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  • Rebecca Foster-Goodman

Lake Forest Native's Store Balances Education, Adventure

By Rebecca Foster-Goodman

Born and raised in Lake Forest, Allison Gurza returned home after college and taught at the School of St. Mary for 15 years. Then, Gurza yearned for a new challenge.

“Teaching was my entire life, but I felt I needed a change,” Gurza explains. “At the same time, I still loved teaching, and I didn’t want to completely abandon that.”

"This community has certainly made an effort to support small business owners, and that is why a lot of us are still open," says Allison Gurza, owner of Sage Explorers, about surviving the pandemic. The result? She opened Sage Explorers on Bank Lane in 2017. “I felt this store was a balance of a new adventure paired with my educational background,” Gurza says.

Sage Explorers specializes in educational toys for children of all ages, as well as offering a one-on-one learning center for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Shelves are filled with books, toys, puzzles and crafts for children of all ages. As COVID-19 transformed the landscape for consumers, Gurza’s background in teaching was ultimately the lifeboat for Sage Explorers.

“When we were able to physically open at the end of May 2020, people were afraid to return to their previous shopping habits. Days here were very long and very quiet,” Gurza recalls. “Then September came, and many of the local schools went virtual. It was then that the Learning Center really picked up. Parents wanted to make sure their kids were getting the help they needed. It is what kept us afloat.”

Gurza praises the success of the Learning Center -- and also the loyalty of the Lake Forest shopper -- for the survival of small businesses like Sage Explorers. She recognizes that all shoppers have choices about where to spend their money and appreciates that Lake Forest consumers choose to purchase their items in town.

“Before COVID, shopping was convenience-based. But when local stores and restaurants were closing, people realized just how important their daily choices matter. This community has certainly made an effort to support small business owners, and that is why a lot of us are still open.”

Gurza faces challenges in stocking her store for the holidays in the midst of worldwide supply-chain bottlenecks.

“I am encouraging my customers to purchase items now, because there is no guarantee that those items will be available later,” she says. “Everything is uncertain right now.”

Sage Explorers is in the midst of conducting its first annual Pumpkin Decorating Contest. The winners will be announced on Oct. 30 in four categories – cutest, spookiest, funniest and most creative. Each winner will receive a $25 gift card to use at the store.

Gurza will then ring in the holiday shopping season with a tent at the Tree Lighting ceremony at Market Square on Friday, Nov. 26. Children will be invited to decorate an ornament that they can take home and hang on their own tree. “This will be a first for us to be at the Tree Lighting,” Gurza says. “I am very excited to be included in this beloved Lake Forest tradition.”


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