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On the stretch of Ashland that runs from Back of the Yards to Englewood, between 50th and 63rd Streets, vacant lots and storefront churches outnumber shops and homes, and pedestrians are few and far between. But a few scrappy shopkeepers hawk their wares there anyway–some because they’re committed to the neighborhood, others because they got stuck there. They put their goods out on the street and hope the city doesn’t bust them for blocking a public walkway. Then they pray for customers.

Dollar City Plus

6230 S. Ashland

Nageh Salameh moved here in 1983 “from Palestine, the Holy Land,” he says. He started his own business selling rugs off a truck in 1994. Now he uses them outside to advertise his variety store. “Sometimes we don’t sell nothing from outside,” he says. “It’s just to attract the customer.”

His salesclerk, Khalid Omar, started working here in February. “Business sucks,” he says. “It’s slow as hell.” But “last week we sold 12 rugs. People come and buy them in bunches. Some put them on the floor, some put them on the wall. You either sell a lot or you don’t sell any at all.” The rugs are priced at $29.99. Omar puts them out every morning, then rolls them up and puts them away at night. When it rains, he says, “I run out here and roll ’em up as fast as I can.”

Salameh gets grief from his landlord about his display at times, but says “If you pay $5,000 rent a month you have to do whatever it takes to survive.”

Ashland Auto Repair & Sales

5323 S. Ashland

G & B Resale

Across the street

Mike of Ashland Auto Repair & Sales and Gary of G & B Resale didn’t want to be photographed, but both were happy to talk. “There’s no business around here, nothing going on, man,” says Mike, who’s originally from Israel. “From 51st Street to 79th Street is no business. Auto repair, nothing. We tried tire repair, nobody comes. We start selling refrigerators. We put the refrigerators out to draw business. This one is $175. I’d let it go for $125 if somebody offered. Look, I’m studying this book.” He’s holds up a book on oven and cooktop repair.

Between 47th and 49th streets, Mike says, the sidewalks are bustling. “Here, the people get public aid money and spend it the first three days of the month. Up there everybody’s working.” He adds, “It’s a tough neighborhood. Maybe people are scared to come.” Pointing to Gary, who’s standing behind a display case across the street, he says, “Look at him across the street. He can’t even sell a cup for 25 cents.”

Before Gary started the resale shop he owned a used-car lot next door to the auto repair store. Gary’s business was better before the corner Walgreens closed eight months ago. “When Walgreens was here there was a lot of traffic, a lot of walkers-by,” he says. “Now, since Walgreens left, gone to 47th Street, you don’t have no ladies walking by.” So he puts his wares out to attract drivers. “If I didn’t they wouldn’t know I’m here. A lot of times people will be looking for a certain thing. If you have it outside and they drive by and see it, they’ll stop.”

Neither Gary nor Mike has been told to shut down the sidewalk sales. “I got [my stuff] four feet off the walkway,” Gary says. He points to the large Super Dollar on the next block, the only new building south of 47th for at least a mile. Gary says, “They got stuff all over and [the cops] don’t bother them. But if I did, they would.”

Grown Folks Music

Lot on the corner of 50th and Ashland

Reverend John Johnson has everything a full-service record store needs except walls and a roof. His sound system draws customers–several are browsing the hard-to-find gospel, blues, and R&B CDs and tapes displayed on racks and folding tables. But Johnson, a Pentecostal minister, isn’t here primarily to make money. Forced in 2001 to move from Maxwell Street, where he was a familiar figure for nearly 40 years, he’s on a mission: “I chose this area because it’s involved in gang activity and people are afraid of the area,” he says. “I’m a minister, but I take my ministry outside. I take artistically oriented music and bring it into a community that has devastation and some hopelessness.

“I got into this during the civil rights era, after the bus boycott. It hit me: If I can get a bus and legalize it, get a valid license and everything else, there’s no reason why any policeman can stop me. I can get Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and pay no rent.” He prices his goods according to the customer. “I let the rich carry the burden,” he says. “Even if somebody doesn’t have two dollars, I’ll look at him. If he’s sick or alone and he looks like he really needs it, I’ll let him have it. I know that music at home can be a friend.”

