York Furrier featured in West Suburban Living Magazine in the Nov./Dec. 2022 Issue
How longtime local retailers continue to succeed through the decades
They have weathered the rise (and fall) of indoor shopping malls, the proliferation of big-box stores and the advent of online retail. Staples of bustling downtowns, they are proof that exemplary customer service, quality products and services, engaging events and commitment to community never go out of style. Here is a look at several longtime west suburban businesses.
Established in 1931, 107 N. York St., Elmhurst
When Kathy Rezny’s grandfather Joseph Wagner founded York Furrier in Elmhurst 91 years ago, he could hardly have imaged that his small storefront would grow into the 14,000-sq-ft showroom it is today.
“We’ve expanded left, right and up through the decades,” says Rezny, who co-owns the business with her husband, John. “We still honor the Old-World craftsmanship he began with, but every single year we are changing the inventory and mix of new products,” she says.
The full-service furrier not only sells new pieces, including designer creations and an annual signature collection, it also has an in-house design team that works with customers on custom, made-to-measure garments as well as upcycling or repurposing of older attire.
While York Furrier continues to attract customers with its contemporary and classic designs, Rezny says that other attributes of fur are popular as well, including the fact that it is a durable, natural product. “Right now, we are seeing a shift from fast fashion to circular or sustainable fashion, and fur has the longevity to last for decades if you take care of and maintain it,” says Rezny. “Grandma, mom and granddaughter can wear the same coat.”
The company has a strong tradition of philanthropy that dates back to its earliest days. “My grandfather had a firm belief in serving the community you live in,” Rezny explains. Toward that end, the Reznys serve on the boards for several community organizations, contribute to charity events and host fundraising fashion shows. In addition, their “Fur...the Future” program allows them to mentor design students from local colleges.
With a strong online presence, York reaches customers across the country as well as cultivating a strong local following. “We have a lot of repeat clients who refer friends and family,” says Rezny, “and we are excited to offer service that keeps them coming back year after year and decade after decade.”
THE LITTLE TRAVELER
A century ago, Kate Howard Raftery began inviting friends to her Italianate Victorian home on South Third Street in Geneva to peruse and purchase items she picked up during her many travels. Though she had no retail experience, she decided to start the gift shop that would become The Little Traveler, which today promises to take shoppers “around the world in 36 rooms.”
Though much has changed since those early days, Raftery’s home is still the center of the expanded shop, and Third Street has become a vibrant retail and dining district, with many boutiques and restaurants likewise housed in historic homes.
The store has a little something for everyone — toys, candy, clothing, jewelry, kitchenware, crystal, gourmet food, antiques, home decor and much more. Though the unique merchandise is certainly a draw for many visitors, current owner Mike Simon, whose father purchased the shop in 1971, credits his employees with bringing shoppers back time and again. Many have worked at the shop for years and feel like family. “The thing that’s always sustained The Little Traveler is the creativity, the friendliness and intelligence of the people who work here,” he says.
With such longevity, Simon says that it’s not uncommon to often entertain groups that include several generations who come together to shop, have lunch in the Atrium Café, and/or attend one of their many special events. “The Little Traveler is a touchstone for people, and we are very cognizant of that,” he says. “It’s a great honor and responsibility.”
Though the pandemic led The Little Traveler to develop a more robust website, and the shop also offers a Christmas catalog that is distributed to more than 40,000 people around the country, Simon believes that experiencing the store in person is what entices people to return. “Because the world is getting more impersonal and we are doing more things remotely, we don’t have as many opportunities to connect with other human beings,” he says. ”My goal is so simple — make sure that everyone who leaves our store is happier than when they came in.”
In honor of the shop’s centennial, a current exhibition (running through December 23) at the Geneva History Museum highlights The Little Traveler’s story, and the shop has anniversary events planned through the end of the year.
THE LITTLE POPCORN STORE
Established in 1921, 1111⁄4 W. Front St., Wheaton
A cherished landmark in the heart of downtown Wheaton since 1921, The Little Popcorn Store is perhaps one of the most-loved and narrowest stores in the Chicago area, measuring 4-feet wide by 64-feet long.
