The Reader’s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
For years, the “Our Town” section of the Reader profiled ordinary Chicagoans doing mostly ordinary things. You’d read those stories for the way the writing brought the subjects to life.
Neal Pollack’s 2000 “Coffee Club Closes” is a perfect example—some 2,300 words on Don Selle, a Rogers Park cafe owner who’s dying to get rid of his customers, shut down his business, and move to Florida. Despite himself, it seems, Selle managed to become a beloved, if curmudgeonly, member of the community:
For the last four years around Labor Day, he threw an elaborate prom on the concrete patio outside his building, complete with refreshments, decorations, and hours of swing dancing. One year Don donated all his prom proceeds to a neighborhood arts group and another year to the widow of a nearby Russian cobbler who’d been killed in a brutal holdup. He was friends with nearly everyone. Don hosted meetings for tenant organizers, scheming landlords, and political groups both left and right. He counted among his customers local actors, directors, and radio personalities, as well as hundreds of more plebeian folk. For their comfort and entertainment he featured nothing but thrift-store furniture, yellowed lighting, and a backdrop of 40s big-band music. During one period of sagging revenues, he tortured patrons by playing “Gal From Kalamazoo” in an endless loop. His only break from the big-band era came when he got into a Donna Summer album he’d picked up in a junk store. Customers begged him to stop playing it, so he didn’t.
The story of the Coffee Club’s demise has become all too familiar in Chicago. After 1439 W. Jarvis spent most of the 90s as a seedy hangout for ragtag locals who didn’t mind the black coffee and convenience-store food at Selle’s, some people decided to buy the building as an investment property. They evicted most of the tenants and eventually drove Selle out—though he had a long-term lease for both the cafe space and his apartment above—through a combination of deferred maintenance, construction noise, and class hostility.
Selle put the Coffee Club up for sale with an ad in the Reader. Phil Tadros, then a 21-year-old Columbia College student, bought the place and in August 2000 opened the first coffee shop in what would become a much-maligned empire of food and beverage businesses.
But before all that, Pollack captures Rogers Park on the cusp of gentrification in the relationship between Selle and Tadros—an aging neighborhood business owner and and an eager young capitalist briefly coexisting in the same space:
[Tadros] was going to paint the walls for the first time in years, and tear up the carpet. He was going to get some new chairs and tables. Don agreed that the place needed sprucing. The landlords, he said, were planning to tear out the back wall, which bears a tropical palm tree mural, and replace it with glass.
“I asked them if they would put a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” Don said. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
Phil said he’ll have a revamped menu when he reopens this weekend. He will serve espresso and cappuccino, as well as sandwiches, salads, and a variety of other items.
“I’m gonna slice my own meat,” Phil said.
Don looked alarmed.
“With a meat slicer?” he exclaimed. “Slice your meat? Ohhhhhhh! Nooooooo! Don’t slice the meat. Buy it. You’ll get busy and slice your finger off. It would be fabulous, God, but meat slicing is a pain in the ass. I’m telling you. I once ran a deli for a friend of mine. It was horrible.”
“Well, Don,” said Phil, “that’s a risk I’m going to have to take.”
In case you’re wondering what the vibe at Coffee Club was like back in the 90s, here’s a video from one of Don’s legendary parties.