"It’s tough to be in business down here," she said, standing behind the counter of her 162-year-old store on a recent Thursday afternoon. "There isn’t a lot of promotion for downtown Delavan. I just drove through downtown Lake Geneva and there’s people everywhere. It’s fabulous. But there’s no reason to come here. Thank God we have loyal customers. We have a customer base of about 4,000 and they save us."
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But who or what will save the other shops along Delavan’s fabled, five-block brick-road downtown? None have a history like Bradley’s — which was founded in 1852 as a knitting company and then built as a retail store in its current location in 1887 — to fall back on. Most here are new kids on the block and struggling to draw customers away from the chains and Amazon. And then there’s the vacant storefronts, a sad reminder of better times in the city the circuses used to winter in. Who or what will give them another chance to be a part of our lives?
Patti Marsicano, a local historian and author, moved to Delavan from the Chicago suburbs in 1978. She later married her husband, Chris, in 1993. The changes she’s seen downtown in the last 36 years are many. The A&P is now the Family Dollar. The dime store, pharmacy and furniture store are long gone. And the Delavan House Hotel, which has been vacant since 2004, has a new owner and is awaiting grant funding to begin remodeling.
"It was a stereotypical, quaint downtown when I moved here. Today, it suffers the same problems as downtowns in small towns and cities everywhere in the U.S.," she explained. "Now, all the traffic is outside of the town and they’ve built the stores there, which leaves the old downtown, the heart, without enough blood to keep it pumping."
Trying to inject new blood into the artery that is Walworth Avenue is Laura Jacobs-Welch. She opened Brick Street Market, a specialty cheese, wine and sandwich shop, in 2008, just a few months before the recession came banging on the door. Brick Street, a favorite of "Fraiser" actor John Mahoney when he’s in town, finally broke even in 2013. This year, she and co-owners Marilyn Cayo and Shelly Woodcock hope to see a profit.
"It could be busier for us, but I think it could be busier for everybody downtown," said Jacobs-Welch, seated at a corner table in her shop, which was once a bank and still has the vault to prove it. "People go to Wal-Mart. They don’t go downtown. They don’t go to Hallmark, and yes, we have one in downtown Delavan, to buy a birthday card. They go to Wal-Mart."
Patrice Frey appreciates Jacobs-Welch’s lament against the goliath that is Wal-Mart. As the president and CEO of the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she hears this a lot. But historic downtowns — the Main Streets of our lives — still have a profitable role to fill, she insists.
"I think what we’re seeing is a resurgence in interest in downtowns, and that’s very reassuring," Frey said. "And in a time when you can get absolutely anything you want online, you see people craving an authentic experience. If anything, we’re seeing a trend that really favors downtowns, and I’m not sure we would have been so optimistic 10 years ago. I think we’re seeing the tide turn in favor of downtowns."
Communities that have turned that tide, adds Frey, have offered condo-type housing above storefronts, drawing boomers and millennials into everyday downtown life. They’ve also found niche markets. Culinary or dining experiences not available at the chains, along with unique shops and entertainment, says Frey, are proven downtown regenerators. Activity-based businesses such as Delavan Paddle Sports, which rents kayak and paddleboards on Lake Comus, also can help downtowns stay afloat.
Delavan’s niche market of late appears to be resale shops. While the boom in resale shops here is keeping more storefronts from going empty, their proliferation — and at times haphazard window curation and lack of professional signage — are a branding concern to many downtown business owners.
"I’m thankful for the resale shops," said Stritt, who can see four outside her store window. "People seem to like to do that these days, but we need diversity in what we offer … we need lots of different types of shops, not a concentration of one particular kind."
Adding diversity to downtown Delavan wasn’t Cake Pastel’s goal when it opened here 10 years ago, said the bakery’s supervisor, Sonia Garcia. The store’s owners, she said, saw a growing Hispanic market and a need. Today, that market has expanded and there is no fear of chain stores here.
They’re totally different," she said. "This is a Mexican bakery, with true Mexican recipes, and we make everything by hand and from scratch. It’s a large Hispanic community here, but we have a lot of (Anglo) customers coming in, too," she said.
Passing the torch
Nearly every business owner interviewed agreed that if downtown Delavan is to thrive, it has to start reaching a younger clientele. Nobody is pedaling faster to do that than Tony Valenti. The 27-year-old Delavan native holds a degree in lighting design and has worked all over the country. He recently returned home to open Avant Bicycle Supply. In an old bank on the corner of Walworth Avenue and Third Street, he’s found green in the grease of bike repair and sales.
His average bike retails for about $800, he said, and he’s selling about 14 a month, just five shy of his business plan’s goal. Those aren’t bad numbers, considering he’s only been open since April 1.
"Small-town bike shops are on the rise because everybody wants to ride down the street to get their bike worked on," he said after a 72-mile ride on his one day off a week. "Wal-Mart sells bikes, but there’s nowhere to fix them."
What would he like to see more of in his hometown? Experiences that appeal to the 21- to 35-year-old demographic like "clean food restaurants, galleries and live music venues."
"When I was starting my business, and I was sleeping in my office, I could look out the window and watch young people go to the bar on the corner, The Brick House, and they’d go in, then come out and there was nothing else for them to do in town. Absolutely nothing. There are young adults who have literally given up on Delavan because there’s nothing that is offered to them. They’re going to Lake Geneva, to Whitewater."
Friends his age, he continued, talk with him about business ideas they have, ideas that could, once born, give downtown Delavan a true second chapter.
"I tell them, ‘Just do it. Try it.’ In a sense, if no one progresses, and no one takes a risk, then there won’t be anything that happens," Valenti said. "And if you don’t do it, before you know it, we’ll all be 40 years old and there will four or five empty buildings downtown.
"I don’t know if that’s politically correct to say, and I don’t want to sound disrespectful. But more or less, I want improvement. I want awareness. I want the younger crowd to not think of Delavan as an old city. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been in. I feel like it’s the most beautiful city in Walworth County. It just needs a little love."