Pluck, Luck, and Liquor | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Pluck, Luck, and Liquor 

The city's bigest corner store expands again.

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By Ben Joravsky

If you've been to Sam's Liquors, you've probably seen Fred Rosen in action. He's the barrel-chested guy in sneakers and a sweatshirt, serving customers with unbridled fervor.

He's also an anomaly. A quintessential neighborhood merchant, the kind who rushes to greet his customers as they come through the door, he flourishes in Lincoln Park, land of the yuppies and their sterile malls. Next month he'll expand for the third time and move into an enormous warehouselike structure he's building behind the Goose Island Brewing Company on Clybourn.

"My secret is luck," says Rosen. "I ran a liquor store on a corner that became the hottest area in Chicago. I wasn't there because I knew the boom was coming, I was there because where the hell else would I be? Who else would take me?"

Rosen's father, Sam, opened the family's first tavern at Chicago and Ashland, not far from their three-room Humboldt Park flat. In the early 50s Sam moved the tavern to Yondorf Hall at North and Halsted. After getting out of the army, Rosen began helping his father run the business. That was in 1957; he's been there ever since. "Lincoln Park was much different than it is today," he says. "It was a working-class neighborhood, and we had the roughest bar in America with the meanest dudes. It wasn't a fancy liquor store; they didn't have liquor stores like that back then. You had a bar and a little package store. We had some holdups, and yeah, I had to break up some fights. We were selling pints of wine to the bums. In the winter they stayed outside on the corner warming their hands over fires they were burning in barrels."

Sometime in the early 70s, local real estate prices began rising and wealthier customers started stopping by. Realizing he could make good money accommodating their thirst for foreign wines and expensive spirits, Rosen closed the tavern and hired a wine salesman. "We kept our wines in the cellar," he says. "We called our customers cellar rats. They hauled up their own cases."

In 1979 he decided he needed more space. To finance an expansion he applied for a low-interest $900,000 loan from the city, claiming that his store provided needed jobs and development for the community. In retrospect he realizes it was a dumb move that redounded to his benefit.

"I'm watching the news one night and I see Dan Rostenkowski on the capitol steps saying, 'We don't need to give $900,000 to a liquor store.' I almost fell out of my seat. First of all, no one was giving me anything. I'd have to pay it back. Second of all, why the hell is he picking on me?

"I don't want to say anything bad about Rostenkowski. I don't want to say anything bad about any politician. But I think there were some guys who wanted to buy my business, and so maybe they thought that by busting my deal I'd sell them the business. The media went nuts with the story. It was this big thing: liquor store has clout. They said I gave $7,000 to Mayor Byrne's campaign. That's crazy. I didn't have clout. I didn't know anybody. I never contributed $7,000 to Byrne--who had $7,000 to give a politician? I took a lie detector [test] on whether I gave money to her campaign and passed it. Kup reported the results in his column.

"But you know something, as aggravating as that was, it worked out well. It made us famous. After that everyone had heard of Sam's. We were on TV, and the Sun-Times ran an editorial cartoon [mocking the proposed loan]; I stuck it on the wall. The bond deal was killed, but so what? If we had got it we'd still be over at North and Halsted and the store would be overcrowded by now."

Instead he obtained a conventional loan that enabled him to move to a mall down the street at North and Sheffield. "That was a big break because it has parking. You can't operate these days without parking. Marshall Field's wishes they had my parking." He now employs 70 people, and grosses about $30 million in sales annually. "Last Christmas I realized we needed even more space. We were bringing in 400 customers a day. We were turning people away because the lines were too long."

So he's building a bigger store just up the street. It will, he says, keep the warehouse ambience, with mountainous boxes of booze lining the walls and a hustling sales staff working the floor. But it will also have a coffee bar serving espresso and cappuccino, a humidor offering cigars and smoking accessories, a bakery with fresh muffins, a grocery section with imported pasta, and a deli with goat cheese focaccia. It's enough to make his old customers wonder if the jock from Humboldt Park's starting to resemble his clientele. Not to worry--Rosen says he'll never change.

"I still play basketball," he says. "I drop in on some of those playgrounds around Cabrini. The kids say, 'Look out, there comes the old man.' Then I drop in one of my two-handed set shots--that opens their eyes. If I ever start forgetting about who I am I'll just drive over to the old neighborhood at Chicago and Ashland. You should never forget where you came from."

Uptown Safe and Sound

There were politicians, police officers, and preservationists among the crowd that congregated last week at the Uptown Theater to celebrate the grand old palace's latest return from the dead.

But Howard Weitzman wasn't there. Who's he? Well, it's hard to say for certain--he keeps a low profile. He's unlisted and difficult to reach, but as best as anyone can determine, he's a shrewd operator who hangs around county auctions, bidding on tax-delinquent property. He recently hit pay dirt, buying the Uptown for $23,000 at one such gathering and selling it for an estimated half million dollars.

The essential details of the story are as follows. Since the 1980s, preservationist Curt Mangel and his business partner Larry Mandell have been trying to wrest the Uptown from Lou Wolf and Ken Goldberg, its previous owners. Wolf and Goldberg are known for buying property cheap, sitting on it without paying taxes or making repairs, and selling it years later for top dollar. With the Uptown (located at the corner of Broadway and Lawrence), they ran up a tax bill of over $400,000 and let the ornate theater fall to such rot and ruin that the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed it on a list of the 11 most endangered historic places.

After several near misses, Mangel and Mandell thought they had a deal last fall, when Wolf offered to sell them the Uptown for $1.6 million. Then, to their surprise, they discovered the property really wasn't Wolf's to sell. At an auction last summer Weitzman had snatched it up for about $23,000.

Mandell and Mangel tried to buy the Uptown, but Weitzman wouldn't deal. The theater seemed destined for demise when out of nowhere came Alderman Mary Ann Smith, announcing in early September that she had helped broker a deal between Weitzman and Randy Langer, a developer who's done a lot of work in Uptown and Edgewater.

Langer won't say exactly how much he paid Weitzman for the Uptown; but most educated guesses put it in the mid six figures, which means Weitzman's either very smart or everyone else is very dumb.

The intricacies of the deal have left many people scratching their heads. For one thing, if so many people wanted to save the Uptown, why was Weitzman able to acquire it so easily? Was he so smart or was everybody else so stupid? And while we're at it, isn't there something wrong with a system that leaves such valuable property unprotected and vulnerable?

Most people at the September 16 ceremony, held in the theater's front lobby, dismissed such matters as ancient and irrelevant. Even Mangel was optimistic, saying he looked forward to helping Langer restore the palace to its former grandeur.

"Now that the Uptown is in responsible hands we feel it can become one of the most important theater halls in the country," said Smith, as Langer stood by her side beaming. She went on to name all the big-time entertainment conglomerates, including Disney, who might want to invest there.

And why didn't you buy it at the tax-scavenger sale? Langer was asked.

"I'm kicking myself for not doing that," he said with a rueful smile.

And where's Weitzman?

"He wasn't invited."

Nonetheless, Smith and Langer did praise Weitzman for being reasonable in negotiations and for taking the theater from Wolf and Goldberg.

"You know, Weitzman was very nervous about this deal going through," said Smith, giving the story its best spin.

You mean, he was worried he wouldn't make his windfall?

"I think he truly wanted to see it get into responsible hands," said Smith, deftly ignoring the skeptics in the crowd. "I don't think he ever wanted to develop it, but I think he wanted to see it saved. And so do we. We're looking ahead to a bright future for the Uptown and the community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fred Rosen photo by Cynthia Howe.

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