Family, Friends Help Venerable Store Kiddles Survive the Pandemic
By Rebecca Foster-Goodman After more than a year of quarantine and lockdown, the residents of Lake Forest are outside en masse enjoying the summer. They’re at the beach, they’re running along the trails and they’re riding bikes all over town. Chances are Kiddles of Lake Forest helped provide their athletic needs.
Kiddles has been the go-to sports store in Lake Forest for generations. Since 1968, Jay Shifka and his family have been the face, as well as the heart and soul, of this local institution.
Aric Shifka and Lee Shifka get together with their father, Jay Shifka, at Kiddles. "Family is the most important thing in my life,” Jay says. Kiddles was originally owned and operated by the Kiddle family until Jay’s father bought the store. At that time, it was mostly a hardware store, with tools and paints upstairs and bikes in the basement. As time went on, Kiddles grew into more of a sporting-goods store. “In 1975 the bikes came out of the basement,” Jay said. “Then the space next store became available, so we expanded to what the space is today.”
In February 2020, the Shifka family was preparing Kiddles for a busy spring season. The store was full of new bikes, and they had just completed a major makeover. Then the world came to a halt.
“Last year, when COVID became the fear that it became, we were preparing for Easter and baseball season,” Jay recalled. “We had just completed our redo, and we were ready to share it with Lake Forest. Then everything just stopped. It shocked everyone. No matter who you were, nobody was prepared.”
Fortunately, bike shops were deemed essential businesses, so Kiddles was never forced to close. But Jay worried for his friends with businesses in Market Square that were not so lucky. “I didn’t sleep well during that time. I felt horrible for my restaurant friends and store owners. I felt guilty coming to work when they couldn’t open their doors. It was a time filled with angst.”
But even in the face of a global pandemic, Jay has always believed that staying positive is the only way to live your life. “I have never been negative. I find optimism in every single day. It’s so simple. Your life will just be better for it.” So, the eternal optimist found safe, new ways to operate during the pandemic. The sidewalk became Kiddles’ sales floor. And as the weather got warmer, more and more people wanted to get out of the house to spend time outside.
“We were lucky because people wanted to ride bikes; they wanted to go for walks,” Jay said. “So we were able to stay afloat with the sales of bikes and athletic shoes.” Jay was especially touched by the community, who reached out to his family with overwhelming support. “Denise (Jay’s wife) and I received phone calls at our house. How can we help? What do you need from us? The genuine outpouring of concern and worry from this community…this is friendship.”
Friendship is a word that is repeated often in my conversation with Jay. He refers to customers as friends, whether they are walking through the door for the hundredth time or the first time. And his friends in Lake Forest/Lake Bluff are equally loyal to Kiddles. “I love when someone comes in with their kids and says, ‘This is where I got my first bike.’ I love hearing that. It is truly special.”
Working with his family every day is the most rewarding part of Jay’s life. Jay and Denise are joined each day by their sons, Aric and Lee, and you can often see Jay’s grandchildren enjoying the Kiddles’ sales floors. When Jay speaks of his family, his pride is obvious. “I race to work every day so I can spend the days with my wife and sons,” he said. “Family is the most important thing in my life.” This is one of a series about time-honored Lake Forest stores.