Closing Up Shop | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Closing Up Shop 

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By Kirsten Schnoor

When Joe decided to sell Pioneer Food Market, his cousin Sophie was the one who told me the news.

"You have good handwriting?" she asked one night when I stopped in the corner store.

"Fairly good," I said.

"Write Moving Out Sale--Everything 25 Percent Off," she said and handed me some poster board. "We put it in the window." I told her I'd go home and get some paint to make two signs.

"You use colors people will see, right? Red, blue," she suggested.

"Don't you want to say Going Out of Business on the signs?" I asked.

"No. Moving Out Sale."

Joe agreed when he came from the back room. "Going out of business means you are bankrupt. We just close the store."

Joe and Sophie, former Jordanians, opened Pioneer Food Market four years ago at Montrose and Winchester. Joe says they chose the name Pioneer because of the first immigrants who settled in the United States. "I think of the first people to come to this country," he told me. "They try to make something, work hard."

When I first moved to the neighborhood, the space housed a video store; I never went in. I started buying groceries at Pioneer because it was right across the street from my apartment--plus Joe was always willing to stock things I wanted. One time I needed some flaked coconut for a recipe, but Pioneer didn't carry it.

"What you need?" Joe asked. "Tell me--I order on Tuesday." A week later I found a dozen cans of flaked coconut on the shelves.

Each time I entered the store, Joe would ask me about myself. "You married?" he asked one day. I shook my head. "You should be married," he told me. "You nice lady--you need husband to cook for." When I told him I was seeing someone casually, Joe asked me all about him.

"He no good for you," he said. "You deserve better."

Then I started dating a new guy, named Chris, and Joe wanted to know about each of our dates. "Where you go? He take you to dinner? What does he do?"

Within a few months Joe was asking if Chris and I were getting married. When I told him it was too soon to tell--we'd only been dating a short time--he would tell me to find out if Chris really cared.

"Call him up," Joe suggested. "Tell him you are sick and need food. Tell him to bring you some soup and see if he comes. Then you will know."

I assured him that Chris would take care of me if I were really sick, but I wasn't going to call and demand a nursemaid if I wasn't ill.

"But you take control this way, you see," Joe told me.

After Chris and I had been dating for about six months, we went into Pioneer together. Joe winked at me as Chris bought a pack of cigarettes.

"He seems like nice young man," Joe told me when I stopped at the store a few days later. "When you going to get married?"

For months after that, Joe always greeted me the same way. "Any new developments?" he would ask, and we would both chuckle.

Then, after going out for about a year, Chris and I got engaged. We went into Pioneer.

"Congratulations!" Joe told me. "Am I invited to the wedding? After all, I am your big brother." He winked and let out a hearty laugh. "Now you find me a nice German girl just like you."

Joe and Sophie used to trade off working behind the counter: she worked from 8 until about 3, then Joe would work until the store closed--usually around 10. In the summer the door would be open, and they would sit outside greeting people in the neighborhood. Occasionally they entertained friends or relatives, but usually Joe and Sophie watched the store seven days a week. They closed Pioneer only two days a year: Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Joe always had other side projects. For a while he also rented a storefront down the block and sold imported goods--candy mainly. Two years ago he left for a month to visit relatives in the Middle East. When he came back he talked for a while about moving back home to start a business. Then he began talking about buying and selling real estate.

Soon Joe was sitting behind the counter, studying for the real estate exam. "I take the test next week," he told me several times. Yet he postponed the test week after week because he said he didn't have time to study. Every time I walked into the store there was Joe, reading about the real estate business.

Finally he showed me the paperwork that proved he had passed the agent's exam. He said he was going to get a broker's license too. "Then I open my own office. You want to be my office manager?"

Once again, Joe spent weeks studying behind the counter, red-eyed, puffing cigarettes and chugging coffee. After he passed the broker's exam he proudly showed Chris and me his license. We gave him a congratulatory card, and Joe placed it on a shelf in the store. Since then he's always telling me about his latest deal.

"I make $2.5 million sale," he told me one time. "Only a little while longer, and I open my own office and we close the store. Then you be my secretary, my office manager. You know how to work computer?"

Nowadays Joe always has some meeting. When he's at the store his pager is constantly beeping and he's rushing to the phone. Sophie bought him a cellular phone for his birthday so he could return business calls when he wasn't in the store. His American dream is finally paying off, though Pioneer has been losing money lately.

"So what?" he said one day. "You make money there, you lose money here, it all come out even."

For months now Sophie has been opening and closing Pioneer by herself. She's been cooped up in the store every day for weeks, with just the occasional customer and a TV projecting soundless images. She's divorced with no children and lives alone.

"You have Chris," she tells me. "You have to go home, make dinner, have family someday. I open at 8, 8:30 and stay until 8 at night. It's cold out now, so no one go outside. In summer we open until 10 again, then people are outside. But right now, Joe busy with meetings and I stay in the store. That is the life."

Working 12 hours a day, seven days a week didn't seem like much of a life to me. But for all of Joe's talk about closing the store, Sophie had always insisted that Pioneer would stay open. "You going to move away when you get married," Sophie would say. "You don't come to the store anymore."

Finally, though, the hours and the competition apparently became too much. They decided they were going to close the store by the middle of March.

"The grocery store on Damen is opening again," Joe said. "There is the store in the mall, the new fruit market down the street, the liquor store, and the other liquor store. Too many stores."

No longer will Joe and Sophie tell us about the marriages and births in the neighborhood or whose house is for sale or whose rent went up. They won't be around to see how long the grocery store on Damen stays open (the space has housed three stores since I've lived here) or whether the store in the mall will change hands again.

Sophie and Joe want our phone number so they can take Chris and me to dinner one night after the store has closed for good. Maybe we'll talk about the kids who hang around the liquor store on the corner or the night some gangbangers drove by and shot into the crowd. We'll ask Joe again about the time last year when he reached over the counter and snatched the gun from a would-be robber. But mainly we'd like to help Joe celebrate his success in real estate--finally reaping the rewards of years of dreaming and hard work. Yet I wonder if his other business triumphs taste somewhat bittersweet without the store.

Sophie says she hasn't decided what she's going to do after Pioneer closes. "The man from Jay's come tomorrow, take the chips," she said. "When the store close, I take two weeks off. Maybe one week."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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