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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Wee Folks Toys: Golden Memories and Unknown Tragedy My Encounters With The Pied Piper of South Shore


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Once upon a time there was a boy named Peter who lived with his parents, brother and sisters in a two-flat on Ellis Avenue just off 79th Street during the 1960's.

Born at the very end of 1959, which means for the most part to know how old Peter was at any point in this saga you just had to ask what year it was starting with 1960, 3 in 1964, 4 in 1964, etc. I start with those years, because those were the years in which our "hero" began to be able to name a preference for toys in an intelligible manner beyond pointing making visits to toy stores more relevant. And though today he isn't quite sure, certainly by 1964, he was receiving just before his birthday, his first pieces of real mail other than from relatives.

Not just any mail! These postcards were magical postcards from Wee Toys on 79th Street, across the Street from the Avalon Theatre, only a few blocks away really. If young Peter convinced his parents to bring him across Stony Island Avenue to the East, he would get a free toy just for showing up. And not a cheap toy either like in a Cracker Jack box, while not expensive like a bike or a baseball, the Wee Folks Toys birthday toys were better than you would expect for a free toy from a store, it was something really exciting.

The people there were nice too. Really nice, not fake nice. Peter's dad had the gift of shmoozing and so did the owner and they got along famously. By the time the family left that two flat in the August of 1969 there were 5 kids and little money and young Peter suspected that in the last 5 years the owner had been kinder to him than to some kids because of his dad and his shmoozing.

The first time he went in to the store, at least the first time he remembers, the counters were so high, so high he could not see what was on top, but that did not matter, because unlike some of the boring stores his mother brought him too the counters at Wee Folks were made of glass and there were plenty of things to draw his attention. In fact, one of the reasons he liked the store was that there were plenty of things at his eye level that he could look at, and plenty of things all the way up. It was the biggest toy store he had ever seen.

It seemed to have more toys even than Marshall Fields. That was a sore point anyway. Fields was the place where he did not get to see the Magician. He was supposed to see the Magician on the Day after Thanksgiving one year and as they were going up an escalator he saw the words "push button to stop" and at age 5, he was an early reader, thought it was an instruction. His mother was mortified that the escalator, filled every inch with people turned to look at the mother whose child had stopped the escalator full of people with heavy packages. Peter's tears did not the Magician bring.

Wee Toys was just a few blocks away really, a little farther than easy walking distance, but doable, past the Sears store, whose name he could see from the top bunk bed in his bedroom at night, its red lights a beacon past the Illinois Central tracks and the overpass that that carried the train tracks that once blocked auto traffic on Stony Island with the train traffic at the Grand Crossing where all the train lines in the region crossed.

For this reason, the family almost always visited Wee Toys by car. Though once or twice he made the trip by bike when he was 8 or 9 even though this was not a very good idea, neither because of the traffic or the change in the safety of the neighborhood, not because of racial change, but because of the increase in gang activity.

That increase in gang activity finally forced church and social action leaders to tell Peter's parents that the time had come for them to move because it was no longer safe for them to live in the neighborhood. Young Peter, with no racial fear at all, at 9 had started to ride his bicycle farther and farther away from home, and reluctantly, the family moved in the Summer of 1969, one of the last white families young Peter knew of to do so, at least west of Stony Island.

He and his siblings were very upset about the move however. Not only were they devastated at moving away from their friends and schoolmates, Charles, Lance, Antha, Henry, Angela, Toby (Guy, Sylvia and Sidney had moved to another state before they had) and many others that Peter wonders about to this day (except Charles who Peter ran into in high school and still exchanges Christmas cards with), they were also moving away from all their favorite haunts including Kiddie Land and Wee Folk Toys.

Peter tried to keep up with Lance for a good long time and at first they phoned almost daily. But eventually the distance and time were too much of a weight on the friendship and the calls finally stopped.

