Slice of Life

Barhopping With Shirley the Bread Lady

By Polina Shklyanoy

The bread lady drives a dark brown 1986 Plymouth minivan. When she stops to make a drop-off, she leaves one of her Misty 120s burning in the ashtray. In the back, about 40 loaves of bread in plain white boxes are packed in two large Tupperware-like containers. Black marker on the side of each box notes what kind of bread is inside, and a faded light blue stamp lists the all-natural ingredients–just like the company logo says, “Natural Breads, Naturally Good.” The boxes are surprisingly heavy. Shirley’s kids help her load the bread most nights, and they used to help her sell it, but now she mostly works alone.

“My mom was murdered right there,” she says offhandedly as we pass Wicker Park. Until then we’d been discussing her studies at the City Colleges of Chicago. Everything’s dealt with matter-of-factly–the good and the bad. She talks about the ex-husband who wouldn’t admit to fathering their youngest daughter, the boyfriend who stole all her money, her alcoholic mother, and her kids in the same blunt tone, but you can tell she’s got a soft spot. She talks about her kids all the time, using their ages to mark the major events in her life. She took a trip to Spain two years ago and says the poverty she saw there “will stay in my mind like when Bambi’s mother was killed or they put Dumbo’s mom in that cage.” She likes to dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” while she bakes.

The first time I met Shirley was at a bar at 2 AM on a warm August night. She came in through the back door and pushed through a crowd by the pool table. She landed at our table of four. “You guys want some bread?” she asked. Huh? “Bread,” she said again slowly, as if we didn’t speak English. “I’m the bread lady, so do you want some bread or what?” She obviously had better things to do than talk to us. We had to think quickly. We bought blueberry.

Everyone in West Town seems to know Shirley. She’s been selling her homemade bread bar to bar for five years. On Saturday nights, which are her slowest, she says she can sell about 30 loaves at $4 to $5 each. Thursdays are the busiest, especially in Bucktown and Wicker Park. “They’re going to get paid tomorrow, so they spend whatever they have,” she says. Sales don’t really start rolling until midnight, when bar patrons begin to get hungry.

Actually Shirley’s more worried about her own hunger pangs. She used to employ a girl to sell the bread, but she had to fire her, and as a consequence business dropped off by more than half in the last year. She has to sell at least 40 loaves a day just to break even, but she’s been barely able to do that. “Yesterday I was out 13 hours and I sold 50, but that doesn’t happen every day,” she says.

Shirley admits her brusque sales pitch may be killing sales. “If people ask me ‘How are you?’ I’m going to tell them. Someone will ask me how bread sales are going.” She gives a thumbs-down and blows a raspberry. “That’s how bread sales are going. You want to know what I did Christmas Eve? I cried all day. That should have been my busiest day, and I didn’t get one phone call. I don’t know how to sell bread. All I know how to do is bake bread.”

She learned to bake in bulk from her father, who “would bring home these cookbooks from the army–he never made anything less than half the recipe. There was dough everywhere.” Shirley still bakes big, making about 250 loaves a week, using three old double ovens and a number of food processors in her home.

But this isn’t the story of a start-up. “It’s not like I wanted this to be my lifelong career,” Shirley says. She began to sell her bread because she needed money, she needed money because she couldn’t find a job, and she couldn’t find a job in part because she spent a lot of time taking care of other people and their children. “I don’t really take people in, they just come,” she says. “I had three little kids, but people were always coming to my house because they wanted to leave their spouses or boyfriends.” At one point she had 13 people living with her, most of them under ten. Her first real sales were through the kids–she would bake cookies, and they would sell them in Cicero, where she then lived, for extra money. “My house has always been a place for kids to bake–all these kids who used to be gangbangers and are in prison now remember baking cookies in my kitchen and gobbling them up.” She had been studying criminal justice, but at 48 she felt she was too old for government work. “Then one of my instructors said, ‘Why don’t you sell your bread? You’ve been giving it away. Why don’t you go to this bar? It’s a cop bar. Cops’ll buy anything.'” One cop bar led to another, which led to other taverns and eventually to phone orders. She likes those the best, because you don’t need a sales pitch. Selling to people who need their last $5 for cab fare requires more creativity. Once at Sweet Alice in Ukrainian Village she spent three and a half hours hustling pool to sell eight loaves of bread. She proudly explains she became a shark in Spain, where she says she won third place in the national pool championships in Pamplona. She dreams of buying a one-way ticket back, but more immediate concerns keep her in Chicago. What she wants right now is to get more day sales, maybe supplying bread to a college cafeteria. “That would really just salvage my life,” she says.

But for the bar crowd, she’s part of the evening’s entertainment. There are a few white boxes scattered among the empty beer glasses, some opened, some being saved for tomorrow. It’s the middle of the night, but someone’s thinking about what to have for breakfast.

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