There’s No Place Like Home
It’s 3 p.m. on the West Side, and Marie Henderson has managed to dodge the biggest news of the day: Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for re-election. Even the broadcasters themselves were shocked by Emanuel’s announcement.
The 76-year-old Marie spent most of that Tuesday after Labor Day weekend running personal errands, including a trip to her doctor. Between managing Out of the Past Records and caring for her husband, Charlie Joe, who is one year her senior, she admits the stress of it all was taking a toll on her body.
She leans against the glass counter to relieve a little pressure from her feet and listens to a wave of reports on Emanuel’s resignation from the flat screen TV perched on top of a jewelry case near her record store’s entrance. Even the loud, rickety fan propped up in the corner couldn’t distract Marie from watching more of the mayor’s story unfold.
Val Holmes, one of Marie’s employees, stops wiping the smudges off the glass counter, glances at the TV and fills her in on everything else she’s missed. A handful of customers had stopped by the shop. Some of them dropped by to cool off from the late summer heat, while everyone else wanted to see whether “Mama Marie” was in.
On most days, Marie works the register. With her stool as her throne, she sits inside a fortress made of tall shelves stuffed with used cassette tapes, knick-knacks and novelty items. She’s protected by piles of records that have yet to be inspected, cleaned and stored away.
Customers are used to seeing the top of Marie’s hat bobbing up and down behind the counter, and most have fallen into a simple dance of taking a couple steps back, standing on their tippy-toes and stretching out their necks. Those brave enough to venture through Marie’s self-proclaimed organized chaos are usually met with a “Watch your step!” before a warm embrace.
From where Marie’s at, she can see every inch of her store – a maze divvied up by bookcases packed with music essentials like Gene Ammons, Horace Silver and Louis Armstrong. Disco divas, powerhouse vocalists and R&B/soul artists coexist together in dusty drawers. On a shelf labeled “overflow,” one arrow points up for leftover blues records and another points down for the gospel classics. Other records are filed by genre with a complete A-Z listing, but Marie warns that those signs are misleading. Truth be told, she gave up on inventory decades ago.
“I tried to organize this place, but most of my customers say, ‘Why you move things around?’” she said. “People call this the record warehouse, and when people come here, they just start digging. They love to dig, and we appreciate that.”
And, if anyone dares to question whether Marie has something in stock, she already has an answer locked and loaded: “I always tell them I know what I got [even though] I might not know where it is.”
“I ain’t braggin’. I’m just saying,” she said, giggling to herself. “The thing is that I’ve been here so many years. I’ve been here so many years, so stuff stays in my mind.”
Marie is modest when she describes her role at Out of the Past Records. In recent years, the store has been dubbed by Chicago Reader and Thrillest a gold mine for collectors on the hunt for the best deals on Record Store Day. But Marie says she’s “just a worker” and chalks the rest up to Charlie Joe for being an “adventurous” businessman. As for staying in business for over 30 years on West Madison Street, she says that was done by the “grace of Jehovah.”
In 1986, the Hendersons opened Out of the Past Records on 4407 W. Madison St. to create more room for their expanding vinyl collection, which was crowding their longtime namesake variety store located a few blocks away.
Marie points to the family photos draping over her counter. The rest of the photos are tucked behind tattered posters of black musicians, celebrities and activists, simple reminders, Charlie Joe said, of “the things that was and the people that was, and all of the music that we had in the beginning.”
While 57 years of marriage has blessed the pair with five children, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, those decades also brought them a loyal following of customers and friendships from beyond city limits.
A series of portraits taped to two big glass windows and scattered all over the ceiling forms a shrine outside the entrance door. An old wedding photo of a young, wide-eyed Marie and Charlie Joe is hidden among a sea of shoppers, neighbors and past employees.
“All the years we’ve been married, we’ve had our own business,” Marie said. “We haven’t had to work for anybody else.”
Long before Out of the Past Records and the Hendersons’ variety store, Marie and Charlie Joe’s first business venture was a photography studio, which opened in early ‘60s on Pulaski Road.
“My husband said he didn’t want to push the clock anymore, and he wanted to be his own boss,” explained Marie, of Charlie Joe’s decision to set up the studio.
