Historic Bronzeville hardware store and jazz archive set to close

By Pat Nabong

Meyers Ace Hardware has two kinds of customers: those who buy paint for their walls and those who “listen to the walls.” For decades, hundreds of tourists and curious souls in search of jazz relics have been visiting the neighborhood store in Bronzeville. It has preserved remnants of what it used to be—the Sunset Café, a famous jazz club in the 1920s to ’40s.

Driven out of business by changes in the neighborhood, loyal customers and jazz aficionados are now mourning as the hardware is preparing to close for good in February.

“Meyers was a landmark,” said Betty Thompson, a long-time customer who lives in Bronzeville. “Historical landmarks are being dissipated, being destroyed and being taken away from Bronzeville.”

Although Meyers Ace Hardware sold buckets of paint that they could have used on its own walls, three generations of Meyers left the jazz murals untouched, which they still are to this day. Some are hidden behind shelves and a microwave in the back of David Meyers’ office. Tourists and customers are welcome to enter the office to admire them. Sometimes jazz enthusiasts “listen to the walls,” said David’s brother Joel Meyers.

“My mother and my father both said, ‘No, we can’t get rid of it. This is part of history. This belongs to the building. This belongs to the history of the area,’” said Joel Meyers, whose grandfather started a pharmacy a few blocks away. The pharmacy was a neighboring business to the booming jazz club which was later renamed The Grand Terrace Café, co-owned by gangster Al Capone.

It was one of the few places where the color of one’s skin was neither a limit nor a privilege. Blacks and whites were regarded as equal. The Meyers’ business expanded into a hardware store and moved to their current location in the 1960s, after the Grand Terrace Café closed.

As shelves are emptied and boxes are packed, it is still uncertain what will become of the jazz murals, the old phone booth, the posters and the two stages where Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Earl Hines once performed. Although the exterior of the building was landmarked by the city in 1998, that does not guarantee  protection of its interior. One of the wooden jazz signs is being auctioned for thousands of dollars. But David Meyers said  he thinks the new owner of the space “has some respect for the jazz history of the building.” However, he does not know if the new owner will preserve the original architecture or renovate the place completely.

For some customers and Bronzeville residents who have been buying their supplies from Meyers Ace Hardware for years, this signals the end of an era.

“The business community has changed in the city of Chicago.”said Daniel Meyers. “I can list you about a dozen good reasons why it’s changed.”  He says he can trace the beginning of the downward trajectory to when public housing was closed in the 2000s. They lost almost 40 percent of their customers, he said. As bigger businesses started to set up shop in the neighborhood, it was the combination of high property taxes, competition for customers and the increasing popularity of online shopping that caused sales to significantly decrease.

Meyers Ace Hardware isn’t the only business that is being driven out of Bronzeville, according to Daniel Meyers. Some neighborhood residents think gentrification has a lot to do with it.

Real estate prices have risen and middle-class African Americans have been moving in for the past 10 years, writes Emily Badger in Citylab. Big establishments like Mariano’s opened as well. This does not come without consequence. Often, what is talked about when gentrification is mentioned is the rise of real estate prices and a higher cost of living. But residents are concerned about its impact on Bronzeville’s history.

“And because of gentrification, what has happened is that subliminally, a lot of Bronzeville [businesses] is being eliminated, and the historical value of Bronzeville and the status of Bronzeville is disappearing,” said Thompson.

Among stacks of papers in his office, David Meyers keeps newspaper clippings and pictures of the Sunset Café and a scanned copy of its menu. “I throw nothing away,” he said. Although not a jazz fan himself, if he could have his way, he said that he would turn the space into a jazz museum and a jazz club to preserve and revive its musical past.

Photo at top: David Meyers, one of the owners of Meyers Ace Hardware, sits in his office which is filled with papers, jazz mementos and a jazz mural. (Pat Nabong/MEDILL)