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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Meet Pied Piper of South Shore Author Caryn Lazar Amster At Beverly Borders Book And Music Store Book Signing in Beverly On March 11th at 2pm


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There is a book signing at the Beverly Borders Books and Music in the Beverly Neighborhood of Chicago that no one who lived in, or is interested in the history of South Shore from about 1940 - 1970 should miss.

The engaging and funny Caryn Amster Lazar, will be appearing to talk about and sign copies of her Award Winning True Crime historical memoir The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago on Saturday March 11th at 2 pm.

The Beverly neighborhood Border's Books and music is located at 2210 W. 95th St., Chicago, Illinois, on West 95th Street, just three blocks East of Western Avenue. The store phone number is 773-445-5471. View map and link to driving directions.

The Beverly neighborhood Border's Books and Music can also be reached via CTA's Red Line and CTA Bus Route 95W, CTA Orange Line and CTA Bus Route 49, Pace Bus Route 381, and Metra. See the RTA Online Trip Planner for details.

The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago recently won in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Magazine’s International Self-Published Book Awards in the Family Stories category for her true Chicago story. The book will be featured in the magazine’s March issue.

The book is a must for those who grew up in South Shore in days gone by, many of whom now live on the South and Southwest Sides of the Region. For you, this book will evoke many memories, not just of a toy store or a family, but of a region and an era, and how it came to end.

It is also a biography of the Lazar family, who moved to South Shore and created one of the most innovative toy stores in America. In the days before Toys 'R' Us, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and other giant stores where merchandise was easy to reach touch and feel, The Wee Toys Store of South Shore flourished because of innovations that made it the most customer friendly of all stores. Of course, the personalities of the Lazar family was the greatest key to this sucess, particularly Manny Lazar, the Pied Piper himself.

South Shore's Pied Piper did not have a Fairy Tale ending, instead he was killed by a gang-member who was surprised when he came up from the basement of his toy store during a hold-up to provide bail money for the gang's leader who had just been arrested. Those shots killed more than a man, or a store, they were the beginning of the end of the merchandising trade on East 79th Street as store owners who feared for their lives sold out, or closed down and moved out, creating a job vaccum that took the area decades to recover from.

Would the social forces in play have forced these moves eventually? Perhaps, but perhaps not, but the added layer that makes this book reading is how Ms. Amster puts the story of her parents, the toy store and the murder in the context of the history and the sociological fabric of the times they lived in.

Those who have been following The Peter Files may remember that back in June I wrote a Peter File about how I ran into this profoundly moving book. As a former Greater South Shore (Chatham) resident the story touched on an area of my own life that I thought would never be covered in print. For as a boy I had been a customer of Wee Folks Toys, a magical toy shop located only a few blocks from the apartment my family lived in until I was almost 10.

To the kids, Wee folks not only had toys that you could afford as long as you had at least a nickle, it was also the store that sent out a postcard before your birthday good for a free toy, and a good one too. Some of my favorite childhood toys were toys I picked out at Wee Folks Toys, which was right across the street from the Avalon Theater.

We have a family story about how my father found my brother high up in a tree over a broken-glass filled alley and almost died with shock to see him up there, and then had to watch as he made his way slowly, ever so slowly down to his waiting arms. When asked why he had gone up there in the first place my brother responded craftily, "To hide something from Peter!"

It was only after reading the book that I remembered what toy had gone up the tree with my brother, an I-spy camera/water gun that had been acquired at Wee Folks Toys. And I had wanted to play with it.

You can imagine my father's consternation that the toy was still at the top of the 40' tree.

Wee Folks Toys was not just a toy store that my family went to and liked I discovered, the store had been a fixture in South Shore for many years, and its owners, Caryn's parents, were well known and loved members of the community, whose store lived and thrived through through all of the demographic and social changes that the greater South Shore Area went through over the decades they owned the store.

The store was called Wee Folks after the Leprechauns, in honor of the Irish that surrounded them when they first built a store in South Shore. Interestingly, the day after Caryn's book signing is the Annual South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade, so if you can't make the book signing, but make the parade, be sure to drop into Borders after the Parade to pick up a copy.

Of course, the name Wee Folks perfectly evokes images of children too, yet with respect, and in that tradition, they had a toy for every price, and you could even buy a toy on credit, even if you were only 5. Naturally, only a small amount of credit was extended, and no interest was expected, not that I remember, but the idea that you could do that was amazing to me as a child. Unfortunately, we lived across the heavy traffic barrier of Stony Island, and so that option was closed to me. But I liked the idea of it anyway.

My own family did not move from Chatham until the late summer of 1969 when my parents were warned by community leaders that it was no longer safe for people not of color to live there because of the increase in activity and influence in the local gangs. As a child, I was furious that we were moving and leaving all our friends behind. The idea that something as arbitrary and silly as the color of one's skin could be the cause of such strife was unfathomable to my 9-year old mind. No one in my school cared what color I was. None of the kids at Hirsch High school around the corner seemed to care. We were never called any names or were disliked in any way that I saw.

