Malin: Evanston’s small businesses are the foundation of this city

Zoe Malin, Senior Staffer

Graduation Issue 2022

Last week I went to Best Care Cleaners — the same dry cleaner I’ve used since freshman year — to drop off the wrinkly dress I found shoved in a corner of my closet. The owner said she’d make sure it was clean and pressed in time for graduation. Before I left, it dawned on us that this was the last time I’d come into the shop with a garment in need of TLC before an important event. I’d previously dropped off blazers for job interviews or blouses for big class presentations. The owner looked at me and said, “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown up.” I’ll admit I got a little teary.

Evanston’s small businesses become so much more to us than a dry cleaner, a coffee shop or a hair salon. They carve themselves into our lives and we form emotional attachments to them. It’s something I’ve experienced not just by living here these past four years, but also by reporting on Evanston’s small businesses for The Daily.

If you know me, you know I’ve spent more time immersing myself in Evanston than I’ve spent on campus as a Northwestern student. And I have The Daily to thank for that. After writing for the campus desk my freshman year, I joined the city desk as a business beat reporter as a sophomore. I started writing about businesses opening and closing, their achievements, initiatives they started and struggles they faced. Spending hours meeting business owners, talking to their staff and hearing about residents’ favorite shops was always the best part of my week.

Then when COVID-19 hit and businesses were forced to shutter, I watched something beautiful happen — they banded together and stepped up to support their community. Local businesses fed those in need, sewed masks for essential workers and provided entertainment during an otherwise dark time. These businesses relied on their customers as much as their customers relied on them. More than I’d observed previously, Evanston’s residents understood that part of what makes their neighborhoods so special — what makes them feel like home — is the businesses that line the streets.

I can tell you the layout of the Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market with my eyes closed. I know where Central Street’s Special Service Areas start and stop. I keep a running list in my head of the places you have to visit in The Main-Dempster Mile. And I love telling people about what businesses used to occupy recently renovated storefronts in Downtown Evanston as though they’re trivia facts I’ve memorized.

I can also tell you that Evanston’s small businesses are the foundation on which this city is built. Reporting about them taught me that these establishments are Evanston, and supporting them is a serious responsibility. Every time you buy a latte from a local coffee shop or purchase a novel from an independent bookstore, you’re part of helping keep their doors open — every single business owner I’ve talked to told me so.

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