By B. David Zarley
Traffic and passersby on Belmont Avenue reflect off of the glistening metal panels that make up the building’s facade, undulating gently like Lake Michigan mellowed out on alprazolam. Rising four stories high from the sidewalk, the business beneath the wave has survived since 1975, weathering fads, recessions and location changes. In Lakeview, a neighborhood of fickle tastemakers and expendable income, Belmont Army is sacred ground: Macy’s meets Mecca.
Temples are rare on multifarious ground, as they require a consistent bedrock upon which to be built. Despite the throbbing, well-muscled and ever-spreading mass of frat-mentality dumbfuckery reaching out its menacing tentacles from Wrigleyville in an effort to become the dominant cultural milieu—one primarily composed of polo shirts, drunken girls with longer heels than dresses and noxious “DJ’s” spinning the absolute lowest-grade electronic dance music, which, granted, is an admittedly fun atmosphere with the right company and chemicals in a Goodall-amongst-the-chimps sort of way on a Saturday night—Lakeview still has a vast array of subcultures. Girls in blonde pixie cuts, high-waisted shorts and big glasses ride fixed-gear bicycles; men with handlebar mustaches and Wayfarers driving mauve PT Cruisers; salon girls whose tight black clothes cling to them like the smell of cigarettes and perfume, tattoos peeking out from beneath the short sleeves. A vibrant LGBTQ community bustles, while young professionals travel from Sheffield Avenue to the Loop for work, a mass migration of ties and pencil skirts twice each day. It is a mess of youth and money and life, drawn together in its existence below North Clark’s grim weekend realities and its willingness to embrace the hip.
Tom Wolfe understood these people, even if he has not seen them himself. As the blog “Critic Under the Influence” so deftly points out, what unites all of Wolfe’s observations of the young is their obsession with form. In his best works, the ones that focus on the ferociously burgeoning youth culture of the early and mid-1960s, the theme of form for form’s sake, and the strict adherence to it, is the framework. “No one ever seemed to notice how maniacally serious they were about their hairdos, their flesh-tight pants, puffy sweaters, about the way they walked, idled, ogled or act[ed] cool; in short, how serious they were about anything that had to do with form and each other,” Wolfe writes of New Jersey teenagers swarming New York City in “The Peppermint Lounge Revisited.” What Wolfe found then seemed to amaze him: How a little more money and a little more free time had caused a generation to become a civilization. “I don’t mind observing that it is this same combination—money plus slavish devotion to form—that accounts for Versailles or St. Mark’s Square,” he writes in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” He seemed genuinely enthralled by what he saw, of new energy and art and culture being created before his very eyes, of an entirely new America more structurally complex then anyone could have known; the kids were not only alright, they were thriving.
Where Wolfe saw the creation of a new, underground society, one dominated by aesthetics and youth and a love of both for their own sake, present-day observers now see endless frontrunners, people defined by their primal need to be First and Different who, of course, all end up looking the same. (In comparison, similar subcultures such as beats and hippies and skinheads were all special and unique snowflakes, and could never be pigeonholed easily enough to become quick pop-cultural reference notes that could be dashed off with nothing more than a simple black beret, tie-dyed shirt or rakish trilby.) They bemoan a landscape of cultural homogeny, of a generation incapable of being brilliant and dynamic. The North Side of the city, particularly the stretch between Lincoln Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, Irving Park Road and the Loop, seems to teem with the same sense of life ahead of the curve, the same feeling of being,
that resonates as it must have when Wolfe was in New York City or Southern California. Older, yes, but more diverse and vastly richer, this coterie is what has kept Belmont Army alive for so many years; it is, at its heart, a brick and mortar monument to those devotees of aesthetic and form that has crossed that hallowed line from business to cultural landmark and outright destination, where one can find the very point that the cutting edge draws blood in Chicago. The devotees have found a palace as schizophrenic as themselves.
