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."