Sitting empty since 2007, brown paper covers the windows of 20 W. Chicago Ave. But once upon a time, teddy bears built the building.
JoAnne and Jeff Rosenfeld, Naperville residents since 1981, decided they’d like to stay in the town they’d been transferred to through Jeff’s corporate job. During a trip to Door County, they became intrigued with a tiny teddy bear store in Fish Creek — particularly one line, North American Bears.
“We didn’t know much about the teddy bear market,” JoAnne said. “But we started investigating. That little store planted a seed — we took it way farther.”
In 1987, the new entrepreneurs opened Grin and Bear It in the 1,000 square feet at 38 W. Chicago Ave., selling collectible and other stuffed animals.
“Neither of us had any retail experience, but there was no other store like it that I’ve ever seen,” Jeff said. “It just happened to work — people appreciated and liked it. We had it seven years and not once did we offer a sale or mark down a price.”
Many of their vendors gave the shop exclusive items throughout the state. It was the top volume seller for Gund for a couple of years in a row, they said, and one of three stores in the Chicago area tapped to sell their exclusive designer line. They became one of North American Bear’s biggest customers.
“There was a big collectible market at the time — teddy bears overtook dolls for a while,” Jeff said. “We happened to get in ahead of that.”
He said their store was far from typical.
“We weren’t a neighborhood store,” he said. “We advertised in national collectible magazines, and people would drive a couple of hundred miles out of their way to come to the store.”
The small store did so well, it soon needed more space.
“We wanted to stay in that area,” JoAnne said. “We just kept driving past this empty lot on Chicago, and one day thought, ‘what is that space?’”
It was a parking lot being used by Rick’s Auto Parts, at the time in the building now occupied by Features. The lot was owned by the Buikema family.
“We purchased the land and custom-built the 4,000-square-foot building,” Jeff said. “We designed it for the product we were selling. It was pretty impressive — 18-foot ceilings, a 12-by-12 vestibule that went up 8 to 10 feet. We had life-sized animals — a giraffe and a horse — in there.”
Originally featuring solid oak double doors on the front, “it had an elegant, old-town feeling,” JoAnne said.
The store carried the upscale Steiff bears as well as other German and English brands and custom-made bears costing more than $1,000.
“The artist bear market — individuals handmade and designed the bears and numbered them — became a huge part of our business,” JoAnne said. “A lot of the focus of the teddy bear magazines were the artists.”
“Adults were fanatical about them. We had some very wealthy customers who were into collecting — many of our customers were repeat customers. Probably 25 percent of them didn’t collect artist bears until they came to our store and got hooked on that.”
The store had so loyal a following, one customer wanted to buy the business.
“We had no intention of selling, but the husband of one of our customers who came in regularly, said she was looking for something to do after their kids graduated,” Jeff said.
The Rosenfelds declined, saying it wasn’t for sale. But the man came in again. And again.
“He said she really wants this business. We told him we didn’t want to sell, but he said she just loves it. We told him she could open the same thing, he said she wanted that one. We finally told him to make us an offer, and when he made us an outstanding offer, we said ‘what the heck?’ and sold it. We closed about a week later,” Jeff said of the 1994 sale.
The couple leased the building to the new business owners, who remained in the building until 1999, when the building was leased to a clothing store.
Mitch Michaels and Danielle Salchow opened their first Modern Simplicity clothing store in New Buffalo, Michigan, in 1997. Many of their customers were west suburban residents who asked the couple to open a store at home. When they did, over Thanksgiving weekend 1999, the shop did well through the holidays, but cooled during the winter.
Spring and summer picked up, but when a shoe store that was to share the rent didn’t materialize for the second floor, it was time to cut the losses Michaels, said.
“Our accountant had another client who was looking for a bigger location — a skateboard store. They took over our lease,” he said.
That, of course, was RQ Boardshop, a bit of a Naperville landmark.
“We became kind of a hangout for the kids, whether they skateboarded or not,” said Brian Quarles, one of three owners. “They felt like they were welcome. As more mom and pops move out, you lose that kind of feel.”
Moving the skateboard/snowboard shop from 226 S. Washington St. to 20 W. Chicago in 2000 was exciting, Quarles said.
“We liked the location and the multiple levels — it was neat to move into that much bigger of a space.”
They stayed for five years. A multitude of factors — Sept. 11, tougher parking, a warm winter — caused Quarles and his brother to leave the business. A third partner moved the shop to Fifth Avenue for a while.
Al’s Beef franchisee Steve Smith of the Blackhawks then turned 20 W. Chicago into a restaurant. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t take off, and it closed in 2006.
In January 2007, the Rosenfelds were between leases and sold the building when the right offer came in. The building has been empty since, but according to the Naperville Development Partnership, the owner is building a deck on the back of the building for a future restaurant to overlook the river.
The Rosenfelds remember their own building process as a simple thing.
“The city was happy for us to build it, to get rid of that eyesore vacant lot,” Jeff said. “We loved it there; we enjoyed the camaraderie of the downtown merchants.”
His own years at RQ taught Quarles a lot, much of which translated into his current position as creative director at a sports marketing firm in Chicago. But when he walks past the long-shuttered building he rented for so long, he’s sad to see it empty.
“The best memories of those days are the kids and the families who came in to the store,” he said. “We still see some of them and hear about them to this day.
“When it was great, it was great — really a sense of amazing community, and people we felt like we helped raise — or grew up with on some level. That was definitely beautiful.”
Bears and boards, perhaps, but never simple child’s play at 20 W. Chicago.
Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of Downtown Naperville. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: building memories, Naperville history
1989 — Grin and Bear It moves to the new building at 20 W. Chicago from 38 W. Chicago
August 1999 — Grin and Bear It moves to 236 S. Washington St.
November 1999 to August 2000 — Modern Simplicity
September 2000 to 2005 — RQ Board Shop
July 2005 to September 2006 — Al’s Beef
January 2007 — Sold to Mike Scheid