The 8000 block of Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie features a microcosm of what used to be small-town America.
There is a hole-in-the-wall bar, a drapery store, an attorney’s office, an upbeat bakery, a longtime flower shop and the famed Village Inn, which attracts pizza lovers from miles around.
Anchoring that avenue is Cigar King, the Runyon-esque emporium, the last smoky business remaining in Skokie and surrounding suburbs. Having outlawed indoor smoking in businesses, Cigar King has been barely grandfathered in, and cannot be sold as-is by owner Jordan Hirsh and continue as a cigar store.
“My customers cross-pollinate other businesses,” Hirsch said. “I’m lucky my neighbors run good businesses.”
Hirsh wasn't blowing smoke.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Cigar King was a beehive of activity. Men were relaxing and chomping on big stogies in lounge chairs, working laptops or watching big-screen TV’s. The image was that of a fancy OTB. One regular named “Alberto,” dressed in bike clothes, had just cycled from Glenview. Hirsh knows he generates business both for himself and his neighbors.
Eclissi, a seven-table Italian restaurant which opened nine months ago sits next door at 8018 Lincoln Ave. Owner Ruben Villanueva calls his business “OK … it can be better.” But in the same breath, he said, “the cigar guys are my No. 1 business.”
While it works for the business owners on the 8000 Lincoln Avenue, the same may not be said throughout the downtown area.
The game plan
More than a dozen vacant storefronts in downtown Skokie have their windows covered with colorful Skokie themed posters. Village officials want to see that change, and envision downtown Skokie as a bustling shopping destination.
Some of the steps they're taking to get there is the addition of a new Yellow Line stop on Skokie Boulevard and Oakton Street. The other, a possible $6 million road diet, which will effectively narrow Oakton Street and widen sidewalks outside of businesses.
However, some business owners worry that the construction and frequent train stops will lead to a high degree of road congestion, leading to less customers.
Cigar King and Village Inn serve as 8000 Lincoln’s anchors. Other businesses draw from beyond the village. They have problems with either local ordinances or the recent “road diet” test aimed at gauging whether traffic would be squeezed into two lanes, one in each direction, on Oakton to accommodate wider sidewalks and more street parking.
Longtime shop owners voice in
Even though store vacancies are at or even above the frequency seen in downtown Skokie, the west side of the 8000 block of Lincoln Avenue appears to be the one part of downtown that’s relatively thriving. Synergy exists among longtime shops and restaurants that have become well known beyond Skokie’s borders.
Lowell Derdiger has run the Drapery Center at 8034 Lincoln Ave. since 1979.
“Most of us own our places,” he said of his long-term survival. “My business is not dependent on walk-ins. That’s fortunate. If it was, then my biggest problem is no one knows I’m here if they’re passing by. The village restricts signage – it can’t be perpendicular to the store. It has to be flat against the front of the store.”
A few doors down Bruce Kruger, owner of Sweety Pies Bakery and Café, has been operating at a location that's been a bakery since 1910, offered up a cautionary tale of his native downtown Rockford.
“When they decided to make a (pedestrian-oriented mall) in Rockford, they closed off U.S. 20 and Route 2 (main cross streets). They choked off business, but also created urban sprawl. J.C. Penney and Sears all moved further out in town.”
Kruger said Sweety Pies attracts local customers on their way to Village Hall and the library. But if they tried to drive to the bakery during the road diet pilot, they weren't too pleased, he added.
“When they did the road diet (test), a lot of our customers (driving in) were pissed off,” said Kruger.
Like all his business neighbors, he’s been looking for a comeback for downtown for years.
“When Pfizer went away, that drained down the buying power on Oakton,” Kruger said. “The bottom dropped out.”
Kruger isn't alone.
Crafty Beaver, located just west of the new Yellow Line stop, featured a petition against the road diet near the cahsiers. More than 150 signatures were captured.
The 8000 block has its fans, like the barflys at Duffy’s Lounge, where a bartender named Anita, working on and off since 1991, said her place “works off the regulars.”
“And some irregulars,” said a wise guy at the bar.
Come back next week to read part two of our series.
George Slefo contributed to this article.