabinet-cropped keyboardist and vent-kissing sax man to start up a sweet and hot song last heard a wild Chicago night decades ago.
I listened. I heard.
Written in May 2012