It’s 1990 and Rubber Bands has closed. Not that it was ever really called Rubber Bands. That’s just what my brother and sister and I used to call it. The store on the corner of West Pratt and North California was really called Roband’s, but it hadn’t been Roband’s since it was taken over by Melvin Schoenwald in the early 70s and became a Sun Discount Drugs. But Rubber Bands is what we called it anyway. And so did a lot of the other kids who went to Boone School and KINS Hebrew School.
Sometimes a bunch of us would go there during our break from Hebrew school. Abraham once swiped a Caramello candy bar and stuck it underneath his Mighty Mac jacket. Yehuda used to stand in front of the register, grab for the Playboy magazines, and run out with as many as he could get his hands on, while the Little Orphan Annie girl behind the counter would yell at him and chase him. Eric and I bought our Wiffle balls and bats at Rubber Bands.
My sister bought her first pack of Razzles there. She also used to buy packages of Clark’s Fruit Punch gum, and Adams’ Sour Apple and Black Jack, and Beech-Nut Fruit Stripe, and made the gum wrappers into braided chains. I remember getting a Willie Mays and a Dick Allen card in one pack of Topps bubble-gum cards I bought there and racing home to hide them in my room. I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.
You could get paddleballs at Rubber Bands. And Purple Passion soda. And Star Wars trading cards. And Fudgsicles and Dreamsicles. Sometimes on summer evenings we’d walk over to Rubber Bands and buy Push-Ups and eat them on the stoop in front of our house on North Mozart. Sometimes we’d hide out in the store’s parking lot and then whip snowballs at CTA buses.
December 30, 1989, was the last time I went to Rubber Bands. “It’s impossible to be a small businessman in this world anymore,” said Melvin Schoenwald as he stood behind the prescriptions counter. Men were loading empty freezers into a pickup truck that was waiting outside on California. Orthodox Jewish kids were sifting through the half-empty candy shelves, and an elderly lady was blowing her nose and looking through the get-well cards in the store’s Sociability Center.
The place was covered with hand-lettered signs on pieces of construction paper and poster board. “Everything Must Go.” “Store Closing.” “1/2 PRICE EVERYTHING IN THE STORE.” A sign on a refrigerator said “Everything 1/2 Off,” but the refrigerator was empty.
“You don’t know what you’re doing to me, Mel,” said an old woman in a lint-covered overcoat that smelled of mothballs. She spoke in an Eastern European accent. “I’ve been coming here every day for four years.” She coughed as she paid for her five packs of Virginia Slims and walked out the door. “I’ll miss you,” she said.
“I know I’m letting a lot of nice people down,” said Schoenwald as he bent down to pick up a few stray Good & Plentys that had spilled onto the floor. “That’s the hard part. But unless things change, I don’t see much of a future for any business like this anymore. It’s just not cost effective.”
A man of about 70 in a tweed overcoat and matching brown tweed hat peered through thick glasses with black rims at the items behind the prescription counter.
“Do you have the tablets you use to check for sugar in the urine?” he asked.
“Haven’t had those for years,” said Schoenwald. “We have the dipsticks though.”
The man cringed. “I don’t like the dipsticks,” he said, and thought for a moment. “How about those things they used to have at drug stores, like rose water and haserai like that?”
“Haven’t had that for years,” Schoenwald said.
“You know,” the man said, “I used to work at a place like this. Except we had the works. We had the counter with the soda fountains and everything. This is the closest we got left in the neighborhood.”
Behind the man you could hear the sound of change jingling as Schoenwald helped lift up a candy shelf, revealing a cache of dust, fuzz, and stray coins: a few pennies, a dime, and a Ben Franklin half-dollar.
“My uncle used to own a movie theater, and I’d work there and clean up,” said Schoenwald. “He always told me I could keep whatever money I found. It was unbelievable the amount of change you could find.”
A man in a big blue overcoat and a big black hat shuffled in through the front door, took a pack of gum, and placed it on the front counter. No one was working the register.
“Max,” said Schoenwald. “You came to say goodbye.”
The man nodded and looked away from Schoenwald.
“Hey, nobody’s working the register? I’ll ring you up.”
“You gonna open up another place?”
“Oh no,” Schoenwald said. “This is it for me.”
“Oh,” Max said. “Then maybe I’ll see you in Las Vegas.”
“Yeah, maybe I will.”
“Take care.” Max started to shuffle out the door. He didn’t turn around.
“I’ll miss you,” said Schoenwald.
“Yeah.” Max shrugged and was gone.
To all of his regular customers Schoenwald gave a letter explaining his reasons for closing. He turned his customers’ prescription records over to Osco. “You’ll probably see me working at one of the bigger chains,” he said. “That’s probably what I’ll be doing. But I will miss this place and the people here.”
As I walked out the door, I turned around and considered buying a roll of Sweet Tarts or a Blow Pop. But that shelf was already empty.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Adam Langer.