The sign dominates the southeast corner of Oak Park Avenue and Madison Street in Oak Park. Rendered in that variably sized sans serif font familiar to anyone who's ever walked past a supermarket, it reads:
We thank the Village and
All its Residents for Supporting
Us on this corner for over 60 years.
IT HAS BEEN AN HONOR
THE NEW TENANT HAS A
WONDERFUL PLAN TO TRANSFORM
THIS CORNER. THEY ARE INVESTING
IN OUR TOWN AND WE SHOULD
APPLAUD AND ADMIRE . . .
OH POX AND PESTILENCE!
BUY PIZZAS AND MOTOR OIL FROM THEM;
FILL YOUR RXs 4 BLOCKS WEST AT
FOR THE PLEASURE OF NOT
MAKING THEM TOO BIG TO FAIL.
Until recently the storefront was occupied by the Sears Pharmacy. On its Madison Street side is another sign:
LATEST ZOGBY TRACKING POLL ON SEARS MOVE . . .
5% WONDER IF WE WILL STILL SELL WASHING MACHINES
2% ON BOARD AND WILL FOLLOW
And to the west, on the next window down, a third:
AN IKE IDEA
A MILLION DOLLARS IN THE
BANK WILL EARN ENOUGH
PER YEAR FOR US TO SEND
A LARGE GROUP OF OUR
EVERY YEAR TO
BORA BORA OR TAHITI
WHERE THEY COULD LEARN TO
SCUBA DIVE OR PARASAIL
I began following the low-tech blog of Sears proprietor Thomas Rains after moving in nearby four years ago. Most of Rains's postings have proudly emphasized the slow and surly service awaiting patrons at his independent establishment. The current crop, like a lot of Rains's signs, is brimmed with enigmatic references. Who, for example, was this incoming tenant that would soon be retailing pizzas and motor oil? When did a drugstore ever sell washing machines? And what on God's green earth was an "Ike Idea"?
I stopped by his new location, a few blocks down Madison Street, to ask him.
The 54-year-old Rains is a reserved, bearish man with a reddish sandy beard and an affable air that undermines his signs' promises of customer abuse.
The explanation for Ike: "They were talking about doing a study on building a cap over the Eisenhower Expressway between Harlem and Austin and just to decide would cost a million dollars," said Rains. "So I thought, 'Why not put the money in the bank and put the interest to work for senior citizens?'"
And the washing machines?
"You know: Sears," said Rains. "We get a couple phone calls every week from people looking for sporting goods, appliances . . . "
Rains, an Oak Parker and a married father of three who grew up in nearby Harvey, bought the pharmacy from its second owner in 1988 (it was founded by a Jack Sears in 1949). He's been posting the signs for most of his tenure. "The very first sign I put up a long, long time ago, this old Italian guy who had been coming to me forever came in and said, 'Is that your sign?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he just shook his head smiling. And I decided the signs were the way to go."
When not running down his own business, Rains occasionally uses his signs to comment on local politics and current affairs. "I try not to be pedantic, and unless I'm being self-deprecating, I try not to be mean," he said. "I like to just tweak things a little.
"The best response I ever got was from a guy who told me, 'Your modest and mostly ineffectual attempts at humor have brought me into your store,'" said Rains, and he bent over laughing. "Modest!" he said, pounding the counter twice with an open palm. "And mostly ineffectual!
"But generally I think people like the signs," he continued, recovering his composure. "I've had people say they like the signs."
Rains typically posts new ones every two or three months. When a joke or idea occurs to him, he e-mails the text to a sign painter in Wisconsin, who mails him the finished product in a cardboard tube, for about $40 per sign. "I rarely do any other kind of advertising, so it's not a big expense," he said.
The "new tenant" referred to in his last hurrah at the old location is Walgreens, which has bought the building. Rains is sanguine about losing his lease and the highly visible corner spot. "There's no point in being upset," he said. "I've seen the plan for what Walgreens is going to do with that block, and to be honest, it's going to look great. I've moved to a smaller location, which is fine for me—I don't need all the fronts. No complaints."
He's already got a sign in the window of the vacant storefront next to his new space:
We Were Thinking
BASS PRO SHOPS
Is Rains worried that his clientele will defect to Walgreens and buy more than just pizza and motor oil there?
"No," he said. "I have my people and they have theirs. The real threat lately has been mail-order pharmacies, but I think we've lost all we're going to on that front."
I had one more question for Rains. Could he tell me who or what influenced his comedy stylings? A lot of his signs contain fairly archaic language—"pox & pestilence," for example.
"Oh," said Rains, laughing and thumping the counter again. "That line is from a science fiction series I read back in the 70s, by Poul Anderson. He has this character Nicholas van Rijn, 'trader to the stars,' who's always saying 'Pox and pestilence!' I just liked that."