For Winnetka’s Stephanie Simpson, birthday parties are a regular part of her social calendar. As a mother of children aged 3, 5 and 7, she can hardly go a week without having to buy a new toy for her children or a friend of theirs. And though she’s just as guilty as any of us for enjoying the convenience of shopping online, Simpson has often relied on local retailer, The Village Toy Shop, to provide the perfect gift. .
So in December, when she learned the business was going to close, she immediately went to the store to confirm the rumor. It was true. Mother-daughter team Pat and Liz Berwanger, who ran the 71-year-old store, said a confluence of hurdles – rising rents, online competition and multiple construction projects that have reduced foot traffic – led them to their final decision. And unfortunately, there is not much you can do to change their minds.
Simpson shared the news on NextDoor, a social networking app for neighbors; his message was greeted by a chorus of worried voices. The response was so overwhelming that within days she launched a Go-FundMe campaign, asking locals to contribute to a farewell fund. It was a small way to ease the grief shared by the Berwangers and the community, as well as a final opportunity for residents of the North Shore to say thank you to the family for their many years in business. To date, the campaign has exceeded its original goal of $5,000, raising $7,545 from 92 donors.
“I didn’t want to put pressure on Liz [to stay open] because she didn’t ask me to,” Simpson says. “I wanted to make it clear that this was not going to keep the business afloat; it was a gesture of support from the community, and the funds would be used at their discretion.
Carrie Hoza, who was born in Winnetka and lives in Northfield, was among many customers who contributed to the fund.
“The Berwangers and The Village Toy Shop have always been a staple in our community,” says Hoza. “I don’t think you can grow up in Winnetka and not be too excited on your birthday when you saw a present in that historic polka dot wrapping paper…And when I was an adult they were so good at take care of me like a customer and make my life easier by going above and beyond their customer service. »
Hoza, who is a fourth-generation partner in a local plumbing business, also understands the challenges of maintaining a viable small family business.
“I loved this store and donated because, as part of a company that’s been around for almost 83 years, I fully understand the changing times,” she says. “The village has really lost a treasure with its closure.
Mollie VanderLaan, 41, has been a decade-old Winnetka resident whose children frequented the store. For her, it’s more than the loss of a local retailer, it’s also a missed opportunity to teach children about financial responsibility.
“The ladies at the Village Toy Shop were always patient with my daughters counting the large amounts of coins they had saved up to buy a toy,” she says. “My daughters loved to cycle there by themselves, choose something and pay for it with their savings. Experiences like these teach children self-reliance. Loading something on a credit card with Amazon doesn’t quite teach them the same lesson.
Young Berwanger, 49, still remembers riding her bike to the store as a child. His mother Pat started working there in 1980; she was hired in 1984 as a freshman in high school; and the family bought the store from their employer in 1985. Having devoted most of their lives to the business, they compare their feelings about its closure to the seven stages of grief.
“We’re hearing from other business owners that there’s a sense of relief after the shutdown, and that’s reassuring to me, but we’re not there yet,” Berwanger says. “It was such a big part of my family’s life and community history; it’s amazing to see families and children grow over the years. Maybe one day we will feel good about our decision, but for now we really wanted the store to continue and are sad to see it end.
Simpson received a thank you letter from Liz Berwanger in early January, which explained that a portion of the funds would be used for continuing education expenses as she begins her post-toy store chapter. (Pat is officially retired, but plans to stay busy with volunteer commitments.) The rest of the money will be donated to the American Cancer Society on behalf of former colleagues who have lost their lives to the disease.
“We have been so blessed to be part of this fantastic community, and people like you continue to make us feel blessed,” Berwanger wrote in his letter. “Each of these brave women resided in Winnetka and were also strong advocates for our community.”
“Incidents like this are a wake-up call,” Simpson says. “I would like as a community to continue to stay focused and support local businesses. Because if you don’t they will leave and you will lose the charm of your town.
Simpson, a local restaurant chain partner, also points to the hidden cost of neighborhood store neglect. Less business means less tax revenue, a burden that residents are then forced to bear.
But outside of politics, Simpson’s main goal was to express her appreciation for a brick and mortar that served her and her family well.
“I’m optimistic,” she adds. “People have shown an interest in having a thriving downtown; it takes something like that to make it a priority. We just need to cut the clutter out of our daily lives and get more involved in what’s important.