LINCOLN PARK — For weeks late this summer and into the fall, Howard Bresnik sat in the same front-window seat at the Dunkin' Donuts at Halsted and Diversey with the clearest view of his shuttered fur shop.
The 65-year-old worked on crossword puzzles with a baseball cap pulled down low for hours, keeping watch on the front door of the empty Chicago Fur Outlet, looking for customers coming for their furs.
Occasionally a customer would show up expecting to grab her mink out of storage for the coming winter.
The longtime furrier would shuffle across Sheffield to explain the trouble he has found himself in.
Bresnik, whose Chicago Fur Outlet was once the shop on the North Side, had hundreds of coats in his possession in a few different storage facilities in the city. He was out of cash and facing claims of fraud and deceptive practices in a lawsuit filed by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
And now, customers are clamoring for their furs — but the shop is closed.
Over the last three years things have spiraled out of control, according to Bresnik and court documents.
Young people weren't buying furs. Chicago was dealt a few mild winters, and Bresnik was operating without the help of his longtime sidekick, his wife, Eve.
Eve, who was crowned Miss Skokie as a teen, died in the fall of 2009, losing a fight against breast cancer.
"He went through a a lot. His mother died, then his father passed, his wife was ill over the years," said Stephanie Parks, a longtime friend who has helped out at the shop in recent years. "He's a strong man."
"In our business you can't make up for a warm winter," Bresnik said.
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office, in a lawsuit filed, claims Bresnik began selling off furs he was holding in storage and others that were on consignment starting in 2010.
In an interview in late September, Bresnik did not mention the suit as spoke of the shop's troubles. And he was not able to reached later to comment on the claims.
But in the interview, Bresnik said, "I wake up in the morning thinking how in the world did this happen."
"There are a lot of things that happened that were probably my fault and a lot of things that happened to me that probably weren't my fault," he said.
Court filings indicate the Chicago Fur Outlet has been insolvent since Jan. 1, 2010.
The phone number to the Chicago Fur Outlet has been disconnected, and now that frigid weather has settled in, customers are looking for their furs.
Dorothy Jenkins, a Hyde Park resident, made the trip north to drop off four furs at the shop in April of 2012 to have them cleaned and stored for the winter.
When she returned in the fall of 2012, three of the coats were there, but her $5,000 full-length mink was nowhere to be found, she said.
She had that coat custom made in Canada and it's her favorite, she said.
Bresnik told her he would look for it, she said, and for months the 67-year-old retiree called and called.
"I kept hounding him about it. I literally went in the store when it was open and went through the back room and through every coat," Jenkins said. "Howard was like somebody in a daze."
For a few weeks late this summer, a sign on the door stated that the closure was temporary and the Chicago Fur Outlet was moving within the neighborhood.
There is still hope for hundreds of customers who had dropped their coats at the Chicago Fur Outlet for storage, as hundreds of furs remain at Leather Rich, a storage facility in Wisconsin. Dozens more are at Without A Trace at 3344 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
As of Monday, the company storing the furs in Wisconsin had returned about 400 furs to owners in Chicago, but a "few hundred" remain, according to Leather Rich owner Rick Nettum.
"It's a slow process," Nettum said. "There are people that have not even taken their coats out of storage for two years. People may have no idea that Chicago Fur Outlet is closed."
Nettum's staff is making trips to Chicago to return furs twice a week, but customers must pay an additional $50 fees to get their pieces back.
The fee is to make up the bills owed to Leather Rich by the Chicago Fur Outlet.
In September, 26-year-old Christine Concepcion of Wicker Park had just bought a $1,000 cashmere and fur coat from another retailer and wanted a clasp sewn into the bottom.
She figured it would be a quick fix and heard about the the Chicago Fur Outlet from her roommate.
Looking back on the ordeal, Concepcion, a law student, said she should have seen the red flags.
The first was meeting Bresnik in the Dunkin' Donuts across the street from his empty shop, where she handed over her jacket.
"I figured he's been in business for 26 years, it sounds legit," Concepcion said. The business had been open 30 years, but the sign still celebrates a 25th anniversary.
He asked her to pay in cash upfront.
Three weeks later, Concepcion hadn't heard from Bresnik, and she checked Yelp.com, where about a dozen people had posted warnings.
Calls weren't returned, Bresnik was nowhere to be found, and Concepcion's insurance company won't take her claim, she said.
"I'm so livid. I wish I would have seen the red flags," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, he's just moving. It's a bad economy. I feel bad for the guy.' "
She had reason to think he was moving, as Bresnik had taped a handwritten note on the front door stating: "re-locating in the neighborhood," along with his cellphone number.
The state's attorney's lawsuit claims Bresnik told the owners of the furs that were sold that the pieces had been lost or misplaced.
In one case, on Jan. 3, 2011, Bresnik took in a $5,500 full length mink coat to be sold on consignment, which he sold that same year, according to the lawsuit.
Although Bresnik told the owner he sold the coat and promised to hand over the money by August 2012 at the latest, the customer had not been paid as of the date the lawsuit was filed in April.
Things weren't always bad at 777 W. Diversey Pkwy.
The customers Bresnik and the Chicago Fur Outlet dealt with represented a wide range of characters from Chicago and across the country.
Politicians stopped by the Lincoln Park shop, local theaters rented furs for performances, rappers wanted mink or lynx in their music videos, and out-of-state customers with deep pockets occasionally dropped upwards of $20,000 in the shop, according to Bresnik.
That was in the 1980s, and '90s, and even into part of the 2000s.
Bresnik borrowed $10,000 from his grandmother to open the shop in 1983 after spending years learning the tools of the trade from other Chicago furriers, he said.
"It was boom times. Everyone was buying everything," he said. "The economy was hot. People were spending money on everything, anything and everything."
Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) stopped by after the death of her mother in 2006. She was wearing a pair of Converse All-Stars without any laces.
"I thought, this poor woman, she can't afford shoelaces," Bresnik said.
Mell wanted her mother's coat fitted for her sister, then-first lady of Illinois, Patti Blagojevich.
Bresnik later learned laceless was the style of the day.
He's seen the fabled American Express "Black Card," outfitted the former drummer for Bette Midler and most recently this summer sold "a litle something" to Italian artist Marco Nereo Notelli before his light show on the Field Museum.
"You can have someone who's worth a gazillion bucks on the weekend and look like they are worth nothing," Bresnik said. "Especially guys. You never know."
When business was booming, the little corner shop was packed with eight employees around the holidays.
During the final years, the number of workers was usually one — just himself. Sometimes an old friend or customer helped out when he needed them.
His friend, Parks, a South Shore resident in her early 50s, fit that description.
She would come north on Sundays and work without pay after Bresnik's wife died. She did it in exchange for a bus fare, lunch and the occasional fur.
Parks said she doesn't know how the business and Bresnik ended up under such deep water, but over the 30 years of knowing him, she believes he did good for countless customers.
"I hope he lands on his feet. He's been good to a lot of people," she said. "Everybody has streaks of bad luck. If I won the lottery I would help him, especially with this winter coming. People are going to be wanting their coats."
Parks calls Bresnik a big brother.
"He's a strong man. I look at him now with all the pressure, I wonder how he's still living," she said. "Hopefully his karma prevails."
Customers looking for furs should call the Cook County State's Attorney's Office at 312-603-8700.