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  • Whitley Pleas

Small Businesses in Lake Forest Persevere Despite Unprecedented Economic Shifts

By Whitley Pleas In Lake Forest, small business owners survived both the COVID-19 pandemic’s height in 2020 and labor shortages and economic pitfalls in 2021 by using creativity and being fortunate enough to live in a community that values steadfast support of small businesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in unprecedented economic shifts -- especially on the local level. First, as toilet paper rolls flew off shelves and hand sanitizer was sold out, the economy slowed to a halt in the spring of 2020. Given the confusion of the time, many feared leaving their house – which was bad news for businesses.

Allison Gurza, the founder of Sage Explorers, said her store saw little to no foot traffic during the pandemic’s peak.

Further, a labor shortage began in 2020 and has continued into this year. According to a June 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Sean M. Smith, the national unemployment rate ballooned from 3.6% to 13.0% between 2019 and 2020. In 2021, Lake Forest residents have noticed dozens of Help Wanted signs on storefronts.

Meanwhile, among new and existing small, local businesses, Lake Forest residents and entrepreneurs have intentionally kept the city’s economy booming by shopping local and getting creative.

Allison Gurza, the founder of a children’s toy store Sage Explorers in Lake Forest, witnessed the pandemic’s impact on her business firsthand. In the spring of 2020, Gurza noticed that her store “was terribly quiet.” Despite opening to the public after two months of shutdown from March to June, Gurza’s store saw little to no foot traffic during the pandemic’s peak. Yet the online portion and the in-person learning center may have kept her store afloat.

“The learning center was either by appointment or limited to five people or less,” Gurza said. “The website was essential too.”

Mary McNeil, another Lake Forest entrepreneur who founded Booksy Books during the pandemic, attributes her success to technology while the pandemic limited in-store shopping. Thanks to five years of experience volunteering at the Glenview Library and listing the library’s books on Amazon, she knew how to run a bookstore and sell through the e-commerce giant.

Throughout 2020, Booksy Books quickly established itself as an impressive seller of used books in good condition with low prices.

“We have many regular customers,” McNeil said. “Many of them are college students that appreciate the cheap books and love to read.”

Yet despite being able to flourish with the help of technology and creative leadership, some Lake Forest businesses continue to struggle to find adequate employees. McNeil reflected that she experiences issues finding more employees because of complications regarding what young people -- her target employees -- are looking for.

“We wanted to partner with other families - we just haven’t found the right fit yet,” McNeil said. “The purpose is to give kids in this kind of situation a paycheck.”

On the other hand, Gurza of Sage Explorers has not had to put up the Help Wanted sign because her store is simply so small that they do not require many employees. Additionally, Gurza is mainly the person who runs her store and does the tutoring.

Lake Forest City Manager Jason Wicha credits local government initiatives to aid small businesses as helping businesses survive the pandemic. According to Wicha, local small businesses have benefitted from a stimulus pool of $500,000 and increased flexibility in parking and street usage in Lake Forest’s central business distinct to promote outdoor dining and order pickup.

Wicha attributes Lake Forest businesses’ triumph to residents’ determination to shop locally and to local businesses’ creativity.

“All in all,” Wicha said, “I would say that the City of Lake Forest has come out of the pandemic in much better shape financially as a community compared to any other municipality in the region.”


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