With my Roseland background and all the Roselandite events I’ve attended throughout the seven plus years I’ve been writing this column, I could go on and on about what I know about Gately’s. That would only be my story because we all have stories of growing up in and around Roseland and have recollections of visits to Gately’s.
I put out a call to as many Roselandites as I could via electronic communications and some in person interviews and have had fifty-plus responses. Shopping at Gately’s with your mom or on your own gave every Roseland boy or girl something to look forward to and talk about. We all remember Christmas season with Santa Claus and the windows decorated for the holidays; heading to the shoe department and stepping on the X-ray or fluoroscope machine to see the bones in your feet; or getting the same haircut every time regardless of what you wanted.
Gately’s was a wonderland of shopping with the many departments one traveled through on each visit. You could have entered off “The Ave” (Michigan Avenue) through the main revolving doors — where a floorwalker with a carnation in his button hole, could grab you by the scruff of the neck for going around the doors too many times. On the other, going through the side doors on 112th Street you would find the shoe shine stand where you could park the family wagon if you didn’t happen to drive.
If there was one person everyone knew on sight, it was Mr. Gately. He strolled through each department making sure that everyone was being taken care of and everything was in order. There was no idle standing around and chatting at Gately’s Peoples Store, but Mr. Gately was considerate of his employees as he would clear his throat to announce his approach. More than one person reported they were intimidated by Mr. Gately’s mere presence, but they never got caught being idle thanks to his warning them.
There were travelling cashiers that worked in any of the many departments with the exception of the restaurant. One of the things of note for anyone who worked at Gately’s that has been mentioned frequently are the bells that would ring every so often. A different number of bells would ring, which signified the need for a specific manager.
The restaurant was a great place whether you wanted the Shoppers Special: a full meatloaf meal for $1, a piece of their great blueberry cobbler or their crunch cake. Now that we’ve headed into the food available at Gately’s, it’s time to head downstairs to the real land of memories.
Oh, wait! Before we head downstairs, can we take a look at the mezzanine level? Who doesn’t remember taking the stairs from the first floor and heading to the upstairs departments by walking up to the mezzanine landing?
The ‘balcony’ had a semi-circle of four or five captain’s chairs looking out over the first floor. It was the place where kids could sit and wait for their mothers or where husbands waited for their wives. On occasion you might even find a retired grandfather or two sitting there people watching. It had a great view of the entire first floor of the store and the front revolving door and center sales aisle.
Going down the stairs would give you a choice of fast food before McDonald’s. There was the Green River Hot Dog stand across from the bakery where you could stand and eat while your mother did her shopping. You could also get what is today’s rage “mini-hamburgers.” I suppose White Castle started the trend but Gately’s did their part to give the customer what they wanted.
Another choice: the Donut Machine. This lost piece of mechanical history is etched in our minds. As best as I can describe it, with the input from my readers, it was a train of oval grates connected to each other. The grates chugged their way around starting with the dough machine plopping two perfectly round donuts onto the tray before it began its journey through the hot frying oil. As the grate train worked its way around, the donuts would spend just right amount of time on one side and then be flipped over for the other side to be done. Once they were completely cooked they were taken out and ready to be frosted and placed in boxes.
Something is missing from that description in case you haven’t noticed: children! The donut train was where most children ended up while their parents shopped. According to numerous adults who were those children, there never has been anything that compares to the savory, taste bud popping, hot, fresh-fried, coated donuts from that donut train.
Most of our children are stuck with Dunkin’ Donuts which isn’t much of a memory builder since they’re everywhere you look. They don’t have a donut train to watch and marvel at as the dough evolves. They don’t have a sweet “older” woman behind the counter that would be willing to break whole donuts to fill a nickel bag of broken donuts for a child. They’ll never experience the way a fresh Gately’s donut, with that specific sensory enhancing atmosphere, created an experience that etched itself into our minds with a fine-point needle.
Someone recalled working with an older black gentleman who worked the trash compacter. He still recalls the great conversations they had before returning to their work assignments. There was another recollection of the jewelry department and working for 85-cents an hour plus commission which only increased the paycheck around Christmas time when sales would really increase. Gately’s was the place where, as a working high school student, you could take your money and buy your parents and friends gifts. I’m sure some of those customers still have the costume jewelry they bought. Then there’s the boy’s favorite sports recollection of buying their first baseball bat or the family getting their first television set at Gately’s. The most common recollection was heading to Gately’s for uniforms for school — whichever school you attended, Gately’s had the right one. If you were into scouting, they offered an entire array of scouting uniforms, books and badges.
One of the greatest assets was the multi-storied parking garage behind the store. It served the community well and was one of the most advanced concepts in marketing: free parking for your customers. While talking about the marketing concepts, who doesn’t remember the center sale aisle deals? Whatever was placed on those center tables was a definite draw. More than one person has mentioned that while shopping with their mother, they were always fascinated and feared being trampled by the ladies grabbing those sale items.
Another way Gately’s found its way into so many memories was by the fact that they employed so many high school students. From crash courses on cash registers and how to make change to meeting future husbands, Gately’s definitely provided interesting high school age experiences. One reader mentioned having been visited by her boyfriend who secretly stuck the end of the white wrapping string into a pneumatic tube. He sent the tube up the pneumatic system which resulted in the string being stuck throughout the tubing.
Gately’s will always represent the best of what we loved about Roseland thanks to Mr. Gately’s running a neat, clean, orderly business with commonsense and business sense. When we experience businesses like Walmart, K-mart, Target and the like, we mentally compare it to what we know and what we know is Gately’s People Store. On the other hand, we need to compliment ourselves because it was the respect and admiration that we personally held for Gately’s that gave us the standards most of us incorporated into the fabric of our lives and passed on to our children and shared with our spouses.
George Pullman the Man and His Model Town
In celebration of George Pullman’s 185th birthday I will be performing my one-man show George Pullman: the man and his model town for the public. This presentation will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday March 3rd at the Orland Park Library, 14921 Ravinia, Orland Park, 708-428-5100.
Contact me at 11403 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60628; 773-701-6756; or firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit Roseland Roundtable on Facebook.