When the Oak Park Women’s Exchange — a business dedicated to empowering women to help support themselves through arts and crafts — was first established in 1974, its organizers had a problem getting the store off the ground.
You might be able to guess what stood in the way.
“At the time nobody would give them a loan,” said Deanne Alexander, publicity chair and display chair at the exchange, explaining the widespread discrimination women faced only four decades ago.
“Somebody came in and backed them up — it was a man,” she said with a knowing chuckle.
That’s what it took for women to succeed in an era where many still were blocked from the workforce.
While the glass ceiling still has plenty of breaking to do, times have changed, and such exchanges, once numbering in the hundreds nationwide, have largely closed, due in part to inactivity from members.
The women’s exchange in Oak Park, located at 839 S. Oak Park Ave., is following suit, its members announcing they will close the shop at the end of the year.
Alexander, a soap maker who has been involved as a vendor at the exchange for the last two decades, said a number of issues have prompted the exchange’s closure: increasing online sales; higher rent; and difficulty staffing the store.
She said the store took a major hit from the economic crisis of 2008 and never fully recovered. Online shops like Amazon and Etsy have also cut into the exchange’s bottom line, Alexander said.
Another challenge is the time commitment from its members. Alexander said the exchange is a co-op and artisans who sell their wares there also are required to work eight hours a month without pay.
“I think a lot of people went to work, so they didn’t have that window of time to donate,” she said. “Younger members could no longer do that.”
Diane Symonanis, co-chair of the exchange’s finance committee and a jewelry maker, praised the skills and creativity of the women involved in the exchange over the years. “Unfortunately, we live in a time where that isn’t appreciated as much as it used to be,” she said, noting that the operating costs of running the shop — rent, telephone, electricity and the cost of paying a percentage of their sales to credit card companies — made the venture financially unfeasible.
The shop, which features the work of 33 local artisans — that number was once closer to 200 — is one of the last women’s exchanges in the country. Only about two dozen such shops remain.
The Oak Park Women’s Exchange, when first established, joined a growing tide of such exchanges throughout the nation that gave crafters, artists and makers a place not only to sell their wares but to join a community of women.
Symonanis will miss the friendships she’s made over the years. “It’s a nice group of people,” she said.