Guitar Man

Anti-condo man. Frame Warehouse man. Anti-dress code man.

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By LYDIALYLE GIBSON

If not for Paul Hamer, the five-neck checkerboard guitar that Cheap Trick made famous onstage might still be just a whim of Rick Nielsen's fevered imagination. Shaggy-haired boys?#34;not to mention bellybutton rings and bare midriffs?#34;might still be enduring a frosty reception at Illinois public schools. And Whiteco Residential higher-ups might sleep easier at night, unassaulted by the slings and arrows of Hamer's letters to the editor of Wednesday Journal.

In his 52 years?#34;many of them unfolding between Harlem
Avenue and Austin Boulevard?#34;Hamer has, by turns, been a businessman, a collector, a landlord, a rock-n-roller, a civic crusader and occasional Cassandra, an artist (twice over), a Christmastime department store clerk, an everyday philosopher and the guy who answers the phone at the Frame Warehouse on Harrison Street.

But step into Hamer's living room?#34;a luminous hardwood space peopled by bookcases and framed photographs of loved ones, handmade antique furniture, a pair of old guitars and window-shaped sheets of afternoon sunlight?#34;and the first thing Hamer wants to talk about is his great-grandfather.

Homer Jones died back in 1966, when he was 90 years old and young Hamer was 14. An orphan, Jones charmed his way into a telegraph apprenticeship and afterwards a job delivering mail on the rail line between Louisville and Chicago. He designed and built the house on Lyman Avenue where Hamer and his wife and 13-year-old son now live. The old man was also an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright's, and so the table and chairs in the room off the kitchen and the bench under the window were built by Ford & Johnson, a company that carpentered some of Wright's early furniture.

"He came to Oak Park in 1907, and he chose it because he was a socialist," Hamer said. "A progressive thinker."

By way of proof, Hamer pointed to a pre-first edition copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, an underground version of the book handed out by socialist clubs before it was officially published in 1906. Hamer's great-grandfather brought it home from a meeting one night.

"Yes, my great-grandfather was a very progressive thinker," Hamer said.

It runs in the family. A century later, Oak Parkers who do not know Hamer as owner of the Frame Warehouse, a custom shop on the western edge of the Harrison Street Arts District, may recognize him from the opinion pages of Wednesday Journal. For years, Hamer has made it his mission to afflict those who he feels afflict Oak Park. Namely, that means condominium developers and the wrong-headed politicians who fail to stop them.

"I just love the community so much, I hate to see it despoiled," Hamer said. "The battle is between those who want to urbanize Oak Park and those who want to keep it a community of single family homes."

It's a fight he traces back to the turn of the twentieth century, when two- and three- and four-flats began sprouting across Oak Park. Twenty years later, many of the village's Victorian houses were being pulled down to make room for apartment buildings. These days, the struggle is over condo towers, like the one Whiteco proposed for Harlem and Ontario or the several other projects that have already risen up downtown.

"Tell me the address of one of the new condo buildings that is so beautiful you just have to stop and look at it," Hamer said. "There isn't one. What's up with that? I mean, it's really about fairness. After the developer and the banker take their percentage, we have to live with this stuff. And it's destroying the fabric of the community."

Largely to blame, Hamer insisted, is Oak Park's planned development ordinance, a new law he said commands developers to "bring their most dense, outlandish proposal to the table. This ordinance has pitted neighborhood against developer." Hamer recalled warning village officials before the ordinance passed, and he says he was one of the few who saw disaster looming.

Add to all that the stress of occupying Oak Park's particular geographical and demographic terrain, and Hamer's got plenty to write letters about.

"We're sandwiched between two of the most racially segregated communities in the country: Austin and River Forest," Hamer said. "There are so many pressures from both sides of the community not to remain a welcoming, diverse community."

Back in 1967, Hamer got a lesson in the welcome that diversity sometimes gets. That year, he was tossed out of Deerfield High School for keeping his hair too long. (His haircut then, he insisted, was the same inoffensive coiffure he wears today. "Just over my ears," he said. "No longer than that.")

Hamer's dad laid out the options before him.

"He said, 'Well, you've got to either cut your hair or get a job,'" Hamer said. "So I spent three weeks trying to get a job."

But employers didn't like his hair, either. Hamer's father, a municipal attorney, ended up suing the school district, and he won. The suit was settled for $1 and young Hamer's readmission to the classroom. The decision also abolished the dress code in Illinois public schools and lured a few reporters and photographers to the Hamer household.

"I got hate mail from all over the world. My dad lost the state's attorney election because of the case," Hamer said. "But all those girls running around school with multiple piercings and their tummies hanging out?#34;and wearing pants instead of skirts?#34;they can thank me."

You wouldn't know it by the fervor and frequency of Hamer's civic-minded admonishments now, but until 16 years ago, most of his life was spent in devotion to the electric guitar. Not an agitator, but an axe maker.

"Even as a little kid, I was repairing guitars," said Hamer, who founded Hamer Guitars, a renowned workshop and manufactory, three decades ago. "I was always into older guitars. The first guitar I ever bought was a 1962 Fender Stratocaster. It was the only electric guitar for sale in a sea of acoustics."

