Bright Ideas in Oak Park closes after 24 years

Owner says economy, changing habits spelled store's doom


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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

After 24 years in business, the Bright Ideas parent and teacher store quietly closed its doors for good on May 10.

Owner Mara Patras, an Oak Park resident, said the small business has been "attacked" in a number of ways in recent years. The economy sapped the disposable income customers used to have, and shopping habits have changed for parents and teachers, she said.

More and more, they're focusing on technology and less on some of the hands-on school project products that populated Bright Ideas' shelves. Increasingly, educators were finding similar products online or at big-box stores, Patras added.

"Small business has had its ups and downs the last three years, and ours has finally got to the downs," she said. "Small business has been attacked in a number of ways, and our kind of business isn't on anybody's radar."

Donna LoCoco, who retired recently after teaching at Irving Elementary School for more than 30 years, would go to Bright Ideas three times a year. There, she'd pick up supplies to decorate her room, along with some mind-challenging puzzles for students. She agrees that kids nowadays seem to think creatively more through computers.

"It's easy to pop up a game on a computer, whether it's a learning game or not, and push keys," she said.

District 97 teachers still had a need for some of the store's products to dress up their classrooms, said Kevin Anderson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. But one area where Bright Ideas likely took a hit, he said, is on materials for presentations. Kids nowadays often prepare their displays through PowerPoint or iMovie, rather than tri-fold boards.

"We're seeing more of that electronic production rather than getting out the markers and coloring a picture of things," Anderson said.

D97 is finishing the first year of its five-year "tech plan," which identifies tools to transfer the classroom into the 21st century, said Cao Mac, the district's technology administrator. Instead of flash cards to learn multiplication, children are using touch-screen devices for learning. Next school year, carts of iPads will be available at each school for kindergarteners to trace over the alphabet and learn in other ways.

"Nowadays, what you'll find is kids are digital natives," he said. "They pretty much were born with this skill set. They're exposed to it every day with the digital age that they're in."

Bright Ideas started off small in the late 1980s. But the business proved to be successful, moving across the street to 909 S. Oak Park Ave. and gradually tripling in size in the 1990s as it became more popular.

Patras is "in her retirement years," and she plans to spend more time with her four grandkids and Steve, her husband of 45 years. She hopes independent store owners like her are able to hang on and be successful in the future.

"Down the road, I'd like to see small business survive because it allows choices that maybe the big boxes won't. They're going to make decisions about what we're buying and reading and wearing and thinking," she said. "And [there] will be fewer people who make those decisions."

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Ames Ronde from Oak Park  

Posted: September 28th, 2012 5:25 PM

SO bummed! Just had my first child and I have always known I would go here to get my fun educational needs. Another Oak Park store that everyone in Oak Park appreciated gone. I really do wonder what Oak Park is going to be like in another 10 years. It has changed so much in the past 20, some good some bad but it seems to me that these small business problems will be the problem of the township.That was one of the best things about OP the specialty stores, the bubble is gone.


Posted: April 12th, 2012 5:02 PM

I went to this store at LEASt once a month while my now 12 yo was growing up. I loved this store and the owners and staff were fantastic. We moved out of the area about 5 years ago, but it's only been 2 since I went back and now I needed something I KNEw they had in stock and was saddened to find out the store had closed. Happy retirement and thank you for helping my son grow!

Dave from Oak Park  

Posted: May 24th, 2011 3:32 PM

Oh, right, no problem. Pope and the VMA brainiacs will find a tenant for this as well as the new commercial space they approved last night on Madison. Not a worry, Oak Parkers. Got it covered. Totally. We're diverse, you know. That means people who shop online AND people who shop brick and mortar. A new dawn for retail in Oak Park, for sure. God bless this woman for trying against all odds. Wonder what the VMA brainiacs did to help her and her landlord? Oh, right, they made us diverse!

Resident from Oak Park  

Posted: May 23rd, 2011 11:58 AM

Best wishes to the owners! I appreciated the owner's and the staff's helpfulness and the wide variety of stock. My brother teaches overseas, and he loved the store when he was in town. I didn't need teaching supplies often, but when I did, it was great to shop there.

localop_sarah from oak park  

Posted: May 22nd, 2011 9:01 PM

I wish all businesses had the ability to easily expand when it warranted and then recognize when it's time to shrink back again and be able to do it. Business owners get burned out, or tired - just like folks in other jobs. Unfortunately - we can't retire, and in this economy it's hard to sell, so closing a business is a reality for many of us. Best of luck Bright Ideas. We shopped a lot at your store.


