Ted Frankel, owner of Uncle Fun, holds up two Beatle heads on Jan. 8. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune )
A beloved Chicago icon lay on its deathbed Sunday, counting down the waning moments of life as mourners stopped by to pay their last respects.
"Today's emotional for me, because Uncle Fun represents a part of Chicago that I really love," said Erik Scheidt, a 33-year-old Logan Square resident.
"Something major is leaving Chicago, so now it's not as good," added Javy Maldonado, 23, also of Logan Square.
And once five o'clock rolled around, Lakeview became a little less fun.
After nearly 40 years, Ted Frankel decided to close up his beloved Uncle Fun novelty shop to move to Baltimore to be with his husband, whom he married in September.
"I've been going back and forth and decided it was time to head to Baltimore for good," he said.
Frankel will run a similar store there. But before leaving Chicago, he wanted to make sure everyone who made the store a neighborhood cornerstone over the years had a parting gift—by giving away all his inventory on the final day.
"It's my way of thanking my customers and cleaning out the store," he said. "What's better than getting something for free and taking it home and sharing with the people you love?"
But his customers say they're the ones who feel grateful for Frankel and his shop.
Hundreds streamed into the store throughout the day, emerging one by one with boxes of knickknacks for themselves and their families, armloads of souvenirs to remember a place that shaped their childhood.
"[My mom] has been shopping here longer than I've been alive," said Alice McQueen, a 31-year-old Evanston resident. "We used to buy my party favors here when I was in elementary school. We just thought they were the coolest thing ever. My friends would look at me and just think, 'You're absolutely nuts.' "
McQueen was able to score some posters, vintage plastic candles and a gigantic roll of vintage wrapping paper, among other things.
"My mom and I really like vintage wrapping paper," she said. "My house is decorated in Uncle Fun; everywhere I look is Uncle Fun."
Maldonado said the store was his secret weapon for planning pranks on his childhood friends.
"Nobody at my grade school knew about this place," he said. "I came with pens that shocked you and the gum that looks like gum and you get hit by a rat trap. Tons of good stuff."
For Scheidt, Uncle Fun was a place where he would come to feel like he fit in.
"We're kind of a weird family," he said. "This is the kind of stuff we liked and the kind of people that worked here and also shopped here were kind of just our people. This was like going to Target or something for us."
That was the goal all along, Frankel said.
"I've always called the store the safe space on the Monopoly board," he said. "When anybody comes in, they're treated equally. When you're here you're safe, and when you left you had to play by the outdoor rules."
Frankel said he's been overwhelmed by the support he's received since announcing his retirement via Facebook earlier this month. Many of his old customers have come in to say goodbye and share some of their favorite stories about the store with him.
Having been in business for nearly four decades, Frankel has a couple stories of his own to tell as well. The one that stands out most is his encounter with '80s pop culture icon Pee-Wee Herman.
"I once found in a warehouse a whole stockload of little tiny 1-inch harmonicas from Japan called the Pee-Wee Harmonica," he said. "When Pee-Wee Herman came into the store, I said, 'Oh my god, I've got the Pee-Wee Harmonica,' and that's how he chose his name. Of course, he bought a bunch to give out to all his friends."
Frankel said he's been asked for advice on running a successful business countless times over the years. He tells all aspiring entrepreneurs the same thing.
"You really need your heart in your business or what you're opening, because that's how a business starts," he said. "It starts with you rather than numbers. I've learned not to worry about money, that if you treat people fairly and you give them something kind of unusual, they'll tell their friends."
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
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