It was founded by E. Claire Brown, who placed a roof over an alleyway at 109 1/4 Front Street for his first shop. Fourteen years later, in 1935, Brown moved to the current location. Though his focus was on popcorn, he also began selling penny candy.
Brown passed his love for popcorn down to his daughter Erma — who ran the store before brother and sister William and Donna Wakefield took ownership over 40 years ago. Though William passed away in 2019, Donna continues to run the shop.
Repeat customers are the top reason for the store’s continued success, says Wakefield. “We are an icon. People come from all over the world to visit The Little Popcorn Store, and we also have many loyal customers in the area. People who were brought in by their parents or grandparents are now bringing in their children and grandchildren.”
What keeps them coming back? The charm of the small space and the delicious product. “I think part of our success is also due to our uniqueness and the quality of our popcorn that everyone loves,” says Wakefield, noting that others have tried to duplicate the tasty treat but failed. (The combination of simple, premium ingredients and the antique poppers produce one-of-a-kind results.)
The selection of classic and new candies that fills every nook and cranny also draws kids and adults alike. Because shelf space is at a premium, the store rotates product to allow for the most variety, but Wakefield says if your favorite is missing, just ask — it may be in the stockroom.
Customer service from enthusiastic employees is yet another key to the shop’s longevity. “I also have to give a shout out to all of the employees who embrace the concept and the personality of The Little Popcorn Store and take a personal interest in the store,” Wakefield says.
PHILLIP’S FLOWERS & GIFTS
Established in 1923, 528 N. Cass Ave., Westmont
(plus five additional west suburban locations)
Phillip’s Flowers & Gifts is gearing up to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. The award-winning floral business, founded in Cicero in 1923 by James and Helen Phillip, is still owned and operated by the family, who have helped it blossom from a single location to six flower shops, a design center and a commercial interior plantscaping operation.
James and Helen raised three children, J.R., Russ, and Lee, in the apartment above their shop, and all worked in the business during their early years. While Lee went on to host a Chicago talk show and co-create two daytime TV dramas with her husband, Bill Bell, J.R. and Russ continued on with the family flower business. Russ is still actively involved today, along with five other full-time family members spanning two more generations, and several part-time spouses as well.
Baxter W. Phillip, executive vice president of the company, attributes its continued success to hard work, personal service and a team of talented workers, including creative designers who put a fresh spin on florals to suit the needs of each customer. “Like our founders, we all find great joy in the beauty of flowers and the customer relationships we’ve built through the years,” says Phillip.
Customers have come to rely on Phillip’s Flowers for custom floral designs, wedding and event decorations, sympathy expressions, commercial interior landscaping services, and delivery. “These are specialized, local services that an experienced florist can do better than any national retailer,” says Phillip. “That’s our niche, and we think there will always be a need for it.”
Improvements in technology and communications have allowed the business to innovate in many ways. For example, they now buy fresh flowers from around the world and have multiple websites open for business at all times, allowing customers to order florals for delivery throughout Chicagoland and beyond, thanks to links to more than 20,000 professional affiliate florists worldwide. The business currently handles more deliveries in a single day than their founders probably did in an entire year.
Looking ahead, Phillip hopes to continue to build upon his family’s traditions. “We don’t know what the future will hold, but our goals are to grow our core businesses and continue investing in tools and processes to help our people do their jobs better. We also want to provide an exceptional environment to attract and retain great team members, while responsibly and sustainably supporting the many communities we serve.”
Established in 1951, 1501 W. Lake St., Addison
(plus three other Chicagoland locations)
Razny Jewelers got its start more than 70 years ago with a small Addison boutique founded by Stanley Razny, Sr. and his wife, Jane. In the years since, the third-generation fine jeweler has grown to four locations serving the Chicagoland area.
Stan Jr. and his wife, Ingrid, expanded the flagship location and added boutiques in Highland Park and Hinsdale, as well as the newest location in Chicago’s Gold Coast. They are joined in the business by their children, Eric Razny, Christine Razny-Porter and Michael Razny.