All I knew was that I was leaving all my friends behind and moving to a very different place where I knew no-one. Of course, I was not told about the warnings, nor would I have believed them. The idea would have flabbergasted me. If I could have spelled it, which was unlikely, but possible having mastered supercalifragelisticexpialidocious* when Mary Poppins came out.
*This is not to say that my current spelling of the word is correct and I doubt the blogspot spell checker will know, I just knew then, it seemed very important then to all of us, just as being able to say it backwards quickly was urgently necessary.

35 years later, I learned quite accidentally that there had been substance to the warnings my parents had received.

When I saw the cover of Caryn Lazar Amster's book on the shelf of the local Library I was startled with unexpected familiarity, because it was a scene I had seen so often as a child, 79th Street Westbound near Stony Island with the Wee Toys Toy Shop, The Avalon Theater, the Skyway and the Illinois Central Tracks in the background. There is even a cream and green CTA Bus at the Bus Stop across from the store. (Though it looks like the stop sign is the newer blue rather than the older green stop sign. Someone can check me on that detail, perhaps they were always blue.)

This cover of this book brings back haunting memories of a golden age on Chicago's South Shore.

The point is that I never expected to see a book cover with that scene so familiar to me, and with my home out of view, only a few blocks past the skyway, near Grand Crossing Park.

Seeing the cover was a good shock until I read the book's title, It was then I realized turning from front to back cover that something terrible had happened to the funny and kind man who had run the store and showed us the small toys that had come in and how they worked. He had been murdered just 9 months after my family had left the neighborhood.

As I read the book, written by former wee one and daughter Caryn Lazar Amster, I found that it was more than a crime story, more than the story of the magical life and the horribly tragic death of "The Pied Piper of South Shore", of the beginng and end of the Toy Store that was both the progenitor and the opposite of the modern toy store; the book is also the story of South Shore, Avalon Park, its people, and the problems that racism, poverty, the denial of basic dignity and human rights and the scars that these practices including the disproportionate lack of opportunity and imprisonment of black men, had on the development of gangs and crime in Chicago during the 60's and the 70's.

The book is also a story about the power of kindness and about how small acts of kindness can be remembered and cherished for generations. Now, with this book they will be remembered for far longer.

"The Pied Piper of South Shore" is also the record of an important moment in the history of merchandising, for the Wee Folks toy store was hailed at the time as one of the great innovators in the industry that was one of the first stores that had open shelves where the customers could pick their products and bring it to the register, and the store had just about everything a child could want, or would go to almost any lengths to order it - as part of its unheard of quality of service including credit extended even to children, and late Christmas Eve delivery of perfectly wrapped and pre-assembled toys by Manny himself.

Make no mistake about it, while this book received a Crime Fiction Award, it is also an incredible warm chronicle not only of a family, a Jewish family in fact, being accepted and embraced in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but of a place and a time, rich with accurate memories and testimonials, not of one person, but of the many customers, who so loved the Wee Folks that 35 years later they yearned to share their stories with the author.

As such, it blends also into social anthropology and the history of Chicago, and so this book is not to be missed by any student of Chicago, of people, of race relations, of merchandising or of life.

You also get to know a little of the author, a funny and vivacious person, who did not become a victimized and mean-spirited person because of this event. Somehow she overcame this tragedy to put the event in the context of a larger pattern and created a work of love and humor instead of turning her pain into hate as we frail humans so often are tempted to do.

As a result of my earlier post, I had a chance to talk to Ms. Amster and found her to be as fun and enjoyable a person in person as she came across in print. More so in fact. So don't miss this chance to meet her. You will be glad you did!

If you know someone South Shore who would like to know about this book, please click on the mail icon to email it to them. If you cannot make it to the book signing you can also get it directly from Ms. Amster's publishing house by clicking on the book cover, or from Amazon by clicking on the icon below.

Hope you take a chance and read this book, you will be glad you did.


Press release details:


Caryn Amster

This true crime memoir of Chicago toy store owner, Manny Lazar, "the Pied Piper of South Shore," is set in the 50's and 60's.

March 11, 2006 2:00 PM
Location: In Store

Chicago - Beverly
2210 W. 95th St.
Chicago, IL
Phone: 773-445-5471

View Map

EVENT: Old Chicago childhood memories will revisited when Caryn Lazar Amster, award winning author of the true family, true Chicago crime book, The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago, speaks and signs books at Borders Books and Music in Beverly.

DATE: Saturday, March 11, 2006, 2 pm

LOCATION: - Borders Books and Music – Beverly area of Chicago, 2210 W. 95th St., Chicago, IL - West 95th Street, three blocks East of Western Avenue

Amster's book is her own family story, a true crime story of her father, Chicago toy store owner Manny Lazar, known as the Pied Piper of South Shore set in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. The foreword to the book is by Emmy and Tony award-winning singer and actor Mandy Patinkin.

The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago recently won in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Magazine’s International Self-Published Book Awards in the Family Stories category for her true Chicago story. The book will be featured in the Magazine’s March issue.

CONTACT: Borders Books and Music - 773-445-5471

This is a no-fee review, that is no fees or payments have been received for the review of this book. I found it, I loved it and I am telling you about it. I am willing to look at other books and talk about them, just leave contact info in a comment. However, don't expect good words if your book does not deserve it. This is a blog of Comedy, Satire and Commentary. Things I can't comment on nicely, if I say anything at all, are likely to fall into the first two categories. For which reason I expect only to write about books I get myself.-Peter
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