But Peter often remembered those days as some of the happiest of his life. Felt very, very accepted in that neighborhood. All through the era of racial tension, the deaths of the Kennedy's and Dr. King, the Riots, felt no personal animosity from anyone, quite the opposite in fact, despite being able to see the national guard camped in Grand Crossing Park from his living room window that summer of 1968. To him it was just an amazing show.

Jump ahead from that move to June 3, 2005 when 45 year old Peter, having carried Wee Toys in his heart as a special and warm place in his heart is in the library in the new non-fiction books section and the cover below jumps out at him.

A view of the Wee Folks toy store next to the Avalon Theatre on 79th Street with the Illinois Central Tracks behind it. What a visceral pleasant shock it is. A 1970's green CTA bus is stopped at the corner, the kind that had the white interior with light blue star design and the ancient fareboxes and the drivers who used to argue about how old (the relatively tall and large) young Peter was.

Suddenly the man looking in at the window of the toy store looks familiar. Is that the toy store guy? It is, it is! And Peter of the Peter files cannot even pick up the book as a flood of memories comes back of visits to the shop, birthday toys picked, visits to the back room where the model trains, HO and other gauges were kept.

This book had a part of his history that no one had EVER written about before. How, how wonderful, how special. Only then does our hero read the title "The Pied Piper of South Shore"{South Shore, That's stretching it isn't it, thought that was Avalon Park, but Pied Piper, well he sure had me, and they probably had every kid in South Shore coming in, subtitle}"Toys and Tragedy in Chicago".

WHAT! WHAT! WHAT do you mean tragedy? What could have happened to Wee Toys? With a sick feeling I turned the back over and read on the back cover "When a gang assassin gunned down Manny Lazar, he died in the place he loved best, the Wee Folks toy store he and his wife, Belle, had run for a quarter-century."

Suddenly I was dizzy. I almost couldn't stand up. I was in shock. Perhaps it is hard to understand, but it is as if, you moved away from Chicago and discovered 35 years later that someone had murdered Bozo the Clown, or Harry Caray, or Bambi's mother - your best friend in Doe School.

As I read the book it only got worse. He had been killed only in the store, which was only a few blocks from where we lived, only a few months after we moved out of the neighborhood on advice that it had become to dangerous to live there, and he had been killed just a few minutes before the time I would have been let out of school had we stayed another year, nearly enough time for me to get there and peek in the window, or even come in with my allowance, and the day after my sister's birthday so I might have accompanied her there birthday card in hand.

But those shocking what if's fade quickly next to the fact that this person, kind to everyone had been killed, and as I read, casually, offhandedly, and in a way a favorite aunt would be killed in an office robbery some years later in the south suburbs leaving my dear cousins orphans. Their brave story of coping with both parent's death within a year of each other is another story and one of great courage.

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

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. The book is more than the story of the magical life and the horribly tragic death of "The Pied Piper of South Shore" and 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 book 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, 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.

Personally, I think it deserves a Pulitzer, and is a staggering accomplishment for a first time author.

Thank you Caryn Lazar Amster for this chronicle. I hated how your father's life ended, but I loved how he lived it.

It took great courage and strength to write this book, reliving so much pain, but I hope you get as many voices as mine with their own stories of Wee Folks and your parents after the book has come out as did beforehand.

I invite any readers of this blog who have their own stories to share to do so, and encourage again anyone who has not, to buy and read this truly exceptional work.

I have now figured out a way for you to do so directly from Amazon.com. Just click the link below and you'll have a copy as soon as they can get it to you.



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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Peter
I just read your gorgeous story of Wee Folks and now I have stopped crying. I am the one of which you speak. I am the daughter that wrote the Pied Piper book that brought back this flood of memories to your heart. I would love to talk to you. Please email at caryn@cmapublishing.net or
call me at 866-50-PIPER (74737) - I can't wait to share more memories with you.

6/06/2005 6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Peter.