The company hand-selects each item they offer and designs many of their diamond treasures in house. In addition to offering brilliant diamond and custom jewelry, they also represent Rolex, Patek Phillipe and other fine timepieces.
They offer natural gems sourced from locations that follow internationally recognized trade, labor, and ethics standards.
“Today’s clients are rightfully concerned with ethics and sustainability,” observes Ingrid Razny. “We are incredibly proud to know that our client’s future heirloom is helping to support the people and lands that give us the treasures that have become our passion.”
When visiting Razny boutiques, customers are treated to a welcoming atmosphere and a luxury experience that includes an exclusive beverage menu and discreet shopping options, such as VIP suites for privacy.
The company continues to grow and plans to further expand the flagship location in 2023. “A significant key to our growth is a cohesive culture of hospitality and inclusivity,” says Ingrid. “No matter which Razny Jewelers boutique you visit, you’ll feel like a guest in our home.”
Established in 1875, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville
(second location in Downers Grove)
When Becky Anderson Wilkins’ great-great grandfather and his son-in-law Louis Oswald opened W. W. Wickel Pharmacy in 1875, they sold books, gifts and toys along with their other wares. It wasn’t until 1964 that his grandson opened an official bookstore, originally called Paperback Paradise, in the space above the drugstore.
Since then, the shop has expanded and moved several times, along the way opening a second store and changing the name to the more distinguished-sounding Anderson’s Bookshop. The company also includes an Aurora-based children’s wholesale branch, Anderson’s Bookfair Company, founded in 1982, and a Naperville toy shop, launched in 2016.
Wilkins is a fifth-generation owner who started working in the shop at age 11 before growing up and moving away from the area. She returned in 1985 to take the helm at the bookshop. (Another family member still owns the pharmacy business, Oswald’s Pharmacy, which is located a mile south.)
In the face of e-books and online booksellers, Anderson’s continues to thrive. Wilkins credits her engaged and knowledgeable staff who add value to the shop’s merchandise selection. “I think having booksellers who love to read and love to share those books with other readers is important,” says Wilkins. “Knowing what our community likes to read and being able to offer the expertise to help find the right book for someone is what has kept us in business.”
Organizing in-house book groups for all ages, partnering with schools via book fairs, and hosting large author events in conjunction with local institutions like North Central College, have helped to foster community engagement. Looking ahead, Anderson’s plans to offer more festival-like events, including a three-day festival that celebrates young adult and middle grade books.
Standing up for freedom of speech and the written word is another vital way Anderson’s contributes to the community. “We don’t want people to censor what we offer. We want to support all voices. We stand by what we sell and like to recommend books about all people because people need to know that their stories are being told,” says Wilkins.
Note: Another longtime suburban bookstore, Townhouse Books and Café in St. Charles, which was started in 1974 by Marilou Kelly, has ties to Anderson’s — store manager/buyer Heidi Schmidt worked there before joining Townhouse in 1995. The store is located in the downtown historic district in a charming 1853 house built by the second mayor of St. Charles. The attached café was added in 1996.
Established in 1861, 239 S. Washington St., Naperville
The oldest furniture store in Illinois, Naperville’s Beidelman Furniture has been furnishing the homes of suburban residents since cabinetmaker Frederick Long started building and selling furniture in 1861. Today, the store remains a family business, owned and operated by the fourth and fifth generations.
As the store grew, it began selling goods from other manufacturers. During the mid-20th century, it also offered appliances, radios and linoleum flooring. As manager Katy Heitmanek (whose parents John and Lana Heitmanek currently own the store) explains, “Without all the specialty stores, Beidelman’s was the place in town to go for many household needs.”
Today, Beidelman’s sticks to home décor, including furniture, mirrors, rugs, lamps and creatively sourced accessories. Heitmanek says that, as a millennial, she understands the appeal of online shopping but believes that some items, including furniture, need to be seen in person before purchasing.
Rather than worry about the impact of online commerce on their business, Beidelman’s takes a different tack. “Constantly trying to figure out how we could compete, we finally decided not to,” Heitmanek says. “A key ingredient to the success of online furniture retailers is mass production and that is so not Beidelman’s. We pick our companies carefully and everything we sell was either made special for you or made for Beidelman’s to sell to you.”
