HYDE PARK — A trip to O’Gara & Wilson on 57th Street always felt like visiting bygone Chicago — a neighborhood bookstore frozen in time.
Customers searched the floor-to-ceiling stacks of old books with a hushed reverence in a room of Chicago artifacts guarded by expert clerks who knew really knew their stuff, all under the watchful eye of a stuffed bison head.
It was sad to hear that Chicago’s oldest bookshop will soon close after more than 100 years on the same block, its contents being shipped to a new locale in the boonies — Chesterton, Ind. of all places.
Not long ago, I stopped at O’Gara & Wilson hoping to find something special — maybe an affordable first edition by Algren, Terkel, Bellow or Royko.
I didn’t have much time to look around, so I quickly settled on a five-buck paperback, Hemingway’s Torrents of the Spring, and headed to meet a pal for lunch at Salonica, the Greek diner down the street.
That stretch of 57th Street between Blackstone and Harper isn’t flashy. It doesn’t have Harper Square’s bustle, Promontory Point’s view or University of Chicago’s gothic architecture, but it’s always been one of my favorite Hyde Park destinations.
It's a working man’s block where you can get your hair cut and shoes shined, pick up some groceries, buy a few books and get a bite to eat while you wait to pick up your dry cleaning at mom-and-pop stores that have served Hyde Park families for generations.
This year, the beloved greasy spoon, Salonica, celebrates its 33rd anniversary on the corner of 57th and Blackstone.
Harper Foods owner Bader Elshareif calls his place the “Little Big Store,” because they carry a little bit of everything you need. He bought the place in 1998, but it’s been around for “50 years or longer.”
“Recently, a guy in his 70s came in and said he used to work here when he was a kid,” Elshareif said. “So, it’s been here a long time.”
And next door, Ol’ Gus Lukis — the cobbler locals call the “Mayor of Hyde Park" — has been fixing broken soles at Hyde Park Shoe Builders for more 54 years.
He’s 85 now. When I last saw Lukis a few weeks ago he was still hard at work repairing shoes, fixing zippers in his tiny shop that hasn’t changed much since the day it opened.
His shop is his life. He’ll never stop working and never move his store, Lukis told me years ago. “Retire? No,” he said. “The only place I go next is cemetery.”
I try not to think about what the block would be like if Salonica, Harper Foods and Lukis’ shoe repair shop vanished and got replaced by a invasive species of neighborhood soul-sucking corporate chains.
But the death of O’Gara & Wilson — and the uncertainty over what might replace it — makes it impossible to forget how quickly little pieces of old-fashioned Chicago disappears before we know it.
After all, you can already get a Subway “five-dollar footlong” next door to Lukis’ place.
Still, Elshareif holds onto hope that a new mom-and-pop business — maybe one that can last generations — will fill the gaping hole in the block left by Chicago’s oldest bookstore.
“It’s really sad to see the bookstore go. … We like more traditional things here. The way the stores look on the street, the signs,” Elshareif said. “We still keep the traditions of the old-fashioned kind of stores. I hope it stays that way. I would hate to see some corporate franchise come across the street. I would like to see something authentic. A restaurant. Keep this area the way it is.”
A little slice of what Hyde Park used to be — a special place that’s worth a visit while it lasts.