In Print: the land way out west | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Print: the land way out west 

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Laura Mazzuca Toops and John W. Toops Jr. met during a heat wave in July 1987 at the legendary northwest-side bar Bucket-o-Suds. "I was picking on one of the customers, verbally sparring, and she joined in," John says. "Three or four or five of us were goofing around verbally until the place closed and we went off to breakfast, and one thing led to another."

To their surprise, Laura and John learned that they both lived in Berwyn--and liked it. John had moved to the western suburb that year after getting a job at a local bank. Laura, who grew up there, had been working as an editor and living in Evanston, but she bought a bungalow in her hometown in 1986 "because I was paying $1,000 a month in rent."

They married in 1989 and moved to La Grange with their two children three years later. They say the western burbs are more exciting than you'd think, and to prove it they spent nine months last year exploring unusual shops, museums, and other points of interest for their new book, A Native's Guide to Chicago's Western Suburbs. They managed to find enough material to fill 200 pages. "It was like playing tourist in your own town," says John. Most weekends they'd entice the kids along with the promise of a treat, a souvenir, and an adventure. "They loved the broken cookies at Maurice Lennell's," a cookie factory in Norridge.

Many of the western suburbs are more pedestrian friendly, the Toopses say, having grown along the Burlington Northern Railroad rather than around highways. "I found out the best way to learn about a town is to follow the railroad tracks," says Laura. "That's where you find the interesting part." Most offer at least one or two notable sites, such as the Harley-Davidson Mall in Berwyn and Hinsdale's "terra cotta house," which was originally built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Downers Grove boasts 100-odd Sears catalog homes, which were sold in kits from 1908 to 1940.

John did most of the research, while Laura did the bulk of the writing. "I'm the male mom, the house dad, so I could do a lot of the phoning," he says. "I'd flesh out an establishment and find out why it's unique, why it should be in the book. Then I'd write it down and she'd edit the heck out of it....It was pretty much 50-50. Or maybe 70-30. But I drove when we went on our little adventures."

Both have paid their journalistic dues. John claims the dubious distinction of being "the only person ever to be sued while working on a high school newspaper" after writing a satirical obituary for a hangout frequented by Saint Patrick High School students in the mid-70s. "I didn't know the place was owned by a Chicago police officer," he says.

Laura, who has written for the Sun-Times and the Tribune, did a stint at the notoriously tough City News Bureau in the mid-80s. "I once got locked into a community center on the west side because I was on the phone with the editor, who was asking me all of these inane questions I couldn't answer," she says. "While we were talking, everyone left." Today she has a more civilized job in public relations and writes historical fiction on the side.

The book may be the couple's last collaboration for a while. "We've already gotten calls from people--you got my name wrong, you got this wrong," she says. "I say, 'We'll fix it in the second edition.' Hopefully there will be a second edition."

--Cara Jepsen

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

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