Local stores rich in history

Sheila Burt

At least the clock’s still there.

I tell myself that everytime I walk by the corner of Sherman Avenue and Church Street. I love the Panera there, but last week’s news that Chicago’s very own Marshall Field’s will become Macy’s reminded me of some deep-rooted Evanston history: the building now home to Panera and many other stores and apartments used to be a Field’s store.

The building – a marvel to look at, with a marble and limestone exterior and a distinctive green clock – opened in 1929 and was only one of the first suburban locations of the famed department store (the other was Oak Park). Its gigantic structure towered over Evanston and let suburbanites enjoy the store without having to travel into the city. The importance of Field’s might be hard to grasp, but to older Chicagoans, the store was a city icon.

“You just felt good going in there – you were participating in something special,” my father told me recently about the downtown store. “There was no doubt about that.”

He often traveled to the Field’s on State Street with my grandmother, who associated the store with “having made it in Chicago.” Walking through the extravagant interior, my middle-class grandmother could feel like a million bucks.

For a break during his freshman year of college, my father took a job helping unload trucks for the store. As an employee, he received a 25 percent discount. Once my grandmother found out about this, she eagerly made the journey from the South Side to use the discount – even before my father had started his job.

I never saw the Field’s store in Evanston, but I imagine that’s how many people felt about it. They had the pride of Chicago right in their own backyard. The Evanston store closed in 1987 as suburban mall locations emerged. Soon after, the five-story building became Evanston Galleria and housed 52 apartments. Now, those apartments, along with Panera, Citibank, Art + Science and many others fill the building.

Although long forgotten by current NU students, the story of Field’s in Evanston reminds me of the current state of Evanston business. As corporate giants Ann Taylor and Barnes & Noble prep to move into the long-awaited Sherman Plaza, and nearby Cosi opens its doors to students, local stores are becoming scarce.

Yes, Field’s isn’t exactly akin to your everyday local coffee shop, but the connection people felt to the store reminded me of how people feel about independently-owned businesses.

They make you feel as if it’s your store, just like Field’s was Chicago’s store. Evanston is lucky to have a nice mix of these local joints, such as Cafe Mozart and 600 Davis Street, along with sleek and convenient chains such as Borders and Panera.

But as evident with the closing of Sherman Restaurant last year, smaller businesses are struggling. Having large chain-stores open in Evanston isn’t a bad idea (in fact, it’s great), but hopefully the mix of smaller businesses and bigger stores can be preserved.

Although it’s a bit of a walk, if students trek down the Dempster or Noyes Street downtown area, they’ll find cute local stores such as Bagel Art at 1307 1/2 Chicago Ave. that add character to Evanston.

Walk into these places at least once: maybe then you’ll feel the same way my grandmother felt when she walked into Marshall Field’s.

Assistant City Editor Sheila Burt is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]