Up until that point, Marie and Charlie Joe both had experience in the retail industry. Marie worked at Montgomery Ward on Laramie Avenue, and Charlie Joe was a garment cutter. Charlie Joe says a close friend from work introduced him to photography, and from there, he learned how to shoot and develop his own photos. Marie laughs and recalls how her husband made her model for him, so he could become comfortable with his camera. Remnants of Charlie Joe’s stint as a photographer are littered throughout the store, including neatly framed class pictures from Off the Street Club in West Garfield Park.
Those early years into their first business, however, left more of an impact than the couple ever expected. “In 1968, there was a riot on the West Side when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and a lot of that happened outside my photography studio,” Charlie Joe said.
A homemade cardboard banner featuring the Chicago Sun-Times’ coverage of the riots hangs from the ceiling, off to the left side of the store and next to a display of Black Lives Matter T-shirts. In bold black letters, the word “devastation” stretches across the top of one photo featuring a scene of burning buildings, while another photo spread is titled “terror in the streets.”
“The riots were a sudden change in the attitudes of the young people in the neighborhood,” Charlie Joe said. “When the riots started, they looted all of the stores, burned them all around me.”
As residents of and business owners on the West Side, Marie and Charlie Joe saw firsthand how their community struggled to recover. Charlie Joe remembers security bars sprouting from the window shops to prevent break-ins: “The neighborhoods in Chicago changed drastically. You couldn’t go about the neighborhood with a camera and lights [and] collecting money without getting robbed or getting something taken away from you.”
The Hendersons loss their studio and considered moving out of the city entirely, but there was something about the West Side, about Garfield Park that they couldn’t part ways with. “You hate to lose anything, but you can’t let everything hold you down,” Marie said. “Getting depressed wouldn’t help because you can’t bring it back.”
“You know, it’s home,” Charlie Joe added. “There’s no place like home. That’s why we chose to stay here — because it’s home. For good or for bad, for better or for worse.”
More than anything, Charlie Joe wasn’t afraid to face the change. He looked at it through the same lens through which he conducts business and his marriage: “You dedicate yourself to the duration of it. There’s going to be ups and downs. Not everything is going to be smooth. You learn to put up with each other and not think about walking out when the first thing happens.”
Marie smiles, as she talks about how she met her husband for the first time. She says they were neighbors, but they didn’t realize it then. Marie and her family lived on Albany Avenue, while he and his family were close by on Cullerton Street. “I would get on a bus with this lady, and we would ride the same way, and then we’d go the same way when we’re going home,” Marie said. Little did she know that woman would later become her mother-in-law.
The West Side is where Marie and Charlie Joe fell in love. It’s where their businesses – which once also included a wig shop and a ladies’ hat store – flourished. It’s where they raised their children, and where their own children continue to raise the next generation of Hendersons.
Marie’s memories are fuzzy when she tries to recall what the West Side looked like years ago, even before the riots took place, but storefront names like Goldblatt’s, Robert Hall Clothes and Thom McAn Shoes resurface on the tip of her tongue. She thinks back to the boutiques, candy shops and groceries that lined up along the Madison-Pulaski Commercial District.
“We had nice shopping areas – I mean, it was downtown,” she reminisced. “You didn’t have to go to State Street to get anything. We had it all right here. The banks used to be here. It was really nice.”
“It’s really changed because there’s nothing basic down there like it used to be a long time ago,” Marie continued. “The area has changed a lot, and you could see it from the young folks to the older folks because a lot of the older folks are gone. And so, the area is now catering to the young generation.”
Pockets of empty lots overshadow the string of corner stores and eateries that still hold the district together. Faded and hand-painted signs, frayed awnings and dated marquees cling onto some of the brick buildings like battle scars. “A lot of stores are closing,” Marie said. “We just hang on, and we pray every day until we can’t afford it. We just see what we have to do.”
But Charlie Joe thinks otherwise – at least with Out of the Past Records and the legacy that he and his wife hope to leave behind.
“That is the only mom-and-pop store in the area where you can come in, sit down, and have a conversation, and listen to some music, and talk with someone that you met,” he said. “It’s like a home.”