That surf-invoking facade was an apt choice for Belmont Army, since it was a business that succeeded by riding a cresting wave into Lakeview, one of expendable income and the devotees ready and willing to use it. According to the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, whose figures date from 2007, the neighborhood is predominantly composed of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four, young professionals with the unprecedented buying power of roughly $1.4 billion. Most are single, college educated and above the $50,000-a-year mark; these are the tastemakers, the golden demographic, the people with enough adherence to form and art to stay cool and the income to keep up not only with the Joneses but also the Wintours and the Hirsts. They are the mark of an advanced society, one that has achieved its primal and base needs with such success and regularity as to facilitate an entire subculture that can make the very act of living into art; cave men painted caves, Greeks carved statues, the Renaissance laid out the visual basis of Christianity, Americans invented rock ‘n’ roll and now we have the time not only to suss through and select our frivolities, but to focus entire ways of life around them. These are the people who arrived with Chang Yoo, and who have carried him this far, to the top of that four-story building.
Belmont Army founder, and vintage floor owner, Chang Yoo/Photo: B. David Zarley
“When I first arrived, this neighborhood was not very popular,” Yoo says in a thick Korean accent. He is tall and solidly built, with a regal bearing and gravitas aided by his thick, jet-black hair, slightly graying around the ears, and his understated slacks and speckled polo shirt. He is Belmont Army’s founder. Yoo came to Chicago from Seoul to go to school, and founded the original store—then a military surplus store only, as opposed to the surplus, shoe, fashion, skateboard and thrift store that Belmont Army is today—in July 1975, just as the baby boomers came. “The young people came in, and the surplus was a big hit,” he recalls. He remembers being featured in the Tribune and the Sun-Times as his business thrived. But a market of young people were sure to age, and take with them their money, status and desire. “When the baby boomers moved on, I aimed for their children,” Yoo says with a smile. Lightning struck again, as Yoo brought in venerable boot brand Dr. Martens, catching another wave and tapping into the young and hep yet again. “I change. That is why I survive,” he smiles.
He moved storefronts on Belmont, from the roughly 1,000 square feet of 937 Belmont to just down the block, at 945 Belmont. Yoo had begun planning to build the current iteration of the store in the early 2000s, and his ambition paid dividends when the Chicago Transit Authority decided that the Belmont platform had to be extended in 2006. The various impediments that face all such construction projects—”It took a long time to make all the drawings. It took a long time to get all the city permits. It took a long time to build the building,” Yoo explains—caused Belmont Army to briefly be without a home. The store shut down for two years between fronts, biding time until the decade-long construction process was complete and returning to business in 2009. The military surplus lives on, residing on the wave’s third floor. The second floor is the thrift store; the shoe store is on the ground floor; and the clothing and skate shop is in the basement. The floors are individually owned now, with Yoo owning Belmont Army Vintage, a change that has brought fresh warm blood to the business.
These new owners and managers and employees are all different shades of the same being. Much like their clientele, tattoos and stylish clothes rule the day, but, also like their clientele, they range in age from young to Yoo and from places as diverse as Sweden, Korea and Crystal Lake. What unites them all is an ethereal sense of Coolness and a passion for their job and Belmont Army’s place in Chicago’s zeitgeist.
Photo: B. David Zarley
The first-floor boutique is a mixture of skate, street, music and popular culture, all veneered with a thick lacquer of sex appeal and distilled into fashion, where it becomes easily wearable and the most obvious outward manifestation of the devotion to aesthetics and form. Here, Belmont Army is presented as Black Flag, and Mickey Mouse rubs shoulders with Pete Doherty, Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. A bottle of Maker’s Mark carries far more lusty suggestibility than could have possibly been imagined, and it is not only accepted, but encouraged, to let the world know that you love drugs and that “Angel Dust Saved My Marriage.” It does not look terribly different from any other clothing store where the fashionable young would come to cavort, which is not to say that it does not look terribly different. Seas of racks are broken up here and there by the odd table, shelves of fedoras juxtaposed nicely by racks of mesh-backed nouveau-truckers. Graphic, photo and pattern-based pieces co-exist, adding splashes of color to the gunmetal gray of the walls. Birdhouses fleck a back wall covered in swooping and curving patterns that evoke whale-oil lamps, corsets pressed against ivy and the wallpaper of your grandmother’s narrow upstairs hallway.
