By Neal Pollack

Betty’s Resale Shop was either a treasure trove or an eyesore, depending on who was looking. Last week the city stepped in to settle the debate (detailed in the Reader September 25). On Wednesday, November 18, five garbage trucks pulled up to the strip of storefronts on the 3400 block of North Lincoln. They were followed by officials from the Department of Streets and Sanitation, several police officers, and Alderman Ted Matlak. The garbagemen walked into the building at 3439 N. Lincoln and began removing sheets of glass, secondhand appliances, old lamps, and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Mary Gonzalez, who runs the shop for her mother, Betty Merker, didn’t take it sitting down. She ordered her employees to start hauling the stuff to the building next door. The garbagemen grabbed Gonzalez’s desk and tossed it into their truck.

The officials asked to be let into Merker and Gonzalez’s apartment upstairs. They’d been ordered, they said, to clean out the entire building. That’s when cameras from Channel Nine showed up and the cleanup stopped. Matlak split. He later said he had to attend a hearing of the Local Liquor Control Commission. The raiders had only succeeded in emptying the main building, but they promised to return.

The previous Friday, November 13, Housing Court judge Brendan McGooey had ordered the whole five-lot complex shut down. The day before, Matlak had seen an open gasoline can in the basement of the main building. A city inspector testified that the clutter would be dangerous in the event of a fire. The judge said Gonzalez could reopen if the violations were corrected, but she told him that she’d just spent all her money on a funeral for her husband, Lupe, who died on Halloween. McGooey said he sympathized, but Betty’s was still closed.

Matlak says that cleaning up Betty’s has been one of his top priorities since he took over the alderman’s job in May, replacing his former boss, Terry Gabinski. This summer Gonzalez was issued citations, but not much changed. Complaints continued to mount. “This has been an escalation over the years,” Matlak says. “She was never willing to cooperate. For the city to physically come in and clean it out, I can’t tell you how far along in the process this is. I’ve been begging her for years, and I don’t think she understands now.”

Gonzalez’s neighbors could barely contain their glee. “I would have closed it down 25 years ago,” says Norm Dinkel, who owns the 75-year-old Dinkel’s Bakery. “It’s been allowed to fester. It’s a cancer on the neighborhood. Someone could toss a lit cigar in there on the way back from a saloon and the whole block would go up like a bonfire.”

Scott Horning, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, was more philosophical. “The feeling that most people have is that she’s not capable of changing her ways. Given that she’s had so many opportunities to make good, she’s repeatedly demonstrated that will not happen.”

After the raid, shoppers continued to come by looking for bargains. One customer was in the market for a baby stroller, another wanted a stove. Gonzalez directed them to a warehouse down the street, where she can still legally conduct business. She says she plans to relocate most of her stuff to a warehouse on the west side.

Matlak has informed Gonzalez that she has two weeks to clean up the remaining buildings. If she does nothing, he says, everything will go into Dumpsters.

“It just seems like everything’s getting twisted around,” says Gonzalez. “Why are they condemning me? I can’t do nothing to please them! I give people a way to make a living. I go to every garage sale in this neighborhood. I go to every estate sale. Everybody that calls me, I’m open. That’s why everybody says, ‘Mary, I cannot believe you’re having this kind of trouble.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe it myself. Why are they dumping on Betty’s?'” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): storefront photo by Nathan Mandell.