Saturday, January 25, 2014

RIP Luis Alcala

From the Sun Times:
Founder of Alcala’s, one of the Midwest’s biggest Western wear stores, dead at 92
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter January 24, 2014 7:58PM

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Mexican ranchera music king Vicente Fernandez and a winner of Chicago’s International Mr. Leather contest all had something in common: Each stocked up at Alcala’s on West Chicago Avenue, one of the biggest Western wear shops in the Midwest.

The store boasts a Texas-size inventory of 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots available in every hue and in hides that include python, ostrich and eelskin, and 5,000 cowboy hats, including a $5,000 chinchilla number.
Mr. Alcala hustled on Maxwell Street, selling used bikes, brooms and ashtrays — anything to support his growing brood. His wife gave birth to six boys between 1952 and 1959, then had two girls, another boy and two more girls. Mr. Alcala also worked as a janitor and security guard, at one point holding down four jobs.

He opened his first store in 1972 at 8727 S. Commercial but saw business dry up as customers’ jobs at U.S. Steel disappeared.

Mr. Alcala liked the bustle around Chicago and Ashland, so he set up shop at 1733 W. Chicago Ave. in 1974. The neighborhood was mostly Ukrainian, Polish and Mexican. But two nearby theaters — the Hub and the Alvin — showed Spanish-language movies that drew Mexican Americans to Alcala’s.

He treated everyone as if they were the carriage trade, offering quick, free alterations.

“He’d tell his Mexican customers, ‘We’re shorter in nature. . . . You’re never going to find a pair of trousers to fit you right off the rack. Pick out your pants and shirt, leave them while you go to the movie, then come back, and your pants and shirt will be ready for the dance in the evening,’ ” said his son Robert Alcala.
Starting back when that stretch of Chicago Avenue was a ghost town by day and impressively sketchy by night, through the period when the neighborhood started to come back to life thanks to local artists, urban pioneers and Da Mare moving in several hundred city jobs, I got all my western gear at Alcala's. Half a dozen belts, as many buckles, six pairs of fine boots over the years and a black Stetson I still take out on occasion.  Great service and a selection big enough to afford me an amazing number of choices for getting my giant feet shod in style.

Farewell Luis. You always dealt on the square and treated everyone who came through the door with respect.


proverbialleadballoon said...

The one thing I never 'got' about Alcala's, is who wants to buy a scorpion belt buckle? Not a metal buckle in the shape of a scorpion, but one with an actual scorpion encased in it. Yeah, that's a drag, Mr. Alcala was apparently a kind man. I have a couple friends that got jobs there straight from Mexico, and they say he was a great boss. Hope his family keeps the store running for generations to come; best Western store in Chicagoland.

driftglass said...


"who wants to buy a scorpion belt buckle?"

As an acquaintance of who worked at The Pleasure Chest many years ago explained to me, everything there -- no matter how unusual or gargantuan -- was on the shelf because they know for sure someone will buy it.

There is no free market purer than the adult toy store free market.

Lawrence said...

But did they have scorpion bolo ties? I always assumed the scorpion in plastic was a tacky Arizona thing. Even here they seem to have disappeared during the Bush 41 years. Or maybe I just don't shop where this merch now lives.

Anonymous said...

The scorpion bolo tie was always a classic in winning the ugly tie contest at work. Had to be retired, it was so good. This was in Denver but I think the tie was from Arizona

tim hosler said...

Thankyou for that great story, I'm a big fan of you and Blue Gal and look forward to your pod cast every Friday. Please keep doing what you do, the graphics the briliant observations, and too the very idea that there is an economic struggle and you know first hand the peril of no money. That is never mentioned in a personal way, Charlie gets a check, just like other pundits. I dig him but I dont think he has to worry about feeding his kids, getting the car fixed. I know you guys and love you my class comrades.

Unknown said...

Gotta say that in all my imaginings of what driftglass the non-nom de plume might look like, I have never pictured him wearing a Stetson. Adding to the disconnect is that driftglass's voice is a dead ringer for the voice of a former colleague, who shared the same political affinities. So, I have put his face on driftglass's voice for several years. And that face, believe it, never had a Stetson shading it.
Nicely done remembrance.