“I’ve collected items since I was a child,” said Tom Boyle, the 83-year-old founder and owner of the shop just a few steps off the Addison red line stop. “When I accumulated a lot of material I thought, well, I don’t have room for this, so I would go to conventions and flea markets to sell, but then I would usually come back with more items then I actually sold.”
When he decided to open up his own store, Boyle named it after one of his favorite songs, The Beatles classic of the same name.
Almost a century before it opened in 1976, the building Yesterday currently occupies was first sold in 1884, making it at least 30 years older than the nearby Wrigley Field, which was built down the street in 1914 under the original name of Weeghman Park.
Since then the stadium has changed its team twice, its name three times, added controversial lights and night games to its schedule and now faces even more controversy with the new renovations. But the building on 1143 W. Addison St. remains relatively the same, albeit now filled with the yellowing newspapers and magazines that chronicled these changes.
Like the iconic hand-turned scoreboard in the Chicago Cubs home ground, Yesterday maintains similarly manual methods of operation. Boyle does not have an email account or computer to his name, and a sign that says, “NO CREDIT CARDS,” hangs over the phone mounted on the back wall behind the counter, a solitary representative of the tech age.
In a time where even the Girl Scouts have surrendered to the enticement of internet sales and opened an online store, Yesterday’s steadfast dedication to the tangible and terrestrial is about as rare as the very souvenirs they buy and sell.
“Every now and then we’ll have a friend put something on eBay,” Boyle said, but clarified that this is the exception and not the rule.
In fact, the only trace of the shop’s activity on the web is a bare-bones Facebook account that hasn’t been updated since May when the page shared a link about classic television action figures. While Boyle conceded that he may lose business this way, he is comfortable in the ways of the past — besides, it’s appropriate for the subject matter after all.
One thing online stores don’t have to deal with, though, are neighbors. Coexisting so near to the baseball stadium is a “two-edged sword,” Boyle said.
“When the Cubs are here our regular customers won’t come anywhere near the place because of the crowds, but it brings a lot of people to the area,” he added. “Thank God for out-of-towners, because [in] the places they come from, they don’t have a shop like this.”
Regardless of what demographic Yesterday is serving, the most popular purchases across the board are products of childhood nostalgia and publications from a friend or family member’s birth date used as birthday gifts. The front door is gridlocked with old Polaroid photos of happy customers holding up their new purchases, “THEY FOUND WHAT THEY WANTED AT YESTERDAY,” written in fading paint across the top.
“I remember the first time I went to Yesterday,” said Andrea Calvetti, a 20-year-old filmmaker and photographer from a small town near Venice, Italy. “I couldn’t believe such a small business could still be alive in a society like ours where everything past a year is considered old.”
In Chicago for school, Calvetti was impressed to find rare posters displaying ‘50s Italian films so far from home. The excitement was calmed a little, though, by the small tags adhered to the protective plastic sleeves.
“I wanted to buy them all,” Calvetti said. “But they keep their prices quite high.”
On a recent weekday night in December, Boyle thumbed through a bright red collection of sheet music from silent film actor Lon Chaney’s production titled ‘Laugh Clown Laugh,’ publication date, 1928.
He launched into the tale of how Chaney grew up with deaf parents, leading him to learn exaggerated physical expression at a young age.
This talent led Chaney to be nicknamed “The Man of a Million Faces,” and aided his career well-before he tragically died of throat cancer, ironically just before his first planned speaking role.
If there’s one thing Boyle enjoys as much as collecting, it’s talking to those who stop by his store, and his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of all things history and culture lends itself well to this. Often mixed in with his conversations are a game or two.
“Just for the fun of it, I’ll let you try to guess,” he replied when asked his age. “And don’t be too gentle. Be realistic.”
It’s not uncommon he even goes as far as to test visitors with questions about history.
“When younger people come in I sometimes quiz them and I’m shocked at some of the answers I’ve had,” Boyle said. He went on to tell the story of the time he asked a teenage couple who was president during World War II only to get Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford as responses (the correct answer, of course, being Franklin D. Roosevelt and, briefly, Harry S. Truman), the same headlines that broke the news of these elections no doubt sitting mere feet away from him as he spoke.
He made no exception with his questions — he asked who was the first president to be impeached, and much to his delight, I correctly answered Andrew Johnson.
Just as he did at its inception, Boyle still manages and staffs Yesterday on his own, save for his longtime friend and assistant Neil Cooper.
“I love working with Tom, he’s a great guy,” Cooper said.
Cooper, 72, and a former teacher, has been helping out at the store ever it opened. It’s their mutual appreciation for collecting that brought them together.
“I, too, love this stuff, that’s why I’m here,” he said.
Boyle said the shop regularly gets asked what its most expensive or favorite item is, to which he responds that the things he collects are like children: you can’t have a favorite.
“Whatever you see in the store, I have some of it in my own collection,” he said, referencing a popular quote as his mantra: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Boyle will occasionally part with something from his personal stash, though, if he feels confident it’s going into “good hands.”
“I’d rather give [an item to someone who would really treasure it even if another person] would pay a higher price,” he said.
In the collecting business, at least for Boyle, sentimentality trumps profitability. While that is enough to keep him happy, he does sometimes feel the economic pinch.
“If praise were money I could’ve retired long ago,” he said with a laugh.
Boyle credits Yesterday’s longevity despite this in part to the diversity of his wares.
“Over the years there were a lot of places in Chicago that were somewhat similar but most of them have closed,” he said. “A record store would only handle records, a comic book store would have comics and a baseball shop would just have cards. But we have a little of everything.”
The one constant throughout all of this? The man himself. Using only glasses as an aid and still quick with a joke such as, “When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar!”
Boyle is the ever-present lifeblood keeping his passion project up and running, and he shows no signs of slowing down just yet.
“There are still items I’m looking for,” he said.