This is the subhead treatment.
By Paul Turner
About seven or eight years ago, in a fit of mid-20s pseudo-artistic inspiration, a friend and I decided to finish off a bottle of Yukon Jack in the middle of a cemetery. In the process I ripped my pants. When I took them to a tailoring and dry cleaning shop on Roscoe near Damen, the proprietor gave me a tongue-lashing.
“Goddamn it. Look at this. What the hell is the matter with you? What the hell have you done to these good pants? You should take better care of your clothes.”
I seldom pass up an opportunity to engage in combat with retailers who are rude or overbearing. But Kurt Scheel was neither. He was just concerned about my pants. So I let him fix them, and I kept coming back, even after I’d moved. I’d try to excuse heavy-duty stains by protesting that I worked in a restaurant and couldn’t avoid them. “You should be more careful,” Kurt would lecture. Yet his vinegar was sweetened by the honey that oozes from his wife, Maria. Usually she mans the counter while Kurt sews in the back. They’ve been at the same location for 33 years.
Last month I brought in some clothes and was shocked to see a giant Business for Sale sign in the window. I wasn’t the only one: several customers have walked in crying after getting the news the same way I did, impersonally, from a piece of cardboard. I can handle the occasional dressing-down about my dress-up clothes, but the thought of somebody else cleaning my pants is tough to take.
The Scheels are from Stuttgart, in southern Germany. Kurt apprenticed as a tailor for three years, working for virtually nothing. Then he got a job in a clothing factory and met Maria, who worked in the office. When I ask them how long they dated, Kurt laughs. “I don’t know.”
“Two years,” says Maria, shooting Kurt a glance. “Don’t ask Kurt.”
They married in 1958 and had a daughter, Mariza. Then Maria’s father, who was separated from her mother and living in Chicago, paid them a visit. “They were not ‘divorced’ divorced,” says Maria of her parents. “He got separated from the family during the war. Then, you got automatically divorced. My mother got remarried to a man with the same last name. Then nobody know I got a stepfather.”
Maria’s father urged them to emigrate, and Kurt made a deal with him. “I said, ‘You pay me the trip one-way and we come.’ And we did.” Kurt, Maria, and Mariza took a boat to New York City. They arrived in Chicago by train on April 6, 1963, and moved in with Maria’s father, who worked as a plumber at “26th aaaand…” Kurt struggles. Maria finishes his sentence: “28th and Kedvale.”
Kurt’s father-in-law had arranged a job for him at Brooks Brothers near Michigan and Madison, as a “fitter and a bushel man.” “They called it a bushel man,” says Kurt. “I don’t know why. That’s what they called it. Write ‘tailor.'” He then went to work for Hart, Schaffner, and Marx as a supervisor in their new ladies’ division, making, among other things, uniforms for United Airlines.
Kurt was content, but Maria nosed around the city, shopping for a storefront where they could strike out on their own. More than 30 years later Kurt seems unsure how he came to be his own boss. “There was never any intention to buy anything,” he recalls. Then whose idea was it to go into business? “Hers.”
“The troublemaker,” adds Maria.
She found a tailor shop on 26th, but Kurt put his foot down when he saw that all the machines were in the window. “I’m not going to sit in a window in a store and have people watch what I do,” he declared. “I’m not a monkey.”
The business they wound up buying for $1,500 in July 1967 is the same one that’s for sale today, at 2016 W. Roscoe. Back then the neighborhood was still heavily German, with a strip of bars between Damen and Western that catered to Riverview carnies. The Scheels have never owned the building, just the sewing machines, the beautiful wooden cabinets, the triptych of angled mirrors, and the huge, ancient cash register. They say the property’s been a tailor shop for at least 70 years. A previous owner had collapsed and died in the shop about ten years before the Scheels arrived, and if he walked in today he’d have no trouble recognizing the place.
At first the going was tough. The owner before them had done very little dry cleaning and serviced only a handful of tailoring customers. The neighborhood had three other tailors. But Kurt and Maria’s business grew. In the early years they took in more tailoring; today they handle more dry cleaning, though Kurt still sews for 40 hours a week. The shop seems busy for a business of its kind, especially on Saturdays, but if you ask the Scheels exactly how many customers they have or how many pieces of cleaning they do a week, they can’t tell you. “I never count it,” says Kurt. “Look around, it is full.”
Indeed, on a weekday afternoon the place is stuffed with clothes draped in plastic. Some cleaners advertise “Plant on Premises,” but Kurt sends all the cleaning out to a larger service, a van that makes deliveries twice daily. “I don’t want to have a one-day service. I don’t have the clothes back the next day, the customer gets mad at me. I don’t need that.” He’s too busy hemming pants and shortening sleeves. Maria handles the bulk of the dry cleaning, then she’ll go home to cook supper while Kurt handles the counter till seven or eight.
He spends about 60 hours a week in the shop. They shut down twice a year, once between Christmas and New Year’s and again for three weeks during the summer. “I tell people, ‘You get paid vacation, I don’t.’ I close up, I lose a few customers, but I don’t give a damn.” The shop is also closed Wednesdays. Sort of. If you go there on a Wednesday the Sorry We Are Closed sign will be hanging, but push the door open and Kurt and Maria will be there working, trying to get caught up. Patronize them more than a few times and they’ll let you in on the secret: they’ll take care of you on Wednesdays.
It can’t be much of a secret anymore: they have customers from all over who used to live around here and still come back to get their cleaning or alterations. One loyal patron used to mail his dry cleaning to Kurt and Maria when he was in California.
The Scheels share a two-flat on Irving Park, with a garden apartment that will provide some retirement income. They know that after years of hard work it’s time to relax. Kurt’s shoulders ache from being bent over so much. He hands me an iron, its wooden handle worn perfectly smooth from years of use. “How would you like using this all day to iron clothes?” It weighs about 15 pounds.
A few people have looked into buying their business, but so far no one’s bitten. Kurt and Maria would like to see the shop continue, but if it hasn’t sold by September they’ll simply call it quits. Maria never thought she’d say it, but she’s ready. Still, the thought saddens her. “We have good customers. I will miss my customers.” The feeling is mutual. In fact, you might call it a perfect fit.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kurt and Maria Scheel photo by Robert Drea.