There’s no perfect way to say goodbye to your favorite bar when it closes its doors for good. But when I heard the kitschy burger joint I frequented in my 20s was closing and auctioning off everything in the bar at a public event, I figured that’s about as close as you could get.
Every Thursday night from June 2009 to April 2011, I hosted a comedy show in the back room of Chicago Joe’s, which Chuck Kowalski and Al Rompza opened back in 1988 as Grover’s Oyster Bar as an homage to the average Joe, as well as Rompza’s grandfather. Kowalski and Rompza covered the walls in a chaotic assortment of historical news clips about Chicago, sports memorabilia and vintage signage, an ideal surrounding for aspiring comedians. Dick jokes told beneath a giant taxidermied marlin just land better.
At the end of each night, the decor shifted from creative inspiration to drunk dare. Sure, we knew we’d never get away with stealing anything, but what really kept us from trying was wanting to be allowed back in the following week.
Anyway, this past Saturday, for the first time in over a decade, I walked into Chicago Joe’s at 10 a.m., where Donley Auctions promised to help me realize my drunkest dreams, if I was willing to bid enough. They were selling everything in the place — from the giant sign out front to the framed campaign ads of Mayor Richard J. Daley to a lonely box of leftover receipt paper. Unlike my past visits, there were no rounds of beer or shots being served, just scattered groups of water bottles for attendees to stay hydrated throughout the six-hour affair.
They did, though, still ask to see my ID. “I don’t think I’m bidding on anything today — first timer,” I explained modestly. But a woman named Linda told me that as a matter of security they needed a photocopy of everyone’s ID. After I obliged, she handed me a yellow paper with a red 312 — a well-known Chicago area code — printed on it. “Just in case you change your mind,” she told me.
A stack of paper menus sat along the bar that Randy Donley, the auctioneer and owner of Donley Auctions, informed us were free to take as a souvenir. As I made my way to the back room, I met Mark Iverson, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s and has been coming to Joe’s since it opened. The event was filled with a mix of bar regulars, suburbanites and antique collectors from all around the Midwest. However, as an auction regular, Iverson described it as “gambling-shopping, because you really don’t know how good it is until you take it outside,” the 66-year-old explained.
As Donley solicited $5 bids for used restaurant equipment in the background, Iverson assured me they wouldn’t start auctioning off the good stuff until all the stragglers arrived after noon. Iverson, owner of the nearby Diversey River Bowl, attends auctions semi-regularly to furnish his bowling alley. This spring Saturday, he was there with an agenda: to buy a sign that read “Open Bowling” for 55 cents on weekdays until 6 p.m. and 65 cents after that. “I’ll probably overbid on that,” he informed me.
Between bids, Donley took a few minutes to eat a bagel and catch me up on the history of Donley Auctions, a family business. Inspired by their father Larry, who owned a gas station in Berwyn, Illinois, where he began collecting old pumps, license plates and eventually cars, Donley and his brother Mike started attending auctions with their dad as teenagers. By the time they graduated high school, Larry had parlayed his antiquing hobby into a viable business, Donley’s Wild West Town, a museum and theme park about the Wild West.
Donley helped run the family business with his brother, but throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, he hosted “interior auctions” of historic Chicago buildings like the Medinah Temple. With the encouragement of his girlfriend and business partner of more than 15 years, Susan Hagerty, Donley moved his auction operation to a banquet hall in Wild West Town, but occasionally travels on special occasions.
The crowd had swelled to 300 by the time Donley finished his last sips of coffee and got back on the microphone for the main event: a 15-foot double-sided neon Chicago Joe’s sign. The opening bid started at $5,000, and in less than a minute, it had climbed past $15,000. It ultimately topped out at $27,500 and went to a collector from Michigan who described the sign as small compared to his others.
From there, Donley auctioned off the wooden door for $100 and the Chicago Joe’s rug for $90. A vintage Wilson leather speed bag and matching gloves sold for an impressive $2,750, while a neon “EAT OUT” sign mounted on a lunch box went for $375 and a huge rusty produce scale for a cool $20. Donley could barely give away the bar’s multiple flat screen TVs — like his father Larry, this was a crowd that appreciated antiques. Finally, when it was Iverson’s turn to bid on his bowling sign, he landed on $200 after a bit of a back-and-forth.
I was tempted to bid on the giant marlin, but wasn’t sure where I’d put it in my small apartment and worried it would scare my dog. I remained conflicted when the fish ended up selling for a modest $170.
Regardless, I couldn’t walk away without doing a little gambling-shopping. Although many of the pictures of Chicago were going for several hundred dollars, I zeroed in on something less local — a Navy recruitment ad that always made me laugh. “Gee!! I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy,” it reads alongside an image of a hot Diane Keaton-esque woman dressed as a sailor.
After getting in a brief but friendly bidding war with another woman, I won the recruitment ad for $80 and experienced a rush of dopamine that was easily worth twice that.
But I recognized that the rush of winning wasn’t the only reason why so many were gathered in the bar that afternoon. “There are all kinds of reasons why people would want things,” Donley explained, pointing out the giant lion’s head that went for $2,500 to a developer who plans to put it outside a property he’s building. “He wanted it since he was a kid, and he wasn’t going to leave without it.” Then there was the woman who purchased the Reed Candy Company sign for $650; her mother worked at the company for years and would always point it out when they went to dinner at Joe’s. “She couldn’t believe that it had become available in her lifetime,” Donley continued.
Really, it makes sense that bidding wars were necessary to determine how much these old bar items were worth — their value, and the memories that come with them, are based solely on what they mean to the people who loved them. In fact, according to Donley, that’s the magic of an auction.
Put that way, it was clear that I’d made a huge mistake by failing to bid on the marlin. Then again, it wouldn’t have been a trip back to my old bar if I didn’t do something I regretted.