By Sarah Foster
Tom Boyle can’t help but poke through his shelves. He’s in search of a movie poster that only he can visualize. It’s somewhere among the newspaper clippings, the vinyl records, the buttons and the books.
“Let me see,” he says, furrowing his brows and shuffling through his inventory.
After searching for a few minutes himself, he sends his colleague over to the other corner of the store, hoping he can help find it. Poking and prodding through the posters, the pair finally pull it out of the pile: “A Stratton Story.” Their eyes glance over the picture depicting the 1949 film about an injured baseball player. They notice the faded red-and-white hues and the way James Stewart embraces June Allyson.
“This is it,” Boyle says with a smile.
But they weren’t searching through their inventory for fun. They were hoping to retrieve the poster for a customer, who has the same last name as Stewart’s character.
“It’s like finding a home for abandoned children,” Boyle said. “When we can find a good home for these items, it makes us happy.”
Intimate customer service and an ability to provide rare items from the past are exactly how Boyle’s store, a memorabilia shop called Yesterday, has managed to stay open for 42 years.
Boyle has no idea exactly how many items are in his shop. Counting them, he said, would be impossible. Store assistant George Kaufman estimates 500,000, while assistant Neil Cooper says about 50,000. Some items are from the ’90s, while others are more than 100 years old. Visitors can purchase sports items, historical material, old books, DVDs, records — anything, as long as it’s from the past and teaches a lesson about it.
Many of the artifacts were supplied from Boyle’s own collection.
Boyle grew up in the Great Depression, where he was engrained to live a modest and frugal lifestyle. He used to haunt local libraries and flea markets, hoping to score unique or rare first editions from the past.
After he finished absorbing the material, he would pass it along to a friend. He would rather it go to another person than in the garbage, he said.
“I had so much material, I thought, why not share it with someone else?” Boyle said.
Eventually, Boyle had so much material that he couldn’t fit it into his two-bedroom apartment. He needed a warehouse for storage.
Instead, he turned it into a business.
File cabinets are stuffed to capacity; drawers are filled to the top. Buttons and newspaper clippings line the walls. Many posters hang from the ceilings. When customers purchase big-ticket items, Boyle or one of his workers will snap a picture of the customer with his newfound artifact.
The storefront, built in the 1890s, is older than Wrigley Field itself.
“It’s the perfect place for Yesterday,” Boyle said.
He named the business after The Beatles song of the same name, saying it’s one of his favorites.
“I wish that when Paul McCartney came to Wrigley Field,” Boyle said, “that he would’ve come in. He wrote the song himself.”
But Boyle’s business, open since 1976, has not been immune to challenges.
“It’s feast or famine,” he said, but declined to reveal revenue figures.
The quaint yellow shop, located less than two blocks away from Wrigley Field, has a high customer turnout during baseball season. During the winter months, however, customers are few and far between.
Counting Boyle, only five employees work at the shop. During the summer months, Boyle rents out his parking lot for Cubs game attendees, adding a revenue stream. To encourage the acquisition of more material, Boyle’s business not only sells but buys and trades.
“Of course, we prefer to sell,” Boyle said wryly.
Boyle has no cash register, computer or credit card machine. He accepts only cash or checks with two forms of identification.
Thousands of customers have visited Boyle’s shop, yet many do not know of the store’s existence.
“It makes me happy to know we’ve satisfied so many people,” Boyle said. “But so many don’t even know we are here.”
Boyle’s shop is one of the only memorabilia stores left in Chicago, he said, as others have been driven out of business by high rent and property taxes.
This is a main concern to longtime customer Howard Lee, who fears that the city is losing its memory-keepers.
“It’s been part of this community for so many years,” he said, referring to Yesterday. “Most of the people I’ve known for 40 years, Tom is the only one who’s left. What we have now is microwaved memories. Now, people will say I want to buy something that’s memorable, and they’ll go to the sports store. People are going to remember Wrigleyville for what is now: bars, hotels and restaurants. They won’t know of these quaint, beautiful places.”
Cooper, who met Boyle in 1975, was invited to work in the store after visiting it for many years. Stores like Yesterday are hard to find, he said, largely related to the variety of historical material it offers.
“There’s no place else like it,” Cooper said. “It’s an eclectic mix of Cubs material, movie material, posters, comic books and history. A lot of history, a lot of old newspapers. Tom has a great love for Chicago history. It’s like a museum in a way.”
But to Boyle, it’s about more than just the money. It’s about teaching his customers to learn from the past and apply it to their everyday life.
Boyle does not fear for the future of his business because he knows the importance of reminding people about yesterday.
“I hope we always find items that bring back memories for people,” Boyle said. “If we play a record they had when they were a child and they think back to the friends they had at that time or the memories they made, it’s really almost like a time machine.”