December 2009

Legends Sports Gallery: A Sports Fan(atic)'s Hangout

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Anne

Igrew up in a small town south of Chicago. Everybody knew everybody up and down 5th Avenue in Kankakee, Illinois. And everybody went to Christiansen’s corner store for everything from loaves of Rainbo bread and spools of thread to wax lips and Topps baseball cards. Bins were filled with penny and nickel and dime candy. I can still smell it.

You could get cheap baseballs too, and since the store was a few blocks from the tennis courts, there was a can or two of balls on the counter.

Mr. Christiansen told stories and Mrs. Christiansen just made you happy you were there. Looking back, when we kids would enter the store, it was always with a sense of both comfort and wonder.

Watching people walk into Legends Sports Gallery at Main Street Village, it isn’t difficult to pick up on that same kind of comfort and wonder. While you can’t get a loaf of bread at Legends, you can get cinnamon bears and salt water taffy from a company that’s been making it for 125 years. As for those Topps baseball cards?

“We have what we call ‘super boxes.’ I take all these [baseball cards], I have a million cards back here, I’ll take an accumulation of cards and I’ll insert some real special ones and a coupon, good for one dollar or five dollars,” says Jerry Glenn, showing me one of the store’s more popular items for kids. It’s simply a plain white box. The treasures are hidden inside. “They love them. They’re $9.95 and $19.95— very reasonable. A mother calls from out of town and tells us the kids loved opening the boxes on their trip home. That’s why Lori and I can’t wait to get to the shop each morning. You have to love what you’re doing,” Glenn adds. Lori is Glenn’s daughter, just as enthusiastic about sports as her dad.

Lori has just finished helping a customer who is leaving, package in hand, and laughing. It’s a common sound in Legends. She had told the customers a story. Both father and daughter are great storytellers.

“Tell him the one about the Cub’s gnome,” Jerry Glenn says to his daughter. They both laugh. Of the thousands of products Legends offers and, as Jerry Glenn reminded, products nobody really needs, sports garden gnomes, similar to the Travelocity gnomes in television commercials, have become a hit. Their gnome hat has the logo of the team they “represent,” and their clothes imitate the particular team’s colors. There seems to have been a gnome invasion of the MLB, NFL, and NCCA. And they are funny.

So Lori begins. “One of our customers bought a Cubs gnome for his mother, who lives in St. Louis Cardinal territory. She named the gnome Norman. She puts Norman on the front porch when the Cubs win. It’s next to the toilet in the bathroom when they lose. So our customer comes in again. He says, ‘My mom wants six more Cubs gnomes.’ And he explains. ‘Every time she’s invited to a friend’s house for dinner (remember they’re all Cardinal fans), she’ll hide a Norman in their house and not tell them. So a day or two later, Norman shows up in their house.’ Is that fantastic or what?” Lori Glenn says. Laughing (full disclosure, I am a Cubs fan), I agree that it is.

Jerry Glenn tells me that, prior to my visit, he has looked up the origin of the word “fan.”

“There are all kinds of descriptions,” Glenn says, “but it comes from the word ‘fanatic.’ That’s our customer, whether they’re four or 94. They are fans, and they are young or young again. I see an older guy come in and I say, ‘Look around, you’ll see some old friends of yours.’”

I see an old friend. Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” MVP 1958 and 1959, when I am 13 and 14 respectively. I am a kid again, at Wrigley Field, with my dad (a Sox fan). The same dad who used to serve Babe Ruth drinks at the bar at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where visiting teams stayed. One picture, one memory, and I am rushed back in time.

Legends is stuffed, crammed, jam packed with memories. A new “old” product has become popular. It is a slender wool pennant that graphically depicts the history of a team’s logo through the decades. You can follow the artistry, the cultural influence, as the team grows, matures, enters a new era. It leaves a remarkable impression.

One of the most impressive qualities of Legends is not so much the multitude of products—you can buy a memory or become a “kid again” for anywhere from two to several hundred bucks—but the Glenns themselves. Lori’s enthusiasm and significant sports knowledge is impressive. Jerry’s knowledge of who did what when and the relationships he’s developed over the years with sports greats is, pun intended, legendary. He’s even teaching a class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USCB. He is often challenged in the store and thrives on it.

“I tell this guy who comes in we’ve probably got someone he’d like. I say, “Name any player, any team.’ He wants to challenge us. He says, ‘O.K., Joe Pepitone,’ I ran right over. I had a picture of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Joe Pepitone, signed by Joe Pepitone. They each hit a home run in the World Series, but Pepitone hit a grand slam to win the Series. I say, ‘Here, how’s this?’ And the wife says to her husband, ‘O.K., wise guy, you better buy the thing.’ And he did! When you can satisfy someone with something so remote, it turns us on,” Jerry Glenn says, his 78-year-old eyes sparkling like a little kid.

Our conversation ends and I am reluctant to leave. I think of the salt water taffy, or the nutty “unforgettaball,” of Wrigley Field ($9.95), a baseball that looks like my favorite arena for my favorite boys of summer. I am 13 again, for a moment. I’m back at Christiansen’s corner store in Kankakee. I am innocent, young, full of the future. And I hear my hero, Ernie Banks, say, “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game. Let’s play two!”

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