Reverend Johnson donated his original bus to the Save Maxwell Street Coalition and started out again with another one, but he’s preaching the same gospel. “Art provides a spark of hope in chaos,” he says. “Art is not hindered by circumstances or conditions.” His sign, and the name of his business, came from chaos of a different sort. “I took the sign from my grandchildren. They were throwing toys against it and I said, ‘If you’re not going to use that board for anything else, I’m taking it.'” He laughs. “So it’s Grown Folks Music.”

Big Dollar Variety Store

5038 S. Ashland

Willie Williams owns three baseball caps that say “God has been so good 2 me,” one red, one black, and one white. He wears one of them every day. Now 64 years old, he retired from a sales job at DuPont 11 years ago and has been operating his shop ever since. “I’m extremely happy. I’ve got a happy life. I don’t have no arthritis, diabetes, I’m in good health. I consider that a blessing,” he says.

The small furnishings and racks of clothing on the sidewalk are a sampling of what’s inside the shop. There’s no sign on the store. “They [the city] made us take the sign down last year. You got to have a different kind of sign,” Williams says. He didn’t feel the need to put up a new one. “Everybody around here knows me as Big Dollar,” he says.

Williams believes his store provides a community service. “This is not a want neighborhood, this is a need neighborhood. I try to supply the needs,” he says. “Some of the people, their gas is off, they need help. They don’t need nobody running over them or trying to make a fortune off of them, they need help.” Help which may not always be appreciated. “The public can really get on your nerves,” he says, “but you’ve got to stay calm because your survival is them. You need them and they need you.”

Shalice Resale

5034 S. Ashland

Two men are stacking mattresses on top of two cars parked in front of a storefront that, like Big Dollar a couple of doors away, has no sign. Ann Hamilton, who opened Shalice Resale four years ago, says, “We had a name but you need a permit for airspace. We had a thing on the window but they made us take it down, didn’t say why. They did the same to other businesses around here.

“We go through a lot of changes with the city,” she goes on. “Put a chair out here, that’s a ticket. Put a sign out here, that’s a ticket. Put a mattress out here, that’s a ticket.” This is one reason her mattresses are stacked on top of cars. “That’s my car, it’s registered, my sticker’s up-to-date,” Hamilton says. “They gave me trouble about it once, but they couldn’t do anything. It’s all legal.” Stacked six and seven high, the mattresses double as advertising. “Even when they’re not buying anything they’ll stop and look. And if they see the prices they’ll come back.”

As few shops as there are here now, Hamilton says there used to be fewer: “Up until this year there was nothing down here, really. There was a store at 63rd and Ashland, and between 63rd and here there was nothing. It was like a dead man’s land.” A new Mexican restaurant and pawnshop on the block, as well as the new dollar store just to the south, have brought more people into the area, which is a relief to Hamilton. “Being so isolated you always worried about people trying to rob you or things of that nature. I mean, there was nothing here, who’s gonna say what?”

The new businesses also brought city inspectors, but Hamilton sees them as part of the game. “Long as they leave me alone, I’m OK. I’m just trying to stay around and be carefree.”

Liquidation Zone

1500 W. 47th Street

The 47th Street retail strip is another country. Though the Goldblatt’s on the corner is closed, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries, and variety shops line the street. Here too a few merchants put their wares outside. “Business is good,” says Pilal, who’s running a shop at 47th and Laflin that sells shoes and rugs. “Sometimes when they see the shoes sometimes buy a rug and some shoes.”

Pilal lives in Jordan and is only here to watch the store while the owner, his brother-in-law, is overseas. “I was working in airport as a technician. I take a vacation, six months without salary.” He’d never worked in retail until two months ago. Since then, he says, he’s learned that “you have to make kindness with the people. Some will come and make argument–I don’t want this and why this price? You have to be kind to tell them this is the price.” Pilal says his brother-in-law owes him big-time. He’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Super Dollar & Up

5257 S. Ashland

The manager at the Super Dollar store at 52nd and Ashland wouldn’t talk to us at length or allow a photo to be taken of the store. It’s the biggest, newest, shiniest place in the area. As the manager prowled the sidewalk he explained that the cartons of shoes, electric bikes, and other goods stacked high on the sidewalk were legal: “They told us we had six feet clearance, OK?” But he made certain to stay around until we left, to make sure that there was no photographic evidence of the largest display of abundance on this part of Ashland Avenue.

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