I told many people about your blog and added the live link on my website. Can you add mny book site as a live link to your site? Also add Pied Piper to your favorite books?

6/06/2005 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I told many people about your blog and added the live link on my website. Can you add mny book site as a live link to your site? Also add Pied Piper to your favorite books?

Caryn Lazar Amster caryn@cmapublishing.net

6/06/2005 1:55 PM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...

Don't know if you noticed but both the book graphic and the title of the post were already live links to your book's website, try clicking them, but I have also added a link to your site in my Blogroll on the right side of my sidebar (The fastest way). When I get a little time I can break it out of there and make it easier to read.

Thanks for adding a mention in your News section of your book page, my counter shows that I have already gotten a visit or two from that, significant since I have such a small readerbase having just started writing this blog in Frbruary.

You should also know that while small, my blog is set up as an RSS news feed like CNN, ABC and other news organizations so that those that choose to can subscribe to my Blog and see the name of my files or posts in their file lists or in news feed aggragators like pub sub.

It also means that I tend to get searched by the search engine spiders pretty regularly, so searches for my blog name by my readers will start showing the feed for your book soon.

Glad my message touched you, your book meant a lot to me. I have already passed it on to my parents. It keeps on triggering memories and I will certainly call you soon.



6/06/2005 11:05 PM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...

Yes just checked, my blog entry already shows up in a google search of "Wee Folks Toy Store" as listing number 4 (though that can change randomly) so that those looking for info on your parents store will see your book, then a little down the page, my reaction. I'm glad.

I think my blog entries come up so high so soon after publishing them because blogspot.com is Google.com's free blog service.


6/06/2005 11:11 PM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...


Thanks for a wonderful phone conversation, I just wanted to point out that you will be signing books this weekend at the Printer's Row Book Fair and that you will be in the centrally located tent facing east next to the registration tent across from the Borders tent I think. Very hard to miss being in the center of things.

My Mom is reading your book now, is halfway through and loves it.


6/09/2005 2:22 PM  
Blogger Levois said...

I've ran into this book doing some research on South Shore. I'd love to run into this book. I can only imagine what happened if an icon of my childhood were to have been murdered or whatever else could have happened or changed.

6/15/2005 12:25 AM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...

Just click the image of the book or the link on the sidebar to find out more about the book and the author. Or contact her at the information above. Its legit, she's very nice, we had a great conversation. Of course, her calls are screened by the publishing house voicemail system, so no nuts need call, I found her kind, funny and willing to talk to those with memories about South Shore in those times. Especially those with contacts in the media or filmmaking or publishing, lol.

6/23/2005 5:31 AM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...


Thanks for all the mentions of my blog and this review on your website and in your newsletters etc. If any of your readers who come to this site have comments that they want to make about the book or their experiences with the Wee Folks Toy Store or meeting and knowing your parents, or their experiences of the same times in South Shore, they should feel free to do so here.

I should also remind them that if they wish to send the book as gifts to others they can do so easily by either clicking on the book photograph or by clicking on the Amazon book link which will give them a chance to order the book and receive it and mail it themselves. I do not think I am wrong in thinking that if someone approaches you at a book signing or other event with a copy already in hand that you would mind signing it.

Over the months, I have kept reflecting on the book and the memories it has brought me, almost all good. Those days for me, of brith to mine, were almost golden. Even though I was one of the few white children (outside of my own family) for many blocks, I always felt safe, welcome and accepted. That forever impacted my view of race relations and who black people were as persons before cultural stereotypes could form.

When we finally moved, six months before your father was killed, I was very angry that we were leaving our friends behind, even though I had seen with my own eyes the signs of social unrest, national guard troops in Grand Crossing Park, Etc.

