On a tucked-away sidewalk off Washington Street, two women at different ages created businesses they’d dreamed of, right next door and 15 years apart. One had that vision as long as she can remember; the other was struck by oil during a mid-life crisis.
“My daughter went to college, and it blew me away. I started thinking, ‘what am I going to do the rest of my life?!’” said Mary Shearer, owner of Twisted Olive, 232 S. Washington St. “I was tired of being a home-care nurse. I went to visit my sister in California, and we went into this cute little store in the wine country. I thought, ‘I could do this!’”
By the time she returned to Naperville, she was determined to open a shop specializing in olive oil and balsamic vinegars. She gave notice at work, and set about learning things she knew nothing about: olive oil, health department regulations regarding food sales and managing a store.
Meanwhile, those around her contemplated her mental health considering its out-of-nowhere creation and the fact this epiphany happened during tough economic times: March 2010.
“My kids were like, ‘whatever.’ My husband told me how much money I could spend ... I tripled that and he wasn’t happy,” she said. “My friends were very skeptical. No one expected me to succeed.”
No matter. Shearer was determined. Using her best people instincts honed during years of nursing, she talked to a friend in marketing, worked hard, joined the Rotary Club and the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce and found retail space.
That last part wasn’t too tough.
“We couldn’t find anything else. I didn’t like it that much, but we made the middle a focal point and created this cozy atmosphere that turned out amazingly well, considering I’m not a great decorator,” said Shearer, down playing the utter charm of her shop that complements the exposed brick wall.
She opened Twisted Olive — “twisted” referring to the path she took to get there — on July 9, 2010. Yes, a mere four months after thinking of it.
“It was amazingly fast,” Shearer said. “It has been a wild three and a half years; I have never worked harder in my life.”
Sales are strong, she said, with a large percentage of walk-ins leaving the shop with a purchase. The shop also has become a family affair since husband Scott joined Twisted Olive in May 2012. Surprisingly, few Twisted Olive customers are from Naperville. Regulars are from places like Mokena, Orland Park, even the Quad Cities.
But Twisted Olive is committed to its community. From the start, Shearer wanted to “make a difference,” she said. “I wanted to prove you could be nice, have good service and still be successful.”
“Nice” is an understatement considering Twisted Olive has donated a gift basket to every nonprofit silent auction or raffle that comes along.
“We have never said ‘no,’” Scott Shearer said. “Since opening, we have donated more than 250 baskets to more than 150 charities.”
The charities are listed on blackboards behind the cash register. The shop is also involved with School District 204’s STEPS program, helping two students learn job skills once a week in the shop that had long been empty before Twisted Olive moved in.
The space was added to the historic home of blacksmith Daniel Strubler in 1984. The first tenant was a restaurant called Maison Gourmet, owned by Marti Modaff.
“We were partners. She was Maison Gourmet; I was Mill Race Catering,” said Adele Jensen, a Naperville Realtor. “We supplied all the food and did off-premise catering. The restaurant was the cutest place you’d ever want to see.
“They did a beautiful job of incorporating the new section into the old house. It had character — a black-and-white floor, a pine hutch, cute little tables and chairs all around the opening to the staircase. It was lovely and quaint.”
Jensen had been a caterer for years before her friend Modaff decided to open the restaurant.
“She needed someone to cook the food; we just used that little kitchen for warming,” Jensen said. “It was a very charming place for lunch or afternoon tea or coffee. The location was new, and it was hard for people to find it back there at first, but it did well for a while.”
Eventually Mill Race left the space, so Gabrielle’s provided food for the restaurant, but when Gabrielle’s closed, Maison Gourmet closed as well. “It ran its course,” Jensen said.
Gabrielle’s “ elegant country dining” was opened by former Naperville resident Jeannie Bauman, said onetime neighbor Linda Burgstone.
“We went there for our anniversary in 1985,” Burgstone said. “It was open for a couple of years. Jeannie loved to start businesses and then hand them off. She opened Wicker Works and several others.”
Pompeii Ristorante then moved into the entire space. When that closed, the addition was separated into two sections again. Cross-Cultural Crafts opened in the east end for a while, then a jewelry shop called Eye on Design moved in. A hair salon, M Ross Design, opened in the west end.
Success story No. 2
It was about then that Shannon Drexler, who had been working at Zano’s Salon, decided it was time to do what she’d always wanted to do: open her own business.
“My dad was an entrepreneur, and I grew up knowing that’s what I’d do,” she said.
Eye on Design’s owner, Cheryl Aichele, told Drexler about the location next door.
“She said they didn’t want to keep the business and suggested I buy it. But a lot of people were like, ‘oh my god, you’re moving in the back alley? Nothing survives there!’”
Amber Waves bucked that trend. Open 18 years, Drexler’s thriving business (she employes 22 stylists) is the longest-running of all the shops on both sides of the sidewalk — so-called “On the Walk” — that runs from Washington Street to the central parking garage.
When Drexler moved in 1996, she gutted the place and found remnants of the old kitchen where her wash bowls are now. She also still has a grease pit in the storage closet in the basement.
The shop is sort of named after Drexler’s daughter, whose middle name is Amber. But while listening to a talk show with her father, who helped Drexler with her business plan, “America the Beautiful” came on and “amber waves of grain” struck them.
The name settled, and despite the location, Drexler’s lifelong dream came true.
Two different paths led to success on the same charming sidewalk. Apparently not such a bad location, at that.
Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at email@example.com.