Nina Barrett, owner and founder of Bookends and Beginnings, first stumbled upon the storefront that would eventually become her business’s home during an assignment as a Medill graduate student. At the time, the hidden back-alley alcove was occupied by another bookstore: Bookman’s Alley. Barrett never planned on owning an independent bookstore, but when the previous shop went out of business in 2013, she was drawn back to the unique storefront.
Bookends and Beginnings former location on Orrington Avenue.
Six months later, in the little alley behind Sherman Avenue, Barrett opened Bookends and Beginnings. From perusing the shelves at Bookends to grabbing a late-night milkshake at Edzo’s, small businesses have long been a special part of Evanston living. Yet, three businesses have already closed in 2023 and over 30 have shut their doors since March 2020, with many more continuing to struggle. As rent rises, small businesses are facing a challenging and evolving financial landscape.
CLOSING THE DOOR
Barrett vividly remembers first discovering the space that would become Bookends, but an email she received from the store’s new landlord in August 2022 put everything she had built in jeopardy. She learned her rent would increase by 125%, making the storefront too expensive to maintain. Barrett knew Bookends and Beginnings would either need a new home or have to close down for good.
“I’ll tell you that when I opened that email, my whole body went into fight or flight, like panic,” she says.
Eddie Lakin, owner and founder of Edzo’s Burger Shop, realized that his business was in trouble more gradually. He opened Edzo’s in the fall of 2009, and three weeks in, a The New York Times food writer from Evanston wandered in. That October, Edzo’s was featured in “Grass Fed,” a Times food column.
“It kind of blew up and we got coverage in all the local papers,” he says. “And then we were pretty much busy for multiple years after that.”
Leading up to the pandemic, Lakin says Edzo’s saw a decline in traffic because of “little challenges along the way” — like a construction project in Fountain Square. However, he says nothing compared to COVID-19’s negative side effects on turnout.
Lakin initially used federal loans to maintain a full staff and service, but those funds were eventually depleted. In late 2021, Lakin made the difficult decision to close Edzo’s Burger Shop.
Eddie Lakin’s shop, Edzo’s Burger Shop, is located in the heart of Downtown Evanston on Sherman Avenue.
He says closing the shop was a relief.
“I felt like it had been on life support for two years, and I had been constantly thinking of what to do next and how long am I going to keep this going,” he says.
After Edzo’s lease expired early this year, Lakin had to renegotiate with the building owner to find a path forward for the restaurant that worked for both parties.
“I basically told him, ‘We’re going to have to make this make sense for me to be in this space for eight to 10 more years,’” Lakin says. “I’m not going to just reopen and start up again if I don’t think there’s a viable long-term future.”
He says the end of his lease felt like a good opportunity to try again with his shop. So, Lakin reopened the burger restaurant in September 2022.
Still, Edzo’s continues to struggle. Limited funds and a broken exhaust fan, which removes smoke and moisture from the air, forced the restaurant to close their dining room. “It just was a crisis situation as far as being able to stay above water,” he says.
Now, Edzo’s Burgers has a GoFundMe, where Lakin periodically provides updates on the restaurant’s circumstances. He has raised $19,430 of his $40,000 goal.
Pascal Berthoumieux, founder and owner of Davis Street’s Patisserie Coralie, says Evanston’s business districts face tumultuous economic conditions. After five years of experience in the industry, he opened his store in Evanston in 2014. Now, Coralie has two more locations: one in the Pancoe NSUHS Life Sciences Pavilion on campus and another in the Loop.
“I’ve seen the town moving through phases, times they had less things happening and times where the city was really booming,” he says. “Now I think we are at one of the lowest points since I’ve moved to Evanston.”
Pascal Berthoumieux’s coffee shop and French bakery, Patisserie Coralie, features a banner outside supporting small businesses.
POLICY AND SUPPORT
As businesses struggle to stay afloat, the City of Evanston is passing legislation meant to soften financial burdens. The question is whether these initiatives are working. Evanston received $43 million of state funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in July 2021. Serving as a support system for communities, ARPA stimulus checks have aimed to aid economic recovery since the pandemic. Of the funds, the city set aside about $10 million to specifically address negative economic impacts.
Some ARPA funds are now reserved for the city’s Evanston Thrives Retail District Action Plan, says Annie Coakley, Executive Director of Downtown Evanston, a nonprofit organization tasked with providing general management to the city’s downtown area.
Coakley says Evanston Thrives allocates funding to a consultant team that analyzes Evanston’s eight business districts. According to Evanston Thrives’ website, the program’s goals include celebrating each district’s unique identity and building a toolkit to ensure more equitable investment and support.
Evanston Thrives’s support process includes compiling focus groups and community surveys to understand what would be most beneficial for residents and Northwestern affiliates. For example, 55.4% of Northwestern affiliates surveyed said they would like to use their Northwestern Wildcards off campus.
Coakley says she looks forward to seeing the team’s recommendations. As director of Downtown Evanston, she doesn’t have a hand in policy, but her job is to make Evanston a place where businesses want to stay.
“Events, seasonal plantings, street maintenance, marketing promotions, social media and all of those things to generate a buzz, to keep your name out there that we are top of mind when people are thinking of places to design or to shop,” Coakley says.
Downtown Evanston hosts promotions and events to generate crowds for stores and restaurants. February’s Hygge Festival amplified winter’s cozy and warm ambience through through in-store hot chocolate and candles, among other products.
Clare Kelly, Evanston’s 1st Ward council member, says she hopes to work with the city to use ARPA funds to help local businesses. Kelly, along with Commissioner in Preservation Carl Klein, initiated the Legacy Business Program in June 2022. It aims to promote and protect businesses that have long called Evanston home.
