When I moved to Evanston, Illinois some 45 years ago, it was a different place. Yes, it was home to Northwestern University back then, but college students’ needs were simpler and stores didn’t cater to them. Instead, there were many small stores that sold things people actually needed in their daily lives.
After taking my grandkids to a real children’s bookstore and seeing their excitement, I feel sad that this experience may not be part of their lives as they grow up.
One of my favorites was Main Junior Department Store. The owner, Ken, was a great guy who knew most of his customers. If I needed something basic for my kids, he would have it. Underwear, shoe laces, t-shirts, and toys – all were crammed into the narrow aisles. When the Cabbage Patch doll craze hit and they were unavailable everywhere (remember, no Internet back then), Ken put one aside for my younger daughter. Eventually, he was driven out of business by larger stores. In place of what used to be his store, we have had a series of small businesses. Hopefully, some of them will survive. Sadly, the toy store which had been next to Main Junior is also gone.
Toy stores in general are rare these days. There were many small ones when my kids were young, but the most unique was a place called Cut-Rate Toys on Devon Avenue in Chicago. This tiny store was literally crammed with deeply discounted stuff advertised in a weekly ad back in the days when folks got newspapers. The owner sat on an elevated platform in the back with a view of the entire store. When he saw a child touch a toy, he shouted through a megaphone, “In aisle three, put that toy down young man or get out.” Despite this, it was worth going for the amazing bargains. The recently departed Toys-R-Us chain drove him out of business, followed by the smaller Target toy section. I’m guess most toys are purchased online these days.
Children’s book stores were another wonderful place to take kids. I loved them so much that I had a fantasy of opening one with a friend. Our dream was a store on Main Street near the school our kids attended. After school, they would walk over to hang out with us until closing time. The closest I ever got to that fantasy was running the all-volunteer book store at their school. Sadly, most children’s book stores gave way to children’s book sections in larger stores like Kroch’s and Brentano’s and Barnes and Noble. Kroch’s closed its last Chicago stores many years ago. Barnes and Noble is hanging in there – by a thread.
A few years ago, I took my Indiana grandkids to a Barnes and Noble about 30 minutes from their house. They were amazed that a whole store would just sell books. We spent hours there choosing things they liked to read. I taught them how not to judge a book by its cover. As we left the mostly empty store, one of them said, “I hope this store stays open. There weren’t many people shopping here.” I hope so too.
The same grandkids visited Memorial Day weekend and I took them to one of our new small, local business, a children’s bookstore on Main Street called Booked. Yes, someone had finally attempted my dream from so many years ago and opened this delightful shop. It has a small door within a conventional one for little folks to enter. It also has a very knowledgeable staff and all of the kids found books they liked. What a treat. It was so much more satisfying to touch the books, turn their pages, look at the illustrations, and select based on how well they liked the book rather than how many stars strangers gave it on Amazon. I hope this local treasure succeeds.
Whenever I can, I try to buy from small, local shops. The butcher, who writes the weather report and jokes on a chalkboard and sells chicken that tastes so much better than what is sold in the chain grocery store. The bakery with cakes and breads that are fresh and delicious. The independent jewelry stores with unique items. The small clothing stores where someone actually helps me find what I need. I wonder how long these places will be able to compete.
I must confess to being part of the problem by doing my share of online shopping. It’s convenient and I don’t have to hassle with parking. Sending gifts out of town is speedy and simple. But after taking my grandkids to a real children’s bookstore and seeing their excitement, I feel sad that this experience may not be part of their lives as they grow up.
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.