Dept. of Collections: no special attachment to gumball machines | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Dept. of Collections: no special attachment to gumball machines 

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He doesnt chew much gum, and when he does, it's usually sugarless, but Marshall Larks is known in certain circles as the "Gumball King." His store, also called The Gumball King, is dedicated almost solely to antique gumball machines, antique gum, and gum-related items.

Although the store has been open only about two years, a step through the doorway reveals a cache of gumball machines, machine parts, and gum wrappers worthy of a gum-cracking pirate. Here, on the first floor, are glass bowls filled with antique gumballs, an antique tin of Beech-Nut chewing gum, Wrigley's gum matchbooks, and old packages of gum with flavors ranging from "tangy barbecue" to "bloodberry" to "Medinah black horse troop gum."

Down a stairway, in the basement, are shelves of gumball-machine parts: hundreds of red metal bases and plastic and glass globes. Across the alley from his store, in another basement, Larks has more gumball machines, these in greater disrepair, with rusted-out locks. Even though Larks has two large basements and a huge storefront filled with gumball-machine parts, he still doesn't have enough room to house all his inventory. He rents a couple of garages to contain the rest. And like a guppy mom, Larks no longer recognizes all of his collection.

"The first machine I bought was a penny gumball machine, in about 1953. I bought it from an ad in the paper. It was made in 1912, and it had a round glass globe on the top of it. I bought it for five dollars. Everyone who saw it in my house liked it," said Larks. "It's like anything else. I just thought it was neat, just thought it was something different. I just figured that penny gumball machines were going to become obsolete because of changing in the economy, and sure enough, penny gumball machines are becoming obsolete.

"In fact," Larks noted, "the size of a penny gumball has changed substantially. This is what a penny gumball used to look like," holding up a gumball the size of a brussels sprout. "Here's a penny gumball today." It was the size of a shriveled grape. "Not only are the penny gumballs smaller than they used to be, they're hollow on the inside so you don't get that much gum."

Larks was fascinated with the sheer variety of gum and gum dispensers. One antique machine he sells features a dump truck that tools around on a track before pausing at a chute to dispose of the gumball.

"There are so many different kinds," Larks said. "You have some that are plastic and some that are glass, some that have different designs and decals. I wound up with a collection of 700 or 800. I kept on accumulating machines. I never thought of this being a business. I liked them all and never wanted to sell any of them. But eventually the thing just grew like Topsy, and there were so many machines in the house . . . I used every nook and cranny of space to display gumball machines. They were everywhere--above doorways, on shelves. Anyplace you could imagine, I had shelves with machines."

Now Larks is trying desperately to organize his shop. He has emptied his house and is trying to sell his entire collection, the gumball machines and parts, primarily through mail order.

"I no longer have a collection, none at all," said Larks. "It's very difficult to collect and deal at the same time because you have a tendency to fall in love with certain machines, and then you wind up keeping them and it upsets your inventory and profits."

In fact, the inventory is so large that some of it baffles even Larks. He points out a gum package that features a little girl wearing a shawl. The brand name is Purity. "That's before me," said Larks. "That must be from the turn of the century." The wrapper clams that Purity halts stomach ailments.

"If you look at the origin and history of gum," said Larks, "gum when it started out, a lot of it was pepsin gum and a lot of the companies were owned by doctors. And gum was a product that was used to cure indigestion. Some of the gum would border on quack medicine, where they would claim it would cure certain ailments. They were sold over the counter, but a lot of them had some pretty goofy names and some pretty goofy shapes."

I took another look over Larks's store. Even the drawers were spilling over with gum-related items: packages of Curtiss peppermint gum and packets of Mr. T collectors' cards. They looked like a child's overflowing jammie drawers.

"There are probably more gumball-machine parts here than anywhere else in the world," Larks said. It would be difficult to imagine a place that could have more.

"I have the same passion for gumball machines that anybody does," said Larks. "I have no special attachment to gumball machines. I can't say that when I was a kid I had a special liking for them. This isn't something that came about as a burning love for gumball machines. It's just something that happened. Many people collect different things. Some people collect buttons or stamps. It's not that somebody loves stamps. It's just they take a liking to it. You can't really explain it. There are people who collect old golf clubs and they're not even golfers. Why?

"I'm just a normal grown-up kid."

The Gumball King is at 3654 N. Pulaski. Call 777-7677 for information.

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

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