Kelly says the idea came after the council voted to allow the developer of Bookman’s Alley to create a pedestrian walkway. At the time, it seemed like an exciting way to boost the neighboring businesses, but Kelly says she grew concerned about long-term impacts on leases and assurances.
“I really do see it as part of what I hope is going to be reviving the heart of downtown Evanston.”Nina Barrett, Owner of Bookends and Beginnings
“So we decided to launch a Legacy Business Program in order to really shine a spotlight on these businesses, to find ways to support them, protect them and promote them,” she says. To qualify as a legacy, an enterprise must meet three criteria provided by the city: They have operated in Evanston for a minimum of 20 years, demonstrate a significant historical, economic, cultural or social contribution and commit to retaining the same physical characteristics and business traditions that contribute to its identity.
“What [Kelly is] trying to do with it is recognize all of the value that is in all of the relationships, all of the history, that is in the businesses that have survived,” Barrett says. “She’s trying to find practical resources to help us.”
The program includes about 32 legacy businesses, but Kelly says the team has identified well over 200 others thanks to submissions from community members.
The sign outside Edzo’s Burger Shop welcomes customers since the store reopened last September.
Lakin says he plans on helping lay the groundwork for the Legacy Business Program after Kelly asked if he would like to join the team determining the qualifying businesses. While Edzo’s Burger Shop hasn’t quite hit the 20-year benchmark, Lakin says he is still interested in helping preserve other businesses in the area.
During Legacy Buisness Program meetings, business owners can come and brainstorm ways to improve the program. For instance, suggestions have included creating a mentor program between legacy enterprises and new businesses. The program also works on improving citywide policies.
For instance, Evanston’s Legacy Business Program is looking to add a question on variance applications asking about how property developers plans to support existing businesses. Kelly says that it has been stressful to hear about the skyrocketing rents small business owners face. These increases are a result of nationwide inflation and Evanston developers’ upzoning — the practice of buying buildings and significantly increasing the rent.
“These are people’s livelihoods, and that they’re just subject to the whim of somebody doubling the rent from one night to the next is really painful to see,” she says. Kelly says regardless of national trends, the threat rising rents pose to Evanston businesses shouldn’t be understated.
“We don’t just stand by and watch and say, ‘Well, this is just the trend,’ because no, we can do much better in our city,” she says.
THE STRUGGLE FOR AID
After Barrett’s property owner increased her rent by an unfeasible amount, she needed to find a place to turn a new page with Bookends and Beginnings. Soon, she found a storefront on Orrington Avenue and has since reopened this February.
“We were so lucky that we were able to find a new space that turned by the miracle of commercial real estate pricing to be less expensive than what our landlord wants to charge for the two stores that we’re in now,” she says.
Barrett adds that the local government has no protections for small businesses in rent struggles like this. She hoped for funding from the city’s ARPA money, the same that supports Evanston Thrives, but the city decided she was ineligible.
Unlike federal loans and grants, the city decides how to allocate ARPA funds and there’s no formal application to request money.
While Lakin hasn’t tried to ask for ARPA money, he says that he has found it relatively easy to obtain federal funds. He applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), both provided as COVID-19 relief. He says he submitted an online form with questions pertaining to his business’s finances. Soon, the money showed up in his bank account.
Lakin also adds that he gets updates when new grants from the city become available. He fills out all of the ones he’s eligible for.
“I think I’ve gotten like two or three small grants over the couple of years, but you know, every little bit helps,” he says.
The inside of Edzo’s Burger Shop, which has since reopened its dining room.
Barrett ultimately secured $83,000 of funding from Evanston, and with the help of her GoFundMe that has raised over $100,000, she faces the prospect of moving with excitement rather than dread. She says it’s a heartwarming reflection of how people feel about her store. “I feel like in nine years we’ve established ourselves in the community as an important community gathering space, as an important community resource,” she says.
Barrett adds the new store will have features her old location did not such as increased foot traffic and plumbing.
“I do see this opportunity for the store to mean more to even more people and for us to get customers that we’ve never had before,” she says. “I really do see it as part of what I hope is going to be reviving the heart of downtown Evanston.”
Yet, Barrett still wishes the local government would do more for struggling small business owners. She says the government has an obligation to help private businesses if they want to retain them.
“Everybody is struggling. Even the businesses that you think look like they’re doing great, they’re all struggling,” she says.
Lakin says members of local government are doing their best to ensure they can provide equitable and inclusive support, but despite their efforts, receiving funding can still be a drawn-out process that requires lots of dedication.
“It just takes a long time, especially when you’re inventing new processes or parameters for a program that didn’t exist,” Lakin says. “You have to get momentum going and really push to get something set up and finished."
From the outside of Bookends and Beginnings’ new location on Orrington Avenue, two expansive windows look into shelves of books and greeting cards set against dark teal walls. Black and gold balloons are strung around countertops stocking board games and socks, among other things. Two signs face outwards into the street: “We’re Open!” and “11AM-6PM every day.”
Even as Bookends and Beginnings opens their new doors, small businesses across the city continue to struggle as rents increase and foot traffic goes down. While business owners like Barrett have had challenging experiences with support in the past, government programs like downtown Evanston efforts are aiming to uplift and amplify the businesses that have long called the city home.
“People move to this neighborhood, this downtown, to be in a walkable community. They want to be able to walk to the services and goods that make a neighborhood,” Coakley says. Residents can support small businesses through word of mouth and reviews, Coakley adds.
"It’s a good circle”Eddie Lakin, owner and founder of Edzo's Burger Shop
Lakin also encourages everyone to keep their money local. He says independent businesses provide more variety and depth in their services.
Berthoumieux agrees that independent stores provide a better experience. “That wealth stays here, it’s being put back into the community. It’s a good circle,” he says.