Speed Best is telling me about the make-up of his customers in an airy voice through soft, almost imperceptible clouds of Parliament smoke that he lets wander past his lips before quickly snapping back into his mouth like a couture-slim, stubbled wobbegong inhaling a cloud of silt.”We get a lot of DePaul students. And celebrities. The drummer for Alkaline Trio left, like, twenty minutes ago,” he says.
As the delightfully named first floor’s manager is telling me all this, in a patch of grass right next to the wave’s front door, a large gentleman, bearing a striking resemblance to Mississippi rapper David Banner, approaches us. “I’ll trade you a Cheeto for a cigarette,” he says, reaching into a matte plastic bag and pulling out one of the delicacies, whose chemically concocted orange looks decidedly muted in comparison to the more creamsicle hue of his polo shirt. “No,” Speed replies, sure that the man will simply move along. “I can just stand here until you give me one then,” the man says, an act of passive aggression that throws us both for a second. “What do you guys sell in there?” he asks rather un-inquisitively, poking his head into the foyer. “Oh, I see that you’re hiring.”
Speed looks at me, regaining his composure. “There are lots of crazy people in this neighborhood as well,” he says.
“That’s me,” says our friend, taking the bait and reaching out to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you.” This begins a tirade about beggars, and calling people beggars—despite the fact that the gentleman was never once referred to as such—and morphs into boasts (“I’ve got plenty of money for cigarettes.”) and insults (“You’re hurting so bad you can’t even give me just one?”) that Speed handles in stride. Still not quite sure what is going on, we continue our conversation in spurts until heading back inside. “I’ll be back later to buy something,” our friend calls behind us. It is easy to see why he felt he could stand around and intimidate; I am far from physically imposing, and Speed, with his somewhat sad eyes and similar build, is far from threatening. Perhaps the tall, bare-headed man covered in tattoos behind the counter would have made for a more traditional encounter.
But that is behind us now. Encounters like that are common in any big city, and Belmont Army’s placement right near the Belmont L station makes it easily accessible by all walks of life; the store would not have it any other way. The neighborhood customers drawn by the easy access and placement on a prominent thoroughfare are the store’s lifeblood. “We get a lot of everyday shoppers,” Speed says.
Photo: B. David Zarley
Knowing that Nike SB is one of the store’s top sellers, and that skaters are some of Belmont Army’s best customers, I ask him about the basement skate shop. The industry is far from its parabolic past, with the nineties bust the last major fall, and now serves as yet another integral subculture that cries to be catered to by people with a similar passion. Credibility came when skateboard company Element sent Todd Francis to paint the mural that lines the entranceway to the shop, a vaguely haunting piece comprised predominantly of strange shades of honeysuckle, canary and goldenrod, with touches of red. The company also designed the skate shop’s logo, a haggard urban pigeon, and serves as the shop deck. While small, the section is well-stocked, with the ubiquitous board wall a dazzling array of color and irreverence and a long, low display case of the less visually appealing but infinitely more crucial infrastructure of the skateboard: trucks, wheels, bearings, bushings and bolts. Shoes specially tailored for the art form are available as well, while videotapes of professionals, the skater’s equivalent to porn, run in the background.
Belmont Army’s ties to street art are most visible outside, far from the entrance. Another mural, this one on the roof, was the genesis of the first floor’s owner, Craig Scholla. He gathered a team of street artists to paint it, with the entire project documented on film, according to Speed. “I wish I could remember who they were,” he laughs. “That was all Craig.”
The first floor is, in many ways, the new face of the store; where once the devotees wanted military jackets and authentic pea coats, their children want Superdry and Levis. It is both the tip of the spear and the bleeding edge, a position which is most precarious, but one that Speed seems to handle with ease and rather enjoys.
