In this Illinois town, every day is Small Business Saturday
Sitting astride the Fox River, the city of Geneva is home to a bustling downtown district in a state that’s notoriously tough on small businesses.
“Amazon can’t touch you guys.”
“There’s two different lemon curds!”
“Have you been to The Little Traveler before?”
“I was raised in The Little Traveler. I’ve been coming here since the 1940s.”
These are just some of the things one might overhear while roaming through the 36 rooms making up the treasure trove that is The Little Traveler.
Situated along Third Street in downtown Geneva, Illinois, the store features houseware, apparel, jewelry, décor, food and fair-trade items. There truly is something for everyone, a mirror of the small town itself.
Over 150 independent merchants and restaurants encompass the area. And while the state of Illinois is notorious for its harsh business climate, the businesses in Geneva aren’t feeling many of the side effects of high property, sales and other taxes that neighboring communities are.
In fact, business owners, such as Mike Simon of The Little Traveler, say because of their strong bond and their commitment to helping each other thrive, plus the city’s healthy dose of tourism, things are as good as ever.
“It’s a really good, strong and healthy collaborative atmosphere,” Simon said. “Everybody works together in partnership with the city [chamber of commerce] and … [they] appreciate the fact that we’re a draw. Not just a town, but a destination.”
In addition to owning The Little Traveler, Simon owns rental properties in the Geneva area and sees firsthand the businesses that want to bring their product to the city.
“We have one business down the street, an independent restaurant and the restaurant had been there for 10 years and it expanded so I had the space open up,” Simon said. “I had the choice between a well-known, Midwestern upscale chain and a couple of entrepreneurs who had some really good ideas. The chain had the money and the entrepreneurs had the passion.
“And we chose the entrepreneurs.”
Geneva, then, because it is a destination for non-residents who flock to the family-owned businesses, isn’t on the radar of big corporations.
“I think that makes us even more appealing, because people that come here maybe don’t even know what it’s like to shop in a small town,” Sherie McGowan, the owner of the gift and home goods shop Cocoon, said.
The only glimpse of a place where the owner won’t be inside working and talking to shoppers on any given day of the week is a Starbucks, nestled about three blocks down Third Street, away from Geneva’s Metra train station.
“A lot of people come off the train,” said Bonnie Pechous, the General Manager of Graham’s Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream. “They stop at Traveler and come on down the line.”
That line down Third Street includes The Little Traveler, Graham’s and its sister coffeehouse Graham’s 318, Cocoon, the Geneva History Museum, All Chocolate Kitchen headed by Chef Alain Roby, and many more.
People also come from communities like Elgin, Oakbrook, Barrington and Joliet. But even more travel to Geneva from further than 30 miles away. Simon said 45 percent of The Little Traveler’s mailing list is people from “outside the area who find their way to Geneva because it is an attraction.”
So why – other than the friendly service, hospitality and a diverse shopping selection – is Geneva so attractive to visitors?
The city’s sales tax currently sits at 7.5 percent, but that could change. In the March 2018 primary, Kane County citizens will vote on whether to impose a 0.5 percent sales tax increase.
Many of the businesses along Third Street support the increase, which is said will raise about $2 million for the city.
But to be fair, they don’t have too much of a choice. Local taxes are going up regardless of what voters say.
In addition to placing the sales tax hike on the ballot, the Geneva City Council approved a 2 percent “places for eating” tax that will go into effect automatically should the sales tax hike fail to pass.
While the sales tax hike would make shopping in Geneva more expensive, Geneva would not be at a disadvantage compared with neighboring communities Batavia and St. Charles, where the sales tax rates sit at 8 percent.
“Let’s assume that a tax increase is necessary,” said Michael Olesen, who owns a brewery, Stockholm’s, and Geneva Investment Group. “We would be giving up the economic advantage that we currently have over [Batavia and St. Charles] by having a lower tax rate. But we at least would not be at an economic disadvantage, we would be on par with them.”
Even with the looming tax increase, business owners are confident in themselves. Especially in preparation for Small Business Saturday on Nov. 25.
“It’s not the typical Black Friday stuff,” Simon said. “We’re trying to do special items at better than normal prices to get people’s attention.”
Pechous said even though she’s not necessarily promoting special deals, Graham’s will see an increase in customers on Small Business Saturday.
Cocoon, as well, will be busier, but McGowan treats it just like any other day.
“Every day for us is Small Business Saturday. Our customers know we’re a small business and they shop here because of that.”
So maybe the secret to success in Geneva is business owners who treat every day as a day dedicated to celebrating and promoting them.
Olesen thinks so. Pechous, McGowan and Simon do as well.
“I grew up here in Geneva and I’ve worked on Third Street since I was 15 years old,” Olesen said. “Mike Simon’s father, Saul, was a mentor of mine. We have that here.”
“We have a lot at stake,” Pechous said. “I don’t think we feel the economy as bad because people have expectations and we meet them. Because whenever there’s hard times people look for those things that comfort them the most.
“And these businesses do that.”