For Stephanie Simpson of Winnetka, birthday parties are a regular fixture on her social calendar. As the mother of kids ages 3, 5, and 7, she can hardly make it through a week without having to pick up a new toy for her children or one their friends. And although she is just as guilty as any of us for enjoying the convenience of online shopping, Simpson often relied on a local retailer—The Village Toy Shop—to provide the perfect gift.
So, in December, when she heard that the business would be closing its doors, she immediately drove to the store to confirm the rumor. It was true. Mother-and-daughter team Pat and Liz Berwanger, who ran the 71-year-old shop, said a confluence of hurdles—rising rents, online competition, and multiple construction projects that reduced foot traffic—led them to their ultimate decision. And unfortunately, not much could be done to change their minds.
Simpson shared the news on NextDoor, a social networking app for neighbors; her post was met with a chorus of concerned voices. The response was so overwhelming that within a few days, she established a Go-FundMe campaign, asking locals to contribute to a farewell fund. It was a small way to alleviate the sorrow shared by both the Berwangers and the community, as well as one last opportunity for North Shore residents to say thank you to the family for their many years in business. To date, the campaign has surpassed its original goal of $5,000, collecting $7,545 from 92 donors.
“I didn’t want to put pressure on Liz [to stay open] because she didn’t ask me to do this,” says Simpson. “I wanted to be clear that this was not going towards keeping 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 made contributions to the fund.
“The Berwangers and The Village Toy Shop have been a staple to our community forever,” says Hoza. “I don’t think you could grow up in Winnetka and not be overly 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 great at taking care of me as a customer and making my life easier by going above and beyond with their customer service.”
Hoza, who is a fourth-generation partner in a local plumbing company, also sympathizes with the challenges of keeping a small family operation viable.
“I loved that store, and I donated because— as someone who is part of a business that has been here for almost 83 years—I completely understand the changing of times,” she says. “The village has truly lost a treasure with its closing.
Mollie VanderLaan, 41, is a decade-long resident of Winnetka whose children frequented the store. For her, this is more than the loss of a local retailer—it’s also a lost opportunity to teach kids about fiscal responsibility.
“The ladies at the Village Toy Shop were always patient with my daughters counting out the vast amounts of coins they had saved in order to buy a toy,” she says. “My daughters loved riding their bikes there on their own, picking out something, and paying for it with their savings. Experiences like these teach kids autonomy. Charging something on a credit card with Amazon doesn’t teach them quite the same lesson.”
The younger Berwanger, 49, still remembers riding her bike to the shop as a child. Her mother Pat began working there in 1980; she was hired in 1984 as a high school freshman; and the family purchased the shop from their employer in 1985. Having given the bulk of their lives to the business, they compare their feelings about its closure to the seven stages of grief.
“We hear from other business owners that there’s a sense of relief after closing, and that gives me some comfort, but we’re not quite there yet,” says Berwanger. “This was such a big part of my family’s life and the community’s history; it’s been an incredible thing to watch families and kids grow up over the years. Maybe one day we will feel good about our decision, but for now, we really wanted to keep the store going 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 starts her post-toy shop chapter. (Pat is formally retired, but plans to keep busy with volunteer commitments.) The remainder of the money will be donated to the American Cancer Society in the names of former co-workers who lost their lives to the disease.
“We have been so lucky to have been a part of this fantastic community, and people like you continue to make us feel blessed,” Berwanger wrote in her letter. “Each of these brave women were residents of Winnetka and were also strong advocates for our community.”
“Incidents like this are a wake-up call,” says Simpson. “I would love as a community to continue to maintain focus and support local businesses. Because if you don’t, they are going to go away and you’ll lose the charm of your town.”
Simpson, who is a partner in a local restaurant chain, also points out the hidden cost of neglecting neighborhood shops. With less business comes less tax revenue—a burden that residents are then forced to bear.
But aside from the politics, Simpson’s primary objective was to express her appreciation for a brick-and-mortar that served her and her family well.
“I am optimistic,” she adds. “People have shown an interest in having a thriving downtown; it takes something like this to make it a priority. We just need to cut through the clutter of our day to day lives and get more involved in what’s important.”