Photo: B. David Zarley
Aluminum foil with the crystalized texture found along the rim of a tub of vanilla ice cream, the cheery teal of a vintage Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, the Cimmerian crimson of a Giant Pacific Octopus at depth, Pepto-Bismol pink and forest green and spiced rum brown and navy blue and Jovian orange and onyx black and white, off-white and cream: the shoes come in almost as many colors as they do styles, all manner of Pantone shades finding life as sneakers, trainers, heels, work boots, rain boots, rock boots, pillared fashion boots, slides, slip-ons, moccasins, shell toes, open toes, high-tops, low-cuts, rendered in leather, nubuck, suede, canvas, rubber, in boxes, on display, on tables and racks and shelves lighted from below so that the severely linear heel and every delicate, titillating strap is put on display, accentuated, positioned just right so that the shoe’s je ne sais quoi could so easily be yours, its sex appeal yours… Presiding over all this dizzying assortment is manager Kaitlin Buckley.
“I am so sorry. I forgot you were coming!” she says as I hit the second story, flitting like a butterfly between the back office, where wire racks hold countless shoeboxes and two computer monitors constantly stream security camera feeds, and the sales floor. I assure her that she need not worry on my account, and take the opportunity to talk to the other person working in shoes, Mike.
Everything about Mike is pleasantly faded, like the pastel walls of a historic oceanfront hotel, giving him a relaxed, breezy manner. A shock of dirty blond hair pokes out from under his tan cap, comfortable-looking slip-ons, shorts and a simple periwinkle tee shirt completing the vibe.
Mike remembers going to the original Belmont Army as a child, but his professional relationship with the store is much more recent. “I have worked here for about a year,” he tells me. He enjoys the freedom of his new workplace. “Not being corporate is a great thing,” he says. “You can come right to the boss, and tell their listening.” And can you pick your own music, I inquire? Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” is on in the background. “Oh yeah,” he smiles.
Mike seems to take the greatest pleasure in interacting with the wide variety of people who find themselves on the second floor. “We get all kinds of people up here,” he says. On my visit alone, a large Latino gentleman was carousing the workbooks, a slim, bicycle-messenger-looking kid tried on a pair of Vans, and a middle-aged man with the professional demeanor and relaxed, business-casual attire of a successful contractor browsed the shop’s wares. There are not many things one particularly needs in Belmont Army; it is a cathedral of wants, more pleasures than necessities. Shoes are one of the few true needs represented, a fact made crystal clear by the customer’s heterogenous complexion. More than just sneaker heads find their way up here.
“I’m ready for you now,” Kaitlin says with a smile. She is friendly but not overbearing, with a slightly olive complexion, large, allusive almond eyes and a tangle of chocolate hair. A cherry branch, in nascent Basin bloom, spans her right forearm, with a more colorful design, resembling a family crest, on her left tricep. Tight dark denim clings to her legs, cut above the calf, while sensible yet stylish black low-cut sneakers are appropriate for her position in both form and function.
“This store definitely stands out in this neighborhood,” she says. “Not only because of the giant silver building, but what we carry in our store, you really can’t find in this area, besides our store… We are known for carrying things that no other store does.” These rare items include limited edition Jeffrey Campbells, Quickstrike Nikes and Jeremy Scott pieces.
“Tons of people were asking for the Jeremy Scott Wings,” Kaitlin says. “Have you seen them? They have like actual wings on them!” Like Hermes, I ask?
“Yes!” she laughs. “I don’t know why they were so popular, but they were. He also did these panda shoes, with like a panda head on it and arms. The head is huge! I found a pair of men’s fours and tried them on… ” At this she looks down, her smile spreading as she visualizes the plush head and outstretched arms of an endangered animal on her foot, and begins laughing all over again.
