The other day I overheard a conversation outside the Oak Park library. A pair of locals were guiding a European tourist around town. The European was impressed with Oak Park, but complained that our village was full of chains: Starbucks, Caribou, Cold Stone and Bruegger’s. The locals pointed out the many independent businesses: Olive and Well, Ananas, Cucina Paradiso and Peterson’s Pharmacy.

The tourist agreed that Oak Park was an exception in America. But the locals said Oak Park used to have more independent businesses, and that the recession was putting remaining ones at risk. The European asked, “Then why do locals support these chains?”

Let’s ignore the European snobbery – the tourist was a resident of a major continental city, itself loaded with international chains. And let’s remember that many of the chains in town are actually small businesses themselves, stores run by savvy franchisees looking to manage the huge overhead of doing business along Oak Park Avenue or Marion Street. Rents along those streets are high because Oak Park is a rare find in America – the indie shops and restaurants are part of our town’s attraction for residents and tourists alike.

So the European asks a darn good question. Why do villagers queue up for long waits outside Cold Stone Creamery when Lido’s Caffé, an independent business just south on Marion, serves delicious Fabbri gelato? Lido’s also serves Lavazza coffee, presents a unique atmosphere and continues Oak Park’s tradition of independent business.

Why should it matter? Cold Stone offers a product people recognize and presents it in a setting familiar in other parts of the country. It’s an American product with known flavors, not some weird Italian stuff called Amarena. There are more than 1,400 Cold Stone Creameries in 10 countries. That kind of reach is impressive.

But the flipside, of course, is that our neighborhoods are so saturated by such big names that many of us won’t learn about an indie business like Lido’s. Ironically, businesses such as Lido’s, not Cold Stone, create the rare atmosphere people love about Oak Park. By supporting them, we support ourselves, maintaining the reason people visit us from Asia and Europe.

And Fabbri gelato is phenomenal. It’s the kind of stuff people go to Italy or Switzerland to find. Try the Amarena (cherry); you’ll come back for more. Now is exactly the time to support small, local businesses. If we take our neighborhood entrepreneurs for granted, we might one day wake up to find we’re not so interesting anymore ourselves.

Oak Parker Karolis Gintaras Zukauskas (who writes as “Gint Aras”) is a professor at Morton College. He just published a novel, “Finding the Moon in Sugar,” which he wrote parts of over coffee and gelato at Lido’s.

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