WHEN YOU THINK about it, who better to open an educational toy store than a former educator?
Allison Gurza grew up in Lake Forest and, other than escaping to California for six years during college, has lived here all of her life. For 15 years, she taught at School of St. Mary, mainly in 4th and 5th grades.
“When people would ask me, ‘how long have you been teaching?’ and 15 years would come out of my mouth—I would think, ‘where did all that time go?’ It really felt like a blink of an eye. I was so dedicated to teaching that it was truly my whole life. And I thought, ‘okay, I need to do something different to have a little bit more life balance.’ But it’s so funny, because this year, this has been my whole life, trying to keep the store going,” Gurza says.
Gurza left teaching in 2017 to open Sage Explorers. Located on Bank Lane, half of the space is dedicated to unique and interesting toys and games for children of all ages, and half is a Learning Center, where Gurza and a team of educators provide tutoring services.
“I didn’t want to completely leave teaching—that’s why this is the perfect combination.”
Running any kind of business right now presents a whole new set of challenges. “When COVID-19 first occurred and the kids were e-learning, the tutoring aspect really took off and the store essentially temporarily closed. I still tutor almost all day long,” Gurza says. “We take all precautions to make the tutoring aspect safe. Masks are 100 percent required. I did invest in very nice and high-quality air purifiers.”
“Our saving grace was Easter. Nobody could leave their house to get supplies. I was up to my eyeballs making Easter baskets. It was really fun. Luckily the store was very well stocked. I made them by age, with different games and toys. And I would supplement when parents wanted them to have candy, from Sweet’s, so that was convenient. I was here every day, even though the store was closed. I was filling online orders, doing delivery, taking phone orders, and creating Easter baskets.”
After that it got very quiet.
Allison used that opportunity to fine tune some of her business skills. “Obviously my background was education and I could run a store in normal times without a good business background. But running it this year, I decided it was time for me to take the time and learn more about how to better manage the business. Because we were in very lean times and I wanted nothing more than for the store to succeed and survive. I wanted to know how to get it on more stable ground, so I did a lot of learning over the summer when it was quiet.”
What makes any business not only survive, but thrive, undoubtedly takes both inspiration and ingenuity. It is clear that Gurza has both in spades. Sage Explorers has been a bit of a community secret, as it is tucked away on Bank Lane. But the store is a huge hit among loyal customers. Tish Houston was first referred to the store because the staff provides tutoring. “My daughter has used the tutoring service, and I have found the tutors to be great,” Houston says. “My daughter really enjoys working with her tutor and has gotten a lot out of it.”
“And Allison is a great pleasure to work with, and very professional in scheduling and all parts of that. That brought me into the store, and I just love the store. I think it’s adorable. They have such unique and unsual toys. And again, Alison is wonderful, providing recommendations on age appropriate choices. And I think that’s where the bent of it being a little bit educational is a great fit,” Houston says.
Gurza has stocked the store with new items for the holidays and is in the process of hiring to keep the store consistently open. She envisions going to an appointment only model, because the store itself is small.
Gurza is proud to carry many brands from local Lake Forest vendors. Some of these include Lit League, which is a book club in a box, Cards by Prissy, handmade greeting cards, Creative Cuts—another line of handmade greeting cards, a book by local author Patricia Ensing, E-Blox, circuit building sets that are compatible with Legos, and Slam—a card game developed by local young man, Owen Schuler.
The merchandise at Sage Explorers includes high quality toys and games for infants, toddlers, and children of all ages. It also carries a large selection of puzzles and crafts. Everyone is encouraged to come in and simply play. Gurza has demos of all games and wants kids to try them out before purchasing. Complimentary gift wrapping is another great perk.
Gurza is delighted to lend a hand if you are not sure what you want or need. She takes pride in being able to truly listen to what customers want and to guide them accordingly.
Sage Explorers also has a web site where customers can order online either for either curbside or in-store pick up, or for free local delivery.
Gurza shares, “Hopefully, with the tutoring going well and customers starting to filter back in, we have made the turn.”
Sage Explorers is located at 644 N. Bank Lane in Lake Forest. For more information, call 224-271-2135 or visit sageexplorers.com.