A giant spray-painted truck was parked outside Mizz Nellie’s Soundtrack in early August, blasting tunes from Legit Ballaz: Respect the Game Vol. 3, the latest release on the label run by hometown hip-hop hero Twista. Inside the shop, at 2945 W. Madison, swarms of children were buying candy and CDs, asking the Legit Ballaz crew for autographs, and playing video games. The store’s owner, 46-year-old Nellie Thomas, reminded an unruly eight-year-old girl to be ladylike. The girl immediately quieted down and said, “Yes, mama.”

Thomas, who was wearing a long apron over her blouse and jeans, usually whips up a soul-food dinner when artists do an in-store promotion–macaroni and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken, baked fish, string beans, banana pudding. Five-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys liked the dinner she got so much that she asks to stop by Mizz Nellie’s each time she swings through the midwest. “Alicia doesn’t come to Chicago without asking about Mizz Nellie,” says Allan Cole, the regional representative for Keys’s label. “And if she doesn’t see her, she wants to know why.”

But Thomas didn’t have time to play chef for the Legit Ballaz appearance. Instead she ordered nearly a dozen pizzas, which disappointed one gruff guy in his mid-20s. “I came to see if mama cooked something,” he said. “I can see Twista and them around the way anytime.” Thomas just smiled.

The dinners are one way Thomas is trying to keep her business going. According to Def Jam retail rep Rob Greco, about half a dozen local indie music stores have closed this year, driven out by the slumping economy, too much bootlegging, and the elimination of a law that prevented retailers–usually big chains–from selling music for less than list price. All of these problems burden Thomas–a van regularly sells bootleg CDs down the street from her shop–plus she has to contend with a high crime rate and the loss of customers to encroaching gentrification. “She represents all the issues that are facing the indies,” says Greco, “but she’s a story of survival.”

Before opening her own shop in 1997, Thomas worked seven days a week for nearly a decade at Barney’s One Stop, one of Chicago’s few black-owned music outlets. For a while she also worked nights at the popular west-side mega-indie George’s Music Room. “Talk about a person with no life,” she says. “I felt I wasn’t appreciated enough, so I did my own thing.”

Her first store, at 5252 W. Division, got off to a great start, but in 1999 it was destroyed by a fire. She’d already earned a reputation in the industry as a hard worker with a good heart, and several record labels and rappers donated money to help her rebuild at her current location.

In 1999 she and two other store owners, Gus Redmond and Patrick Colvin, founded the Ultimate Music Group, an association of indie stores that specialize in urban music. The group tries to persuade labels to give them the benefits granted to chains, arguing, among other things, that indies often dictate sales trends for hip-hop and R & B; it has persuaded labels to sponsor radio ads, billboards, and events and to give store owners free promotional CDs to hand out. The group also prints a quarterly magazine listing the top-selling CDs in each store, and its members exchange ideas on making their stores more successful. Greco says that Thomas, who’s president of the group, “tells it like it is. But if she tells you about a problem she tells you what could remedy the problem too. If a title’s not moving she has ideas on how to make it sell.”

The indie store owners say they offer something the chains don’t. The latest songs are pumping on speakers outside and inside Thomas’s store. She has full catalogs for nearly every R & B, hip-hop, and blues artist, local and national. Her shop walls and ceilings are plastered with posters and displays.

But Thomas has gone even further. She pitches her store as a safe haven for kids, selling an array of candy and setting up video games they can play for a quarter. “This is the best thing that’s happened to this neighborhood,” says Thomas’s son Andre, who works at the shop. “When they come in here they can be kids. They don’t have to worry about gang violence, getting shot, or any of that.”

Thomas also keeps trying to come up with new hooks. In February she sold Valentine’s Day baskets filled with romantic CDs, candles, novelty condoms, and the like. Later she sold Easter baskets with CDs. “I still have people asking me about those baskets,” she says. And then there are the soul-food dinners. She’s now considering selling some of the dishes: “The kids are always telling me they’d buy food if I’d sell it.”

But Thomas’s biggest dream is to open a bed-and-breakfast for touring artists. She already has support from Keys, Def Jam president Kevin Liles, and other industry leaders, as well as local politicians. “I love being able to wine and dine them and see the expression on their face when they taste my food,” she says. “I shock them every time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.