Mike Williams

Mike Williams, standing amid one of Bloomington-Normal's oldest retail businesses, Mother Murphy's, in its 47th year, just off the uptown traffic circle.

In an age when businesses must continually upgrade, remodel and modernize to stay competitive, there is an irony, too:

Some businesses don't dare do that.

Like, Lucca Grill in downtown Bloomington.

It's old-time-ness also is its magic.

Get rid of the pizza oven next to the window, or the red-and-white drapes that timelessly hang from the ceiling, or those college pennants — some of them so old they can stand by themselves — and it's just not Lucca.

Same with a place like Beningo's.

A longtime west-side Italian dining favorite, its owners announced its closing a few years ago. But in spirited rebellion, its customer-base just refused to leave. Business increased. Beningo's is still open.

And so it goes at Mother Murphy's.

An "alternative" shop, up on the second floor of an uptown storefront that overlooks Normal's transformation from an aging downtown to an upscale, almost-Disney-Village-like retail destination, Mother Murphy's is, in the meantime, in its 47th year. 

"We've been around so long," chuckles Mike Williams, its likable 59-year-old owner, "we've come in style and gone out of style and come back in again."

Mother Murphy's is what back in the rebellious late '60s and free-love '70s was called a "head shop."

It's where "hippies" might have hung out.

It's where your parents might have cringed about.

But once inside — like a Lucca or Beningo's that live in the present, thanks, in part, to their past — is where you find Mother Murphy's allure.

Its ceilings and walls are plastered with vintage posters (Hendrix, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Metallica and Pearl Jam before they were big; there's one of Jill deVries who back in '75 was a Playboy magazine Playmate while also a sales person at a Bloomington waterbed store).

Its shelves are eclectic, crammed with vinyl records, funky T-shirts, relic jewelry, counterculture art, tie-dye fashion, handmade candles, water pipes, hookahs, skateboards, even hula hoops hanging from the ceiling. 

It smells of deep incense and each day customers ask Williams, "What are you guys burning today?" That's when he tells them, "We're burning nothing. It's just in the walls by now."

Mother Murphy's is a place where you walk in and only then remember you should have set your watch back 25, 35, maybe even 40 years.

Everything that is wrong about it is also what's right about it.

  • You can write on the walls. If you ask, they'll even hand you a Sharpie.
  • It's a merchandise mart but, at the same time, not as driven by things like profit margin. It's where Williams might just say, while you're standing in the check-out, "Ah, you can just have that."
  • At the same location (111½ North St.) since mid-Nixon, before Watergate, when Vietnam was still present-tense, its lack of newness also is its intrigue.

While Williams says he and his wife of 27 years, Becky, have subtly altered things ("lots of evolving and devolving"), hardly a day passes, he says, without another customer walking in to exclaim,"This is exactly how it was 30 years ago!"

Most amazing perhaps is that it sits, as a dinosaur, in the heart of uptown Normal's new age.

"When they started all the construction, I griped, moaned and groaned," says Williams. "But what they have done here has turned out super nice ... and a guy like me has to be happy."

Thus, in an era of rampant change and endless updating, Mother Murphy's is now a bit of a sustaining monument, a vestige to where we've been, a tiny, but popular pocket of subculture wedged within the contours of a modernizing Midwestern college town.

"This is my dream," Williams says. "I started going into Mother Murphy's at age 13 or 14, started working there in my 20s and liked it so much, I bought it (in 1990, at age 35). But it's not always been easy. After a full day here, over the years I've occasionally also had to go out and work a shift at Avanti's, and at a Mitsubishi (Motors) associate company, and another time two nights a week at Circle K, just to keep the dream alive ..."

As someone once chimed, one man's dream is another man's nightmare.

Forty-seven years later, we're left only to wonder: Hey, just who is Mother?

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