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Founder of Alcala’s, one of the Midwest’s biggest Western wear stores, dead at 92

 
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Luis Alcalfounder CEO Alcala's Western Wear.

Luis Alcala, founder and CEO of Alcala's Western Wear.

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Updated: February 26, 2014 6:12AM



Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Mexican ranchera music king Vicente Fernandez and a winner of Chicago’s International Mr. Leather contest all had something in common: Each stocked up at Alcala’s on West Chicago Avenue, one of the biggest Western wear shops in the Midwest.

The store boasts a Texas-size inventory of 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots available in every hue and in hides that include python, ostrich and eelskin, and 5,000 cowboy hats, including a $5,000 chinchilla number.

You can get your hat steamed and your boots cleaned, score a fist-sized scorpion belt buckle and pick up a Pendleton blanket or a $5,000 alligator saddle. Customers pass under a rearing fiberglass horse as they enter.

Luis A. Alcala, who founded the family-owned business in 1972 and passed it on to his children, continuing to advise them to run it using good horse sense, died Tuesday at Chicago’s Norwood Crossing senior living facility. He was 92.

Mr. Alcala was born in Mexico, in the city of Durango, near where many John Wayne Westerns were shot. He learned the art of the deal from his grandfather, who sold cars at one of the first Ford dealerships in Mexico and would give bags of oranges to young Luis and his brother Rodolfo and encourage them to outsell each other at the market.

Mr. Alcala set out for the United States, where he picked cotton in Mississippi in the late 1940s before coming to Chicago, where he lived with an uncle and met his future wife Carmen, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, as she waited tables in Hyde Park. They had 11 children together.

Mr. Alcala hustled on Maxwell Street, selling used bikes, brooms and ashtrays — anything to support his growing brood. His wife gave birth to six boys between 1952 and 1959, then had two girls, another boy and two more girls. Mr. Alcala also worked as a janitor and security guard, at one point holding down four jobs.

He opened his first store in 1972 at 8727 S. Commercial but saw business dry up as customers’ jobs at U.S. Steel disappeared.

Mr. Alcala liked the bustle around Chicago and Ashland, so he set up shop at 1733 W. Chicago Ave. in 1974. The neighborhood was mostly Ukrainian, Polish and Mexican. But two nearby theaters — the Hub and the Alvin — showed Spanish-language movies that drew Mexican Americans to Alcala’s.

He treated everyone as if they were the carriage trade, offering quick, free alterations.

“He’d tell his Mexican customers, ‘We’re shorter in nature. . . . You’re never going to find a pair of trousers to fit you right off the rack. Pick out your pants and shirt, leave them while you go to the movie, then come back, and your pants and shirt will be ready for the dance in the evening,’ ” said his son Robert Alcala.

At first, the store specialized in the billowing bell bottoms known as “elephant bells” and “Angels Flight” pants — fitted at the top, flowing at the bottom, like the ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero wore in “Saturday Night Fever.”

After Travolta’s 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” Alcala’s started carrying Western garb. They couldn’t keep it in stock.

A young Robert Alcala was transfixed when singer Plant came in to browse during Led Zeppelin’s heyday.

“He loved the store,” Robert Alcala said. “Nobody bothered him.”

Plant picked out short mariachi-style bolero jackets to wear onstage. He dropped in again last summer to buy guayabera shirts when he performed at Taste of Chicago.

Other customers have included country star Dwight Yoakam and rockers Ozzy Osbourne and Steven Tyler. The store also supplied cowboy boots for Patrick Swayze’s last acting gig, in the Chicago TV crime drama “The Beast,” said another son, Richard Alcala.

After Mr. Alcala retired, his children expanded the Western offerings. Their father cautioned them not to forget the blue-collar worker, so they continued to carry budget pants and boots along with the luxury Tony Lama and Lucchese footwear.

Mr. Alcala offered a generous return policy, boot cleaning and giveaways. When he worked a side job at Sunshine Biscuits, he got cookies for free and brought them to his store so he could offer a free box with each pants purchase.

“Dad taught us the ropes on how to treat people and how to keep them satisfied,” Robert Alcala said.

All of the Alcala children worked at the store, and their father could be a demanding boss. But if any of them was ready to quit, their mother would urge: Take a few days and cool off, then come back. Today, six of them run Alcala’s.

“After 42 years in this business, we still go out, hang out and shoot pool together,” Robert Alcala said.

Mr. Alcala is survived by 10 of his children with his late wife, daughters Carmen, Maria and Lupe; sons Louie, John, George, Jesse, Refujio, Richard and Robert; three children from a previous marriage, daughters Malena and Maria Refujio Arce and son Luis Arce; a brother, Rodolfo; 37 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Christina, died before him.

Visitation will be from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday at Matz Funeral Home, 3440 N. Central, with a funeral mass at 9:30 a.m. Monday at St. John Bosco Church, 2250 N. McVicker.

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