Events promote Lake Forest, Lake Bluff hometown feel
Clare Kaiser, 3, and her sister Caroline, 7, work at a craft table during Lake Bluff's annual "It's a Wonderful Life" event to draw in holiday shoppers. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 28, 2012 2:14PM
Cara Garrison remembers growing up in town and Uptown being the place to be.
“We’d ride uptown on our bikes and wouldn’t buy anything but maybe an ice cream in the summer, but it was all about being seen uptown,” said Garrison, who owns the Forest Bootery in Market Square with her sister. “It was an era that Lake Forest customers didn’t even think about shopping anywhere but Market Square. The thought was why would you go anywhere but uptown.”
Garrison, who heads the Historic Market Square Merchants Association, wants to promote that hometown spirit throughout the year.
“We try to get people downtown,” the business owner said. “We want people to have that pride in downtown. We try to get that feeling like it was when I was young. Some people are not sure we can ever get back to that level of interest downtown.”
Drawing people to Lake Forest and Lake Bluff’s business districts continues to be a challenge, with Internet shopping, big box stores and malls also battling for shoppers’ attention. One of the ways business districts work to promote that hometown feel is by conducting events such as holiday season carriage rides, trick-or-treating, summertime concerts and moms’ night out events.
“I’m an old-fashioned retailer,” said Garrison, who, with her sister, bought the Forest Bootery business from her dad in 1996. “If somebody spills hot apple cider on the floor, I clean it up and say, ‘I’m glad they were here.’
“I feel it’s part of being a hometown retailer, part of why we are here. Not everyone agrees with me.”
Dave Lee, owner of The Clockworks in Lake Bluff, expressed a similar sentiment about the recent “It’s a Wonder Life …. in Lake Bluff, ” which included Santa, lighting the gazebo and horse-drawn carriage rides earlier this month.
“No one came to see Santa and bought a watch that day,” Lee said. “But maybe they saw us and they come back a day or a week later.
“If they were introduced to our store (by coming downtown), that’s wonderful. Anything that gets them into the store is a good thing. It’s like the saying ‘You can call me anything you want, just call me.’”
Lee said he thinks more could be done to promote businesses in town, “but there will never be enough stuff. As a retailer, that is always going to be my answer.”
The Lake Bluff resident and businessman said that village is working on branding Lake Bluff and it will be awhile before the results of that effort are known.
“The village has been willing to consider any response to things or any suggestions that I make,” Lee said.
Lee noted the village was accommodating when he brought up the idea of banners for his shop, specializing in sales and service of watches, antique clocks and watches, barometers and music boxes. Replacement windows and other exterior work made the building where the shop is “look like a war zone,” Lee noted.
“The village was pragmatic about (the banners),” Lee said.
Lee estimated that 40 to 45 percent of his business comes from Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, where his business was located for 37 of its 40 years. The rest of his business comes from walk-ins and Internet sales from the next suburb over to three states away.
He said drawing attention to Lake Bluff’s business areas is not as important for his firm as some other local stores, services and eateries.
“Lake Bluff is way less known than Lake Forest,” Lee said. “For us, (being in) Lake Bluff is not much different. We are a destination. People will find us.”
Susan Kelsey, Lake Forest economic development coordinator, said Market Square events, such as a Santa and his reindeer visit in December, is about bringing people to Market Square.
“They can mill around the square, go to events, pick up gifts, overall, have a good time,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey is starting to believe that weather, more than any holiday events, is key to drawing shoppers to Market Square. Kelsey noted that despite planned holiday events, traffic was slow at an event earlier this month when temperatures were unseasonably warm.
“If it’s 60 degrees in Lake Forest in December, people are putting up Christmas lights, going for a walk and doing other things,” Kelsey said.
Market Square annual events include the Christmas tree lighting, a sidewalk sale at the end of the summer, Art Fair on the Square over Labor Day weekend, the weekly Farmers Market, and trick-or-treating on Halloween.
“We have a collaborative team working to create energy and excitement in Market Square,” Kelsey said.
Joanna Rolek, executive director of the Lake Forest Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is supportive of such events, some of which they sponsor.
“We want to do everything we can within our toolbox to be able to create opportunities for the public to be reminded of the wonderful stores that we have in town. We have some terrific independent stores. This is what has, historically, been the charm of our downtowns,” she said.
Competing globally for customers, Rolek said local businesses can win out with customer service.
“Knowing their clientele, having relationships and maintaining loyalty” are key, she said. “As far as events, that’s just another way we can bring attention to the business districts.”
Linda Blaser contributed to this report.