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Local Column

Olson: Downtown an odd place for one of ‘those stores’

Once you reach a certain age, you know if there’s one of “those stores” in your town.

Outside the town where I grew up was a cluster of businesses in dilapidated old buildings with gravel parking lots. Ostensibly, they were bookstores, or bars with “fashion shows” or masseuse businesses.

There were rumors us boys would hear (or make up) about what went on inside some of these places, things that were far different than the kind of book-selling or fashion modeling a young boy is familiar with. For the most part, we could only guess at what happened behind those windowless walls.

People sometimes would joke about the area’s seedy underbelly, but we didn’t go there too often. After all, it was outside town, along a high-speed stretch of road.

Where my hometown had its seedy fringe, the Paperback Grotto has been DeKalb’s dirty open secret for decades, long before the city passed a 1993 zoning law that prohibits adult businesses downtown. (The Grotto is exempt because it was there first.)

The store’s continued presence downtown seems like a throwback to a bygone era (not necessarily a good one) when adult movie theaters were common and adult businesses made New York’s Times Square the world’s largest den of iniquity.

For years the Grotto kept its windows blacked out, minding its own business, a business that happens to include selling X-rated material. For a long time, they weren’t even unique in that. Ralph’s Newsstand, known colloquially as “Dirty Ralph’s,” near the intersection of Lincoln and Seventh Street had its share of adult material – along with all manner of other offerings – before they closed in 2007.

Recently, reporter Katie Dahlstrom told the story of how the Grotto’s manager, Tim Himmelmann, decided to let some light in.

Mannequins in the window model lingerie, and there are some, uh, other items.

Katie talked to several people on the street last week about what they thought. She didn’t find anyone who thought it was out of line.

The owner of the nearby children’s clothing store described the new display as “tasteful,” a man walking by with his son said it was no big deal.

But DeKalb Mayor John Rey isn’t a fan.

“I’m less comfortable with the portrayal of scantily clad mannequins,” Rey said.  “I don’t think it’s appropriate in an area where you have family traffic.”

Well … yeah. It doesn’t matter how many planters and decorative doo-dads you put up, the “adult fun and fantasy shop” is still going to stick out like a sore thumb among the kids’ clothing stores and boutique shops.

It’s painfully obvious that it doesn’t belong there – that’s why people laugh about it.

The Grotto should relocate, but if that was going to happen, it probably would have by now. A cynic might look at the situation downtown and say we should be grateful for every building that’s fit for occupancy and every business that’s open on Lincoln Highway – but why should we indulge cynics?

It’s better to believe that if the community has a need for an adult business, people would seek it out in a location other than in the teeth of downtown. Meanwhile, that downtown location could be a good spot for something more in line with what visitors expect from the area that’s considered the heart of the city.

If there’s an upside to the situation, it’s that the Grotto’s owners get along with their neighbors, and with the location being as visible as it is, there’s less chance of the kind of shenanigans that go on at some adult businesses.

Or the stuff we as kids imagined went on in some of those rundown old buildings outside of town.

As long as the flag that the Boy Scouts carry past the Grotto in the Memorial Day parade has stars and stripes on it, the shop’s owners have the right to operate a legal business without government censure. They also have a responsibility to conform to community standards when it comes to decency.

For now, people largely seem to have accepted things for what they are – or at least that they can’t be changed. We’ll just keep joking about it, in low tones or in ways that children can’t understand.

What can you do but laugh?

Real football time: The World Cup was a fun summer distraction, and like many people I was glad to have any sports option other than the train wreck that is the Cubs and White Sox.

But U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was right – the U.S. team wasn’t good enough to win the tournament. They were outplayed in their final two matches, and without goaltender Tim Howard’s great play, they might not have advanced out of the “Group of Death.”

That’s all the soccer I’ll be writing about for the foreseeable future. Now it’s time for football we really care about. The Bears will open training camp on July 24, in other words only weeks from now. Watch the Daily Chronicle’s sports section next week for stories about where the team stands at different positions as we build up to the build up to the start of the season.

If you’re the kind of football fan who can’t get enough Bears, NFL and fantasy football news, check out Hub Arkush’s The website and its companion magazine are led by football expert Hub Arkush and compiled with a staff of veteran sportswriters.

If you need Bears news, they’re the guys to see.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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