How Mike Simon's vision for the 'next Rodeo Drive' helped shape Geneva's Third Street shopping, dining

  • Mike Simon is the owner of The Little Traveler in Geneva, which is celebrating 100 years in business, and is a landlord to several other Geneva businesses. "Third Street today has far outpaced my hopes for it in the late 1980s," Simon said. "I never envisioned that the street would become the prime dining destination it's morphed into over the past several years."

      Mike Simon is the owner of The Little Traveler in Geneva, which is celebrating 100 years in business, and is a landlord to several other Geneva businesses. "Third Street today has far outpaced my hopes for it in the late 1980s," Simon said. "I never envisioned that the street would become the prime dining destination it's morphed into over the past several years." John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted9/30/2022 6:00 AM

No one would blame Mike Simon if he simply wanted to rest this week after much of this year's 100th anniversary celebration of his family's The Little Traveler home décor, apparel and fair-trade store in Geneva hit its peak last weekend.

Longtime and new residents, as well as visitors from near and far, have had a chance to learn the history of this Third Street landmark created by Kate Raftery in September of 1922 and the Simon family's role as proprietors since 1971.

 

Last weekend's "Little Traveler Days" were a fitting high point for the historic recognition with various proclamations and special retail events at the Traveler and other Geneva locations.

It reminded me of comments made about 40 years ago when the Geneva Chamber of Commerce was taking sales pitches from area newspapers to publish its special sections touting annual festivals and special events.

When sales people from the newspaper came back from a meeting with the chamber, they mentioned that Simon, a landlord of many Geneva merchants in addition to operating the Traveler, made an interesting comment.

I wasn't sure if they thought it was insightful or it left them scratching their heads. They claimed he encouraged the chamber and merchants to think big about Third Street by saying it could be the "next Rodeo Drive."

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No matter how one interpreted that vision, Simon meant the Third Street retail shopping district could become as important to the region as Rodeo Drive is to Beverly Hills in California.

The Little Traveler in Geneva as seen on Nov. 25, 2020. The store is one of the "anchors" of the city's Third Street retail and dining district.
  The Little Traveler in Geneva as seen on Nov. 25, 2020. The store is one of the "anchors" of the city's Third Street retail and dining district. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2020

Here we are in 2022, fresh off some of the biggest events for the Traveler's 100th anniversary. So, does Simon think his vision panned out?

"Third Street today has far outpaced my hopes for it in the late 1980s," Simon said. "I never envisioned that the street would become the prime dining destination it's morphed into over the past several years."

When newly married in 1990, he and wife Nancy often worked late and skipped cooking at home to dine at places like Gen-Hoe, The Mill Grill or Little Owl. Those were nice places to eat, Simon noted, but "the sheer number of choices one has now for unique dining is impressive, and its popularity is evident by the lack of on-street parking any night of the week," he added.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the late 1980s, The Little Traveler was definitely the retail anchor of Third Street. Simon also realizes that has changed, and he has been glad to see it.

"Today I can name several businesses that can be considered anchors on the street, and that makes us all more appealing to a broader range of shoppers," Simon said. "I prefer to say that I'm fortunate to oversee a curated collection of Geneva's most unique and creative stores and restaurants."

The biggest challenge for Geneva merchants "is always getting the word out to newcomers about the advantages of shopping locally at mom-and-pop shops," Simon noted.

"People who come from other areas seek out what's familiar to them from where they lived previously, and those stores are what you'll find on Randall Road," Simon added.

Geneva merchants essentially bank on the likelihood that once a shopper comes to Third Street, they will come back. But that doesn't mean everyone in the Tri-Cities area is well-versed on what the retail sector offers.

"The number of first-time customers I meet who have lived in the area for a few years and say, 'I didn't realize all this (Third Street shops and restaurants) existed,' is always humbling," Simon said.

That sort of revelation lends itself to the other challenge facing Little Traveler and other shops along Third Street or State Street in Geneva or any other street in any community.

"Staying ahead of the curve in the world of social media is increasingly important," Simon noted. "I feel I'm fighting a steep uphill battle to understand where people are spending their time online and how to get their attention, which is constantly evolving."

As in other communities, merchants in Geneva likely have concerns and worries about their costs and the difficulties in hiring, as well as luring people into their stores.

But Geneva operates in a manner that lends itself to overcoming any of these challenges, Simon insisted.

"The older I get, the less I take for granted what a wonderful community this is to do business in," Simon said. "I guess that's partly because of comments I get from merchants in other towns, as they describe their challenges working with local government, getting cooperation from neighboring businesses, and getting foot traffic into their business districts.

"We don't have to deal with any of that," he added.

An important card

Former St. Charles police commander and Kane County Cougars security director Dan Klinkhamer spotted one of my Facebook posts about how I lost my baseball card collections at about age 12 to a flood in the basement of our home.

I had my collection stored in boxes in the crawl space area of the house that particular summer. The cards displaying all of my baseball heroes didn't look very good after being submerged in water.

Klinkhamer, known as "Klink" to his friends and co-workers during his 30 years with the Cougars and 29 with the St. Charles police, wanted to help me replace the collection with a special card.

So, he did.

I ran into Klink and his wife, former St. Charles Mayor Sue Klinkhamer, when they were going to a neighborhood party at their daughter's home in Geneva.

He called me over to his car, saying he had something for me. It was a Choice Marketing Kane County Cougars baseball card featuring none other than Dan Klinkhamer.

The team honored Klink with his own baseball card as the "former director of security." He had his usual wry smile, figuring there was a certain level of humor in the suggestion.

Truth is, I was quite pleased to have the card in my possession. Klink and Sue have done so much for their communities, it is quite fitting that a baseball card commemorates some of those efforts.

Pushed the proclamation

My friend Gary Knapp of Geneva admitted he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to attend his 50-year high school reunion this weekend with former classmates at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville.

He wasn't sure why he felt that way, other than the normal hesitancy many may have about going to a high school reunion.

It didn't take long for him to change his mind. Just a few email notes with former classmates convinced him he should go.

He then took it upon himself to approach Carpentersville Village President John Skillman asking that Skillman read and present a proclamation to the Class of 1972 during the Dundee-Crown football game Friday, Sept. 30, at which many reunion attendees are expected to be on hand to start the reunion weekend.

"I just thought it would be a fun thing to have the proclamation, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at the reunion," Knapp said.

Papers to the shelters

We have done our part for recycling the past few decades, making sure our newspapers were in the recycling bin each week for pickup.

Then we saw a note from Anderson Humane that its shelters could use newspapers for the dogs in its care.

We've been piling up our papers for weeks at a time now for delivery, mostly to the Anderson Humane location on Randall Road in North Aurora, as it is a bit easier for us to get to than the South Elgin location off Route 31.

If you have newspapers you can set aside on occasion for the shelters, it's an easy chore and really helpful.

Geneva Commons throws its bash

Twenty years ago, the Geneva Commons opened its massive Randall Road site, bringing a new feel to the region with an outdoor mall setting that most had seen, maybe, only at Oakbrook Center.

An older gentleman mentioned to me that he went to the Commons when it first opened and proclaimed that he wouldn't be going back.

I did not have the same impression but fully realized that the target market was not older adult males. And does any retail target that segment?

Still, there was plenty for everyone at the Commons and its nearby retail offerings.

The center has survived economic downturns and COVID to proclaim its 20th anniversary birthday bash from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30 on its Center Green with music, kids' activities and other entertainment.

The two bands scheduled to perform, by the way, have plenty of fans as 7th Heaven plays at 4:30 p.m. and Hi Infidelity at 7 p.m.

dheun@sbcglobal.net

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