Beidelman’s works with U.S. upholstery manufacturers that offer hundreds of different styles. Customers can peruse styles on the manufacturer’s website and then come into the showroom to try out furnishings from the same company and get a hands-on look at fabric samples.
The expertise of their salespeople allows Beidelman’s to assist customers in selecting furnishings that fit the layouts and scale of their rooms as well as the style of their homes, avoiding mistakes that often occur with online ordering.
Heitmanek notes that it’s not uncommon for items to be sold and on their way to their new home almost as soon as they hit the sales floor. “We do business in a way our competitors can’t,” she says. “You can go into our showroom and pick out a chair and take it home with you immediately, and we also offer same and next-day delivery.”
KING KEYSER SKI AND BICYCLE
Established in 1952, 41 S. Washington St., Hinsdale
Chicago’s oldest ski and snowboard shop, Hinsdale’s King Keyser was originally founded as a general sporting goods store by two friends who worked at local country clubs as a tennis pro and swim coach. Noticing that their clientele was keen on winter sports, they began specializing in winter apparel, ski gear and, eventually, snowboards. When they started carrying the latter in 1982, they were among the first shops in the country to do so.
The business has changed hands over the years, but the name has remained the same. Current owners Rick Johnson and Jim Loufman took over 26 years ago. Though ski and snowboard equipment are still mainstays, the store began selling and servicing bicycles in 2020, after longtime local Schwinn dealer Hartley’s Cycle Shop closed. “It’s a nice complement to our winter business, but we had never considered it before because we didn’t want to step on their toes,” Johnson says.
The shop weathered the pandemic well because of the renewed interest in outdoor sports, but Johnson says their exemplary customer service keeps shoppers coming back. “Some of the products we carry aren’t done very well by mass-market retailers,” he says. “Bigger is not always better. For example, ski boot fitting requires a hands-on approach and bikes need regular servicing.”
Though it has been a challenge incorporating a whole new business category into the existing store’s footprint, Johnson and Loufman are committed to staying in their downtown Hinsdale location. “We are very lucky to be where we are at,” says Johnson. “This area and the surrounding communities have been a good match for us.”
That connection to community has been fostered by enduring traditions, including the beloved Trolls Ski and Snowboard club for children ages 11-17, which has been around for nearly 60 years. “We are seeing third- and fourth-generation customers participating in the program, which is really special,” Johnson says.
DEAN’S FINE CLOTHING
Established in 1959, 226 S. Main St., Naperville
Back in the late 1950s, casual wear for young men and boys was a bit dressier than it is today — think trousers, jackets, cardigans and button-down shirts rather than the T-shirts, joggers and distressed jeans that are currently in fashion. Dean DeGeeter, who was managing another Naperville shop at the time, saw a need for a boy’s clothing store and decided to fill it.
Over the years, his original 500-sq-ft downtown Naperville shop, Dean’s Fine Clothing, has grown to 9,000 square feet and evolved to focus on men’s and women’s clothing. The shop offers high-quality casual to career oriented clothing, and shoppers can find everything from shoes and accessories to custom shirts and suits. In-house tailoring is available to ensure a perfect fit.
Greg DeGeeter started working in his father’s store when he was just 14, cleaning and checking in merchandise. Today, he’s carrying on his father’s legacy as the owner. “It never crossed my mind to do anything else,” he says of his decision to go into the family business, citing his employees and customers as the main reasons he loves what he does. “You can buy clothes anywhere, but it’s all about the relationships you build and the experience the customer has when they come into your store,” he says. “We have great salespeople and we care about our customers. We are here to help them look good and feel good.”
Because he believes in the value of personal connection, DeGeeter chooses not to sell online, though he maintains a website and social media presence to bring attention to the brick and mortar location. “I want to sell within these four walls so customers can experience Dean’s,” he says. “It’s rare to find this level of service that makes you feel taken care of, from knowledgeable salespeople to an alterations department. Once people find us, they keep coming back.”