Monday, November 17, 2014

Subterranean Passages: Down in the Pedway, Time Remains Fixed 'Around the Clock'

Having been called worse, I have no qualms being dubbed a sentimentalist.

I love old buildings, old movies, old movies in old buildings and almost anything that is quaint, unusual and/or historic.

Or just well-worn.

Working in the heart of downtown Chicago, as I have for parts of recent years, I've made a point of noticing, exploring and discovering things such as ghost signs that remain on old brick buildings long past pertinence, the beautiful terra cotta and other carvings atop many Loop buildings that would nearly impossible to replicate today and remaining places of yore such as the Walnut Room within Macy's on State Street (formerly Marshall Fields).

Perhaps more oddly, I also have an acute sentimentality for almost anything that feels anachronistic, from phone booths to news stands to record stores to various other enterprises much more representative of the past than the present or future.

Two of my favorite posts I've ever penned for Seth Saith have chronicled such businesses and proprietors.

The forever genial Ralph Frese, who ran the Chicagoland Canoe Base in the same Portage Park shop for over 55 years, was a decorated outdoorsman and environmentalist who spoke beautifully about the joys of canoeing, and at 85 still relished renting boats and equipment to first-time customers. Unfortunately, Frese passed a little over a year after I profiled him in October 2011 and his store no longer exists.

Though much more wearily wry, longtime Chicago news stand owner Robert Katzman clearly exudes a personal nostalgia for the print publications that overflow his Old Magazine Store in Skokie, which I also wrote about in 2011 (then dubbed the Magazine Museum). While commercial survival is of more imminent concern to Katzman than overt sentimentality, he loves to give each customer a detailed tour of his holdings and has self-published several recollections of times gone by.

So having noticed a watch & clock repair shop down in the Pedway that connects downtown Chicago buildings via subterranean passages, with my mind summoning Georges Méliès' toy shop in the movie Hugo, I imagined a quaint story of a skilled tradesman who relishes his unique place in the catacombs of the city.

Particularly with the paradoxical twist of thousands of people passing by every day, but time remaining literally and figuratively fixed in one longstanding shop.

Thus, after a couple years of thinking about doing so, one day last week I stepped into Around the Clock Repairs, underneath 69 W. Washington (across from Daley Plaza), which features a hand-drawn sign heralding its "30 Years Anniversary."

Waiting as the man working in the shop finished with a watch repair customer by asking for a cash deposit of "whatever," I ascertained that he was the owner and asked if I might interview him for a story.

I was envisioning coming back on a subsequent day with questions drafted, but the weathered--and certainly not improperly wary--gentleman asked in clear but accented English, "What do you want to know?"

So I pulled out my journal pad and sputtered out something like, "What do enjoy about fixing watches and clocks?"

To which he replied:

"There is nothing enjoyable about it. I work like a horse."

So much for sentimentality.

But whereas I might have been hoping for some kind of Disneyfied or Dickensesque saga complete with poetic characters in a chummy underground community, what I found was much more heartening.

For while Bruce Persky is unlikely to remind anyone of Geppetto, his is a genuine, no saccharin added story of a skilled, hard-working immigrant just trying to make a living.

And while some--OK, me--may wonder just how much demand there is for watch & clock repairs, particularly without any street-level presence, according to Persky not only is his business rather busy, but "when I go on vacation, people wait for me."

Nonetheless, the Russian émigré who learned his craft in Europe told me that he wanted to retire, and has tried to put his business up for sale, especially in the wake of his wife's passing.

"I have to retire someday," he asserted. 

Just down the Pedway from an Illinois Secretary of State facility, Persky works--seemingly alone--from 8:30am to 5pm every day. And based on the time I was there, and others when I've walked by, it would seem the bulk of each day is spent hunched over a work bench working fixing watches with tiny screwdrivers and other tools requiring keen vision, steady hands and occasional magnification.

As suggested by the 30th anniversary sign, Around the Clock Repairs has existed since 1984, but not always in the same location.

Accommodating and patient with my line of questioning, but not exactly gregarious, Persky shared that he was first at 22 W. Madison, and then spots on Randolph and Washington--presumably above ground--before settling into his current storefront down under 14 years ago.

On an arctic day, he spoke of being happily submerged away from the cold air--"I like it. There's no snow, no rain; it's like Florida"--but despite having some friends in other shops he didn't seem to summon any rhapsodic sense of communal camaraderie for his Pedway brethren.

It's just where he does business.

Which involves fixing and engraving watches, jewelry and clocks, with many beautiful examples of the latter decorating his shop. (Some watches and clocks are for sale, but it is much more a repair operation than a retail one.)

I asked Persky if he had any favorite clocks in the store, and he pointed out a couple, including one pictured here that features two weights.

And despite his protestation above, Persky not only takes apparent pride in his work--rarely has he found himself up against a watch or clock he couldn't fix--but admitted that he enjoys "working with old stuff."

Without quite giving me a slam-dunk, sum-it-all-up quote, he also clearly reflected his fondness for the time pieces of old and their self-wound mechanics, rather than digital watches and other modern devices:

"This is better, of course."

So too, obviously, was what I found, compared to what I thought I was seeking.

For who really has the luxury and wherewithal to sit and think wistfully about what they do or where they do it, as bills must be paid, work must get done and the hands of time keep turning.

In this case, quite literally, thanks to the seemingly sentimental but--underneath it all--still quite vital talents and tasks of people like Bruce Persky.

Around the Clock Repairs, 69 W. Washington, Suite LL-15, Chicago; 312-263-7070. (Not too surprisingly, there is no website, email address nor Facebook page that I could find.)

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