Orrington stores struggle to survive amid closures

Breanne Gilpatrick

The Daily Northwestern

Two years ago Harry Bastermajian wouldn’t have had five minutes to talk in between helping customers at Perfect 1HR Photo. Today, he said, the store at 1638 Orrington Ave. is almost dead.

“I’ve been here 20 years,” said Bastermajian, who owns the store, “and this is the worst we’ve seen it.”

The construction at the Omni Orrington Hotel, 1710 Orrington Ave., the relocation of Borders Books and Music from 1629 Orrington Ave. last May and the closure of other businesses on the street have created a difficult situation for store owners on Orrington, Bastermajian said. With the sidewalks closed from the construction, he said most customers without a reason to walk down the street will bypass his store.

Futon Express, at 1620 Orrington Ave., soon will become the next store to leave the area. Manager Frank Louis said the store’s owners have a deal with their landlord to remain in the location until May 30 but will close the store sooner if they sell the inventory before then. Louis said the owners have considered moving for almost a year because of problems with the area.

“There are too many other communities that aren’t very far from this that offer two-way, busy thoroughfares and independent parking and less cost per square foot,” Louis said.

Store owners plan to move the store to Schaumburg, Ill., where costs are lower and more parking is available. The lack of parking on Orrington has been a particularly large problem for Futon Express, he said.

“If people are buying a large piece of furniture, they don’t want to carry it a block and a half,” he said. “They want to pull right up to your door and not have to worry about getting a parking ticket.”

Rita Allison, owner of Mostly Handmade, Inc., said the lack of parking and foot traffic have also have been problems for her store, next door to Futon Express at 1622 Orrington. She said she is also worried that Futon Express will be replaced by office space rather than by a new business.

“It’s horrible when stores (like Futon Express) become offices,” Allison said. “You don’t see store fronts at Old Orchard that become offices. People don’t even want to walk past them. It’s like a dead thing.”

But Allison said she is in the middle of her lease and hasn’t considered moving out of the area yet.

As retail stores struggle at the street level, apartment and office space sales on the upper floors of Orrington Avenue buildings are selling well, said Cameel Halim, president of Wilmette Real Estate and Management. Halim’s company owns two Evanston properties at 636 Church St. and 1637 Orrington Ave., with apartment, office and retail space. He said he has sold space in the area for three restaurants recently.

Filling the retail space is the most difficult, Halim said. But he said the company is in negotiations with prospective tenants for its three retail vacancies.

Some disagree that the construction on the Omni Orrington will have a negative effect on the area.

Jonathan Perman, executive director for the Evanston Chamber of Commerce said the existence of a major construction project like the work on the Omni Orrington shows great confidence in the area. Overall, empty space isn’t really a problem for the city, he said.

“The problem with Evanston is a lack of vacancies,” Perman said. “When people call the Chamber the problem is finding them a space.”

Someone with a good business philosophy can still have a successful business on Orrington Avenue, said Louis from Futon Express.

“It’s not impossible to do business here,” he said. “It’s just difficult.”