Steve Choi, the third floor owner, has a simple business philosophy. “My philosophy in business is not ‘I tap into a market of rich people and I want them to spend money in my store,'” Choi says. “My philosophy is, I wait till somebody walks in through the door, I pass zero judgement on anybody—I don’t care what your race is, your age or sexual orientation. All I care about is forging a relationship… plenty of customers just need a pair of gloves because they’re cold, just walk in walk out. And that’s fine. But I just promised myself, if I ever had my own business, I would never treat somebody differently because they’re young or old or black or white or Latin.”
To him, any other strategy would be suicide. “What am I, Belushi doing a speedball at the Chateau Marmont?” he asks.
Choi is tasked now with running the heart and soul of Belmont Army, the military surplus trade that gave the store its name and began it all over three decades ago. He took over last July, his childhood friendship with Chang Yoo’s son the catalyst. Choi was born and raised in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois before moving west to Los Angeles to work in corporate finance and accounting. He still carries traits of both cities with him; his Bulls shirt and gregarious demeanor are distinctly Midwestern, but his speech patterns, sprinkled with nonchalant “man” interjections and slick charm, seem pulled straight from under the shade of a Left Coast palm tree. The fact that he never sounds anything but sincere hints at which city is more influential.
Unlike other corporate refugees, Choi does not demonize his former world. He acknowledges the stability, the daily interactions and sense of teamwork. For Choi, it came down to sitting behind a desk all day. “It seems very limiting,” he says. “I’ll be honest, I just didn’t like the work sometimes. It actually bored me, more than anything. And there’s nothing like an active mind that’s bored. You’ll ruin yourself.”
Boredom does not apply in his new environs. The third floor is a wild wonderland, painted in every shade and style of camouflage, from pixelated digital to the more smeared, primal gashes of the traditional look, an entire world coated in browns, greens, blacks and tans, highlighted by sparkling bursts of color from flags, patches, pins and blazing orange safety gear. All manner of jackets and uniforms, from a variety of nations, line the racks. Shelves of military, naval and police hats from the former Soviet Bloc join fighter-pilot helmets and a box enticingly labeled “Czech Gas Masks.” Rows of parkas and pea coats wait patiently for winter, while a display case of pins, as tall as a man and at least three times as wide, showcases pins from most any conflict and branch. Unusual, bizarre objects dot the store; Choi admits that some of the most unique pieces are not even seriously intended to be sold, the intrinsic value of the flair they add to the floor outweighing the capital gain from such a transaction. Police riot shields, ironic in the wake of NATO’s Chicago visit, lean against an ad hoc display table, seeming both slightly menacing and more than a tad absurd; I wonder if protestors gave any thought to acquiring one and proceeding to fight fire with fire.
It is here, amongst the sloughed-off scales of the military-industrial complex, that one finds the most pure embodiment of the devotees; style and tastes may have changed, but the adherence to aesthetic and form does not, and it is a religion which requires a healthy appreciation of the strangely ornate cuts, cloths, textures and fits of war. Here, the strange and unusual—those gas masks come to mind, or butterfly bottle openers—rub shoulders with the most mundane of objects, like hats and gloves and boots, providing a microcosm of Lakeview, Chicago, and the world, in general. It is little wonder that creative types are drawn to these places.
“The artistic community here is very, very, very much a big part of who our customer base is,” Choi says. “We always have people that are going to attend Burning Man, and people that are painters, sculptors, having their own shows and doing something interesting… I just admire anybody that can do something for the arts full time. Because that is a very fucking difficult proposition.”
Choi enjoys assisting the artistic community. “Any time those costume designers are in, especially the community theaters, I try my best to do a decent deal,” he says. “I mean, we have to make money, but I always try to do my best for this community. It just seems like it makes sense.”
Some of his favorite customers are comic-book and video-game fans, whose creative use of his products he finds endlessly entertaining. “If somebody tells me they’re getting ready for something like Comic-Con, I don’t mean to equate, but it’s in the same vein, to me, as an artist doing something, because that’s what they’re really into,” he says, putting his philosophy into practice. “I don’t laugh about that. I never joke about that. They are some of the best customers, because they are able to find holsters and that kind of stuff that we have up there… With how creative our customers are, I’m proud to carry things like that.”