It was only later, after moving to a white neighborhood, that I encountered the blindness of racism, motivated by fear of the unknown, and was mystified by the attitudes, behavior and actions of adults who were ignorant of what I knew to be true about the goodness and peace of nearly all people of color. Perhaps what I like most about your book is that in telling this story you do so from the viewpoint not of a historian sorting through data, but a person who was there and knew the people, black, white and hispanic, and knew how they felt about you, your family and your store, and also saw them as persons.

This comes through strongly in your book and instead of it being a book of blame towards a race, it becomes a tragedy of a person in a gang who is surprised in a store, a person who kills a person, and the deep and profound consequenses of that action not only for himself, but for the community at large for many years to come.

In fact, it is only now, almost 40 years later that one can say that the community around there is starting to reach the economic health it had then, yet, with one exception, I still feel seperated from most of my friends on the block. I fear that most have moved to cities far away or are dead, or see me in a new light having grown up into the problems they inherited with the times.

But perhaps one of them will read this, and remember the monkey bars next to St. Francis De Paula School and know who I am just from that, and make a comment here. Now, that would be something. Antha, Henry, Tony, Myra, Sandra, anyone? Remember that third grade performance of "Spoon full of Sugar"? Now that was a laugh! How ironic. How symbolic. What a reception that got too. I never could have gotten away with doing "Cold Sweat" like Charles did. He and I still exchange Christmas cards.

Lance W. are you still out there somewhere? I still remember your aircraft carrier and the phone calls that went on for months after we moved. Did it come from Wee folks?

Every once in a while, every couple of years, I drive through that alley and see the back yard and the school, and where the monkey bars stood. How small it seems now. One thing about sharing your back yard with a grade school, you have a lot of friends, get to know everyone, and learn to the second the last minute you can run out the door. Boy that led to some bad habits once school was no longer out the door and down the stairs.

Thanks Caryn for the continued flow of memories like these.


10/15/2005 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/23/2006 12:57 PM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...

It was wonderful to meet you at the book signing at the Borders in Beverly last weekend Caryn. So much fun to hear you talk about the times you spent in the store, promoting it across the street at the Avalon theater across the street, and getting a chance to meet you in person.

I recommend that anyone who is in the neigborhood of one of this author's book signing's take the time to go and listen, she is very, very entertaining.
I love, love this book.


3/22/2006 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. This comment is nearly 3 years late, but... I found your blog through a search for "The Pied Piper of South Shore." The background view on the cover of the book is not the IC, but rather the Skyway. I was corrected by Caryn and when I mapquested Avalon & 79th, there was the Skyway to the east. As someone who also moved away as a child, I appreciated your comments about Caryn's book.

1/13/2008 5:45 PM  
Blogger The Peter Files Blog of Comedy said...

You're certainly right about that Marsha. We lived in a two-flat on the other side of Sears on Ellis near 79th so in figuring out what that was I had turned the scene around in my head and was working backwards. Somehow I had the skyway a little lower and the IC a little higher, which accounts for my confusion.

Ironically, it was my own great-grandfather and grandfather who had to sell their real estate office on that SW corner of 79th and Stony to accommodate the coming of the Skyway. They wound up moving their offices further south down Stony Island once that happened.

Elevating the "Grand Crossing" was a key event in the improvement of properties and businesses in Chatham and South Shore. Prior to that, you never knew when a train would hold you up, and the intersection of the many train lines was very dangerous for both children and street traffic of all kinds.

On the other hand, it did keep bank robberies down... LOL.

We had some memorabilia from the theater when Caryn was last out by our house that we turned over to her. It had been collected by my great grandfather who was a key investor in the area. As someone whose family was also deeply invested in the area, we were really glad to do so. She has been so generous to me with her support of this blog and I know that readers are regularly going from here back to there so I am glad we did it.

Both my parents loved her book, but especially my mother who passed away in April of 2006. I was so glad that she got to read Caryn's book because it brought back so many memories to her, not just of the store, since she did the bulk of the present buying for the family, but of the community, and all the changes there.

All the best,


1/13/2008 9:06 PM  

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