Charlie Joe and Marie Henderson have been married 56 years and for 50 of them, they've been in business on the West Side. They've sold everything from photographs to wigs to sunglasses. But their longest running venture is a store full of old tunes called Out of the Past Records, located at 4407 W. Madison Street.
As digital music has taken over, many brick-and-mortar record stores have closed. But amazingly, vinyl LPs have made enough of a comeback in the last five to 10 years that people can craft their own storefront niches catering to those who buy, sell and treasure oldies.
The Hendersons specialize in African American music. In their store you'll find LPs, CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes, even 8-tracks of jazz, blues, soul, pop, old and new school R&B and some hip-hop.
"Old LP records have become collectors' items. When CDs came out, they said CDs were indestructible and the sound was clearer," Charlie said. "But we found out that wasn't true and people with good ears said the sound of LPs is superior. I don't know why, but LPs are more personable than CDs. The art on the cover makes me remember every song on a lot of these albums."
Music giants like the late soul singer Otis Clay have brought record collectors from all over the world to Out of the Past.
Over a million items are packed into 10 rooms. Customers are now coming from the South Side and suburbs where some other record stores have closed, Marie notes. They don't mind searching through the racks in the crowded aisles. If you can't find something, Marie or somebody on the staff can dig it up.
While you wait, you can talk to Shadow, the cross-eyed black cat.
Last week, Jeff Minn, a frequent customer from the Bridgeport/McKinley Park neighborhood, was buying a print of a painting by African American artist and former football player Ernie Barnes.
In the picture, black folks danced furiously in an old-fashioned nightclub, powered by hard-swinging musicians.
"This store is true to the namesake," said Minn. "The history, the camaraderie, is always something that's new to me."
"Foreigners are much more knowledgeable about American music, especially blues, even though the artists were from around here," said Charlie Joe.
"Motown used to be my favorite music, but now, the older I get, I really love the blues, like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Some people said the blues was sad — well, it goes back to a sad time. Some of the songs had a fascination with death. Back in slavery, death seemed like the only way we could get free."
Along with the blues, Charlie Joe and Marie came to Chicago from the South during the 20th Century African American Great Migration. Marie's family is from Jackson, Mississippi and Charlie Joe's mother is from the resort town of Indian Springs — halfway between Atlanta and Macon, Georgia.
Charlie's mother, Almentha, worked as a domestic in Atlanta and saved up enough money to move to Chicago in 1949. Each year, she brought one of her children to the city. Charlie Joe's turn came in 1955 — the year Emmett Till was murdered by Mississippi racists for whistling at a white woman.
Charlie graduated from Crane and soon found work as a garment cutter. Marie's parents moved to the West Side the same year, a block away, and Marie graduated in 1959 from Harrison Technical High School and went to work as a mail-order carrier for Montgomery Ward. They were married in 1961.
At age four, while still in Georgia, Charlie had lost his father, Artis — killed by a friend in a drunken argument. The trauma brought him a stomach ulcer and bedwetting problems as a teenager.
"I wish there'd been counseling then," he said. "A lot of these young kids now, with all this violence they see, are going to have troubles later in life."
Teenaged Charlie Joe almost got in Emmett Till-type trouble himself.
A white woman by the name of Mrs. Pitts ran a bowling alley at an Indian Springs hotel, where Charlie and a buddy were working. The boys took off to go swimming in a creek nearby. Mrs. Pitts vowed to whip them.
Charlie blurted, "If you think you gonna whip me, you a fool."
Indeed, he said, Mrs. Pitts was a domineering woman who, being white, also wielded unfair authority over them. But he realized his error in sassing an elder, no matter what race. When Mrs. Pitts' husband threatened to hit Charlie Joe with a Coke bottle, the youth apologized profusely. Mr. Pitts backed off.
When the family got established in Chicago, Charlie Joe's mother would go to the blues clubs in the black business districts along Roosevelt, Lake St. and Madison, to see great blues entertainers like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James. Charlie bought a Polaroid camera in 1964, and began earning money taking pictures of people in the blues clubs.
He joined Marvin Cole to set up a photo studio at 8 S. Pulaski, where he and Marie also sold wigs and other items. The wigs came from wholesalers in Korea, and his part of the business faded as Koreans immigrated to the U.S. and started selling the wigs themselves.
Charlie Joe and Marie tried making and selling hippie wishbone earrings made from chicken and ham bones — until the guard dog ate all their craft work.
Two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968, a riot destroyed many stores along Madison Ave. Charlie Joe remembers buildings in flames and cars blowing up.
Owners of one of the remaining stores, Howard's Clothing at 3948 W. Madison, wanted to get out. In 1972 Charlie Joe and Marie bought the building for $40,000. It still houses their variety store, Henderson Studio, and the shop of tailor Luis Perez.
As the neighborhood got rougher, Charlie and Marie only dug in deeper.
"When one business slacks off, you just find something else that's moving," he said.
In 1969, a customer suggested they sell records. So they got a turntable and speaker, blasted the hit song "Color Him Father" to the whole street and sold out of the records in one day. When 8-track tapes hit big, they sold over 1,800 in one weekend.
The Pulaski Road photo studio/record store later burned down, as did his next record store at 4052 W. Madison in 1977. These were "insurance fires," he said. Building owners collected insurance, but all his merchandise, under-insured, was destroyed.
"Firemen said the building had a truss roof and it was too dangerous to go back in," he said. "I was so upset, I just went home and covered up my head."
But the Hendersons didn't give up. Their third business location — Maxwell Street — brought in $3,000 each weekend to help them get back up and running. At Charlie Joe's table, he moves many items quickly for $1.
For 31 years, he rented tables to temporary vendors. He closed the rental business this month since the open air market, forced away by city government from its traditional stronghold at Maxwell and Halsted Street, was drawing fewer vendors.
The Hendersons bought the present Out of the Past Records store building at 4407 W. Madison in 1986. They are open Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
With their businesses, the Hendersons have brought up three sons and two daughters, four of whom are still in Chicago. None of the children or grandchildren are interested in taking over the record store, so Charlie Joe and Marie plan on selling it, records and all, when they retire. But they say that won't be anytime soon.
Charlie would like to see the beloved old music become a path for the West Side and its African American culture and business base to revive.
"I'd like to see more blues clubs come back on the West Side," he said.
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