Little Shop of Shit

The owner of an aptly named store tries to keep it all together.

By Neal Pollack

By his own admission, Sammy Baghdadi is an extremely sophisticated individual. He has traveled extensively and is especially fond of Marrakech. He holds a degree in economics from the Sorbonne.

He currently runs a resale emporium on Division just west of Damen that he calls the Shit Shop.

“What am I going to say about my store?” he says. “That it’s so great? I’m just a little human being who loves everybody. If a doctor or a lawyer or a little man comes to me, I’ll give things to them. Nobody’s better than anybody else. That’s the reason I call my place the Shit Shop.”

A nearly toothless 43-year-old Palestinian, Baghdadi has a habit of melodramatically wiping his hand across his face to indicate how exhausted he is. He has a calm demeanor and says he’s able to get along with just about anyone. “I don’t think there’s anyone between Ashland and Washtenaw, between Armitage and Chicago, who doesn’t know me,” he says.

Three years ago he opened the Shit Shop across the street from its current location. “I’ve been divorced for a while, but I used to live with my ex-wife, to raise the kids,” he says.

“When I decided to open the place I kept bugging her, what should it be called, what should it be called. And she said, ‘I really don’t care if you call it the Shit Shop.’ I said, ‘The Shit Shop it is!'”

He spray painted the words SHI SHOP on the building’s side, so as not to attract the wrath of the city. He wasn’t entirely successful. “A police asked me one time, when I was across the street, what does SHI stand for. I told him, ‘Shit.’ He said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ I said, ‘Shit, you know, crap, like when you go to the toilet?’ He said, ‘You’re gonna go to hell.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll meet you there, man.'”

Last summer the Shit Shop moved to its present home. Baghdadi immediately started filling it up with all kinds of shit. He’s been collecting antiques for years and habitually attends estate sales, so in no time the shop was a tangle of junk, dust, and hidden treasure.

Next door was the Kind Mart, an organic grocery and restaurant. Baghdadi immediately if unknowingly set about alienating its owners, a young married couple named Leslie Dennis and John Wrestler.

“I thought he was disgusting at first,” Dennis says. “Very sexist. Then I realized he was harmless. He just likes to shock people.”

Gradually the Kind Mart and the Shit Shop developed a close business relationship. Baghdadi started cooking and working behind the counter at the Kind Mart, and people from the Kind Mart minded the Shit Shop while Baghdadi was busy pulling junk out of alleys. After a while Baghdadi bought a 25 percent interest in the Kind Mart, and the stores were officially wed.

“We cooperate over here,” Baghdadi said a few weeks ago. “We have our own world, we protect one another. We send each other customers. Nobody can get hungry here. If you get hungry, you go to Kind Mart. If you get broke, come to anyone who has money. If I have it, sure I’ll give it to you. If not, someone else will. In other words, there are no worries here. Not to me anyway. I don’t have worries. The only worry I have is whether I’m gonna get screwed at night or not. But that’s usually not a problem. Heh-heh.”

Near the front door of the Shit Shop, Baghdadi has posted a sign. “Words of Wisdom,” it reads. He wrote them himself, and they represent the sum of his philosophy: “Life is like food. You look at it, you like it, you eat it. You enjoy it. Three hours later, you shit it. But you still take the best out of it. Unless you ate real shit.”

Baghdadi is currently running what he calls his “Liqui-fucking-dation Sale,” which began several months ago and shows no signs of ending. He says he’s trying to get rid of smaller items and focus solely on antiques, but the small stuff keeps coming in and cluttering up the place. Several young women who worked at the Kind Mart came over and organized the Shit Shop, making it look considerably less shitty. Stuff was neatly arranged by category, even if some of the categories were a little strange.

Baghdadi and Dennis recently pointed out certain items of note. These included an entire shelf of pipes that Baghdadi claims once belonged to Native Americans in South Dakota. They sat next to a shelf of porn magazines with titles such as Punished, Fiesta, and Quick and Dirty, which were partially covered by rubber snakes. Baghdadi showed me numerous antique books, cameras, motel-art paintings, chairs, tables, pennants, belt buckles, shells, door knockers, an old tin of cream of tartar, and an accordion from the 1860s.

He took special pride in his knife collection, which he keeps in plastic buckets in the back. “These I got from a warehouse,” he said. “Back home we use them to circumcise our kids. But they were too small for us. So they use laser now.” He cackled and pulled out something like a machete, with a sizable dent. “This we used for my youngest boy,” he said. “But it broke.”

Afterward we sat at a table outside the shop, drank peppermint tea, and ate baklava, which Baghdadi had made himself. A guy came out of the Kind Mart and said, “Good falafel.”

“See,” said Baghdadi. “They like my food and they like my shit.”

Later it was revealed that a strip mall was going up across the street, and a rumor went around that it would include a Gap. This had everyone at the Shit Shop and the Kind Mart concerned.

“We want things to be shitty,” Baghdadi says. “Good shitty. They’re trying to make us a Champs-Elysees or a Michigan Avenue. But this is not the Champs-Elysees. I just want to see all kinds of people here–the good, the bad, the ugly, the rich, the poor. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. We don’t want to look at your face, your color. Make everybody feel like human beings, just like God created it. If somebody wants to borrow a cup of sugar, we’re going to be neighborly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re spending $1,100 a month in rent or living in a doorway. We want to make this a good old shitty street. We’re going to make Division Street the shittiest street in Chicago.”

But this summer hasn’t been kind to Baghdadi. His business relationship with the Kind Mart disintegrated amid much misunderstanding and melodrama. On the first of August the Kind Mart cleared out its stock of vegetables and Dennis and Wrestler took off for Tennessee, maybe for good. Baghdadi was heartbroken and confused. Though he’s normally open 10 AM to 9 PM, seven days a week, one recent Saturday he closed the Shit Shop. Then he reopened on Sunday. He had planned to leave town Monday and Tuesday to clear his head, but couldn’t stay away and opened on Monday afternoon. The shop was in disarray, the work of the women from the Kind Mart already destroyed. Baghdadi hid the porn magazines, which he’d never liked anyway. It’s just not that sort of shop.

“It was the toughest week of my life,” he says. “But everything is all right now. Everything is under control. I want to put the whole thing behind me. I’m gonna run it the way it was before. Everything will be shitty again. And I’m gonna rename the place, too. I’m gonna call it Still the Shit Shop.”

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