Choi seems to understand that he is, in many ways, the torchbearer for what Belmont Army has meant to a generation of people. He relishes this position and his proximity to the creative, peppering me with questions about my process and technique even as I was interviewing him. His passion for form is unmistakable and contagious.
“We have a lot of people that do a lot of interesting things, the whole gamut,” he says. “And that’s what makes our floor, man“—there is Los Angeles—”interesting to me.”
The fourth floor—vintage clothing—is the opposite side of the military surplus store’s coin; this is where the private citizen’s artifacts end up, more camp than pulp. It is a tighter view on the past, one with more emotional resonance than a German military jacket or Royal Mail caps and uniforms can provide, a limited scope but one that the average person can experience much more acutely. Typical vintage fare like band and sports-themed T-shirts, dresses, jewelry, silver and piles of mesh-backed hats are joined by a more eclectic array of items, including ski boots whose neon orange coloration is enough to cause rods and cones to careen screaming into each other, bowling balls and bags, old copies of True Stories magazine with impossibly porcelain women, rosy-cheeked and scarlet-lipped, on the cover, Japanese comic books and an entire wall of tiger and various other big-cat portraits. Rows upon rows of jeans, cowboy boots, leather jackets, varsity sweaters and dungarees beg the question: Just where, exactly does this stuff come from?
Yoo acquires these objects mainly through storage and warehouse sales in Arizona and Texas. He snaps them up by the unit, cherry picking the best to sell and donating others to the Salvation Army. “Sometimes what we get is good, sometimes it is junk,” he says. “We take a risk.” Other items are brought directly into the store.
Belmont Army Vintage attracts some of the same diversity as the shoe store; while your stereotypical hipster is most assuredly afoot, browsing for high-waisted shorts, long print dresses, tights with the intricate lattice work needed to turn thighs into the French Quarter and ever-larger glasses with which to frame their eyes, numerous middle-aged and older consumers also poke about. One gentleman, a young man in a pink button-down shirt with a profoundly brusque carriage and the severe, cold face and close-cropped blond hair to match, stirs the dust motes through the sheer intensity of his very being.
By the dressing rooms, each christened with Purple and Red Line L stop names, Malin busily prices and hangs blouses. She is the epitome of Secondhand Chic, the aesthetic form that most all other hip women who come to this place wish to wear on their own pining frames; her nacreous blouse, with the delicate, sheer window across the upper chest and lace details, blends perfectly into her rich, mahogany skirt, dark leggings and laced boots taking the spell into the floor as she speaks to me in a mellifluous Scandinavian accent. An employee for only a few months, she had moved to Chicago from Sweden with her husband.
“It is really nice here,” she says. “Everyone talks; we are very familiar, very friendly. One of the nicer places I have ever been to.” These feelings extend to her new home, as well. “Originally we were going to move to San Francisco,” she explains. “But at the last minute they decided to move him to Chicago.”
Malin does not seem to mind not living in the Golden State; aside from the strong arts and music scene she has found here, she also tells me that Chicago is cleaner and not nearly as false feeling as New York City, which “feels like a shopping mall;” some devotees take this finely tuned detest for fake to Caulfield-esque proportions.
On the top of the wave, in a room separated from the vintage floor by the kind of faded, flower-printed yellow sheet one would suspect is destined for this sort of thing, I talk to Yoo, surrounded by cardboard boxes stacked sternum high and sitting in the single desk chair, which he graciously offered me. Outside the window behind me, Lakeview teems and breathes, and the L infrastructure that had once muscled Yoo out of the way is now, literally, beneath him. Here, at the top of his palace to the devotees of aesthetics and form, there is little doubt that Belmont Army is still riding atop a crest, one that began to swell in 1975 and has yet to break.
I ask him what the store means to him, and Yoo breaks into a smile that only a man who has carried, and kept alive, a passion for decades can possess; it speaks volumes, running the entire length and breadth of his face, before pulling deeper still, into a place that no one but him will ever truly understand and know.
“Everything,” he says.