By the early 1970s, with the rapture of Woodstock ringing in his memory, Hamer was the owner of his own store and restoration shop in Wilmette, a place called Northern Prairie Music. He and his crew repaired and rebuilt 1959 Les Pauls and Stratocasters from the '50s and '60s, among other hoary old relics, and they hawked their resurrected instruments to rock bands passing through Chicago. One of those bands was Jethro Tull.

"He was one of several people who used to turn up backstage," recalled Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. "They always reminded me of school kids. We'd see Paul coming, and it was like, 'Oh, it's the kid from Chicago. Again.'"

These days, though, Barre numbers Hamer among his closest friends.

"I don't have many friends I've made on the road," Barre said. "But Paul is a best friend, in all circumstances. He and I took a train from Devon to London once?#34;it's a three-hour ride?#34;and we laughed for three hours. I couldn't tell you now what we were laughing about, but I remember that journey as if it were yesterday. Paul is one of those people I have a lot of time for, and the sound of his voice brings a smile to my face."

After a few years of selling rebuilt old guitars, Hamer made a pilgrimage to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he could see that the company's new guitars just weren't measuring up to the legendary older models.

"I became friends with the guys at the factory," Hamer said. "I would go up and ask them leading questions, like, 'Why don't you make pickups like you used to?' They'd say, 'Go away, kid.'"

Finally, he did. Back in Chicago, Hamer decided to fashion his own guitar. Nothing flashy, just something to play. A little V-shaped bass.

"On Dec. 7, 1974, it was completed," Hamer said. "I was just tuning it when I got a call from an English band called Wishbone Ash?#34;they were customers of mine?#34;looking for a guitar."

Hamer ended up showing the band his new creation. On the spot, Hamer said, Wishbone Ash asked him to build another.

"On the day I completed my first guitar, I got my first order," he said.

Others followed: Jethro Tull, Bad Company, Cheap Trick. Hamer and his crew had plenty of work to do, even before they had a company name to do it under. Before long, Hamer Guitars was incorporated.

"In a very short period of time, Hamer Guitars were being played onstage, and that's how we started getting orders from ordinary people," Hamer said.

Meanwhile, celebrity requests continued to pour in. A regular customer of Northern Prairie Music's, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen became a frequent shopper at Hamer Guitars. And as often as not, he'd come to the workshop with an outrageous idea for a custom job: a 10-string, and  then a 12-string model, a double-neck guitar in the shape of "Uncle Dick," a yellow body with painted flames?#34;and of course, Nielsen's show-stopping five-neck affair. (In all, Nielsen had three such guitars made, one of which now adorns Wicker Park's Piece restaurant, where Nielsen is part owner.)

"They knew all the right stuff," Nielsen said of Hamer and his business partners, whom he now calls friends. "Paul was one of the first guys I knew who collected vintage guitars. Of course, it wasn't called 'vintage' at the time; people just called them 'old guitars.' And only myself and a few other people from England were interested."

Right now, the guitarist reckoned, he's got about 55 Hamers in his ever-evolving collection. Altogether, Nielsen owns some 300 guitars, but more than 2,000 have passed through his hands over the years.

Once a devoted Gibson guitarist?#34;"I wouldn't consider playing anything else"?#34;Barre found himself ordering up Hamers, too. In fact, Barre bought one of the first three guitars Hamer ever made, a little Explorer with a sound whose sweetness surprised him.

"More out of politeness I said, 'OK, I'll try it," Barre said. "But at the end of the evening I ended up buying it. ... Hamer Guitars were consistently well made. It was something you could count on. I always found an instrument that suited me down to the ground."

But by 1988, Hamer was tired. The hours were long, the travel difficult, and he had two young children and a wife at home. Plus, Hamer said, "It was time to go." Hamer sold his namesake company and used the money to set himself up as a landlord in his hometown. (Barre, meanwhile, quit buying Hamers altogether when the company and its founder parted ways. "As far as I was concerned, Paul built guitars for me," Barre said.) Hamer bought a three-flat Victorian mansion in Oak Park, a bungalow, a Frank Lloyd Wright coach house. He also bought the building that houses the Frame Warehouse and got friendly with the store's then-proprietor, a guy called Al whose last name Hamer never could spell.

"One day he said, 'I'm sick. I have to sell the business,'" Hamer recalled. It didn't take long for Hamer to decide to buy it and learn the business.

"I love selling stuff," he said. "I can't tell you how much I love to sell, to make customers happy."

"I consider selling the reward for good work," he said. Guitars, neckties, custom frames?#34;in the end, it's all the same.

As for Oak Park's future, Hamer said he's hoping for the best. Whatever else, he's happy to see young people moving in, even if some of them are lugging couches and mattresses up the elevators of new condo towers.

"It's a wonderful influx of new people," Hamer said. "It means Oak Park is still desirable. I hope the new people will be open to listening to the old stories of the past?#34;how we got here, why we're here, who built this community?#34;and make this not just a good, but a great place to live. Sometimes to do great things takes a lot of sacrifice, and people just aren't into sacrifice these days."

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