Posted: May 20th, 2011 9:40 PM

@parent from Oak Park, I didn't find the owner cantankerous at all. If you can't get your little darlings to postpone ice cream for a few minutes while browsing through a store whose merchandise is made mostly up of paper (that could be destroyed by messy fingers), you make the rest of us look bad. Really. Stay classy.

Diaa Kristy from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 7:54 PM

Looooooooooooooooved your store! (In fact, we were getting ready to come and see you again next week!) I really, really hope you will use your many years of expertise to start a consulting business or to do other 'guidance' work of this nature. You have always been SO helpful! You plus a camera and a bunch of little kids or new parents or teachers plus toys and puzzles would make a terrific blog! I bet one of your former suppliers would be interested. Good luck, whatever you do!

Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 7:24 PM

If everybody who expressed their disappointment actually shopped there, perhaps there would not be so much grief. Personally, I found the owner cantankerous: her policy on food was ridiculous, located, as it is next to a popular ice cream parlor. Business "attacked"? Hmm I don't recall seeing their website.


Posted: May 20th, 2011 6:48 PM

This makes me so sad. We love this store. Best wishes to the owners and staff.

Debbie from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 5:05 PM

So sorry to hear this. I loved going in Bright Ideas, as both a parent and a teacher. I always ended up buying more than I had planned because they had so much irresistible stuff!

Violet Aura  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 11:13 AM

Noooooo!!!! I loved this store! I actually bought items I used as gifts, the prices were right, and the merchandise wasn't always stuff you could find elsewhere. They had a laminating machine that I used more than once. It's too bad that technology has usurped crafts. Not sure that's the right direction...

janice patterson from oak park   

Posted: May 20th, 2011 10:57 AM

I started teaching in 1987 and often joked with Mara that I was one of her first customers. I am taking early retirement this year because teaching has changed so much. How sadly ironic that we are leaving "the field" at the same time.

Paul Rubio from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 7:50 AM

I am so sorry to hear of Bright Idea's closing. It was such a wonderful store and I have fond memories of it stretching back into my childhood. I wish the best for Mara Patras.

Helen Kossler from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 7:37 AM

I went past the storefront just yesterday and noticed that it was closed. Sorry to see it but small businesses are vulnerable in any economy.

Christine from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2011 2:13 AM

Happy retirement! I admire you for getting out while you still have money left. AND- - don't let ANYone talk you into any silly fundraisers to keep the store open. I am still feeling sorry for the poor, foolish old guy who lost his retirement money trying to keep his cafe open on Marion Street - - all with the encouragement of DTOP.

Marilee from Oak Park  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 7:46 PM

So sad to see the store close. Only two blocks from my home, I was able to purchase many of my school supplies for my classroom easily. Best wishes in your retirement!

M on Ridgeland from Oak Park  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 5:30 PM

Very Sad to see this store and so many other small business's close in our area. Was a great place to pick up educational gifts and teaching tools. Good Luck in your retirement!

Michelle from Oak Park  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 4:35 PM

I am SO, SO sad. I absolutely loved this store. ...and now just another vacancy in OP.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 3:47 PM

It must be impossible to compete with internet shopping. No rain checks, sales tax, parking tickets,etc.,. A very good resource for teachers and parents looking for an educational toy or game. Another possible location for Montessori to relocate?


Posted: May 19th, 2011 3:01 PM

Very sorry to see this great store go!! The staff was great & helpful, I bought many educational tools there to keep my children busy during the summer, plus, great games could be found there! I still have a bucket of plastic animals we would buy from Bright Ideas. Good luck in your retirement!!

CAL from Oak Park  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 2:45 PM

I am so, so sorry to see this place close. This was an excellent store.

Melissa from  

Posted: May 19th, 2011 2:23 PM

Thank you for all the wonderful teaching tools I picked up over the years for my children. We would walk over to Bright Ideas and pick up math books, games, erasers, art supplies, and more. My kids loved your store; while they played, they learned. And, I agree - there are fewer people making choices about what we buy, read, wear and what we pay attention to. Bright Ideas was a highlight of my kids' childhood.


Posted: May 19th, 2011 1:42 PM

Rough month for small business in the area -- Chicks with Sticks, Wishbone, Bright Ideas -- all unique to the area, but now all gone or going.

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