At the entrance to Windy City Furniture at 22nd and Michigan a colossal pile of furniture stands. Stacks of chairs rise toward the ceiling in precarious columns. Lampshades pop out above the horizon of upholstery, while others spill out from an opening in the ceiling. The neatly stacked piles of kitschy hotel art around the perimeter give the impression that the room itself is framed with gold. The creative use of space, though motivated by sheer pragmatism, yields some truly artistic arrangements: a wobbly stack of chairs and tables could be a Duchamp work. Behind the mountain of furniture, five adjacent televisions argue amongst themselves while one of Chopin’s Nocturnes quietly attempts to restore calm from a nearby radio.
In the center of the room, another argument takes place between the father-son owners, Jerry and Michael Cooper, and one of their customers, Cora. The debate surrounds a certain piece of furniture that has either been sold or simply lost amid the snarl of furnishings. Cora adamantly insists that she saw the piece “right there” not more than a week ago. Some of Cora’s determination stems from the fact that she has been shopping at Windy City Retailers for over 20 years, as she reminds Jerry before he embarks on the treasure hunt for her vanishing cabinet: “He”–referring to Michael–“wasn’t even born when I started coming here.”
Jerry doesn’t find the piece, but Cora seems content with the other odds and ends she’s acquired while roaming the aisles. With her departure, I finally get the chance to talk to the elder storeowner. His Blackhawks cap, puffy North Face jacket, and accent so strongly speak to his city roots, that I immediately regret my first question: “Why Chicago?” It turns out that Jerry’s grandfather, Michael’s great-grandfather, was a security guard for The Hilton Chicago in the 1920s. When the hotel threw out old or broken furniture, he sometimes took the pieces to be sold on Maxwell Street as a way to make a little extra cash. When the hotel started doing bigger renovations, he realized he could turn his side operation into a business.
Jerry tells me this laconically, glossing over the intricacies of the changing family ownership as “a long complicated story,” and urging me not to get into it. What I do gather, from the fragments he chooses to share, is that at one point in the family’s history there was a “split”–the result was two furniture store locations, one that became Windy City Liquidators and another that has since gone out of business. Jerry doesn’t want to go into it, but not because he’s worried about privacy; it’s because he thinks it’s boring. For him, business history is just more family history.
After we conclude the interview I ask him out of curiosity if there’s a story behind a signed poster I happened to notice of former Makita power tool pinup girl Charlene Kelly. His response is as humble as his explanation of the store’s history, “I went to the hardware store to buy a screwdriver and she was signing posters,” he says, adding after a pause, “I wish there was more of a story to it.”
Jerry’s retelling of the store’s history is modest, but walking through the piles of furnishings, I can’t help but ascribe a greater importance to it. Windy City Liquidators has a story; you might just have to be on the outside of the family business in order to see that. The story unfolds best not through Q&A, but through a casual perusing of its aisles. While the pieces are meant to be inconspicuous in the context of a hotel, here they acquire a comedic value by virtue of their stage-like presentation. One can’t help but admire, for example, a lonely copy of a Jimmy Buffet novel on an otherwise empty shelf, or an oscillating fan with a for sale sign, that is nonetheless put to use by the store’s workers. The objects on display are themselves characters–for now piled together in the stacks of Windy City Furniture as they wait to enter the lives of their buyers. This is a story best told through things.