The Little Traveler

November 2017 View more

Housed inside a Victorian mansion on Geneva’s bustling Third Street, The Little Traveler is known for its labyrinthine layout of thirty-six rooms housing just about anything you could think of: toys, clothing, gourmet treats, garden wares, jewelry, linens, handbags and an abundance of holiday decor stocked year-round, plus a charming tea room called the Atrium Cafe. In honor of its 95th anniversary, we chatted with owner Mike Simon, whose family is The Little Traveler’s fourth owner and also ran another legendary Geneva business, the Merra-Lee Shops, for 82 years.

What should visitors know about The Little Traveler’s history?
When the store was founded back in 1922 by Kate Raftery, her goal was to bring in unusual things from all over the world that people around here wouldn’t see. She had a friend who was the wife of the ambassador to China, and [she’d] bring back tribute silks from China. She had another friend who traveled to England and they’d bring back antiques. The store very quickly became a destination for people who wanted to find things they wouldn’t find in local stores. That was the time when the Marshall Fields of the world were at the top and you expected a lot [in terms of service]; everything was very personalized at the Traveler. We work very hard today to maintain that. We get a lot of compliments about the merchandise, but I get ten times more compliments about the caring, quality knowledge of the people that work with us. … We want everyone to leave the store feeling happier than when they came in.

Having grown up in Geneva, what memories do you have of the store?
When I was growing up, I looked at The Little Traveler as being the place where the real rich people from the North Shore came. We’d see the limousines coming and we could never afford to shop there. Over the years under different ownership, I could see it start to lose its luster. … I realized it would really be a point of pride if I could revive this place I could never afford to shop at.

How do you balance tradition with the desire to stay current?
I guess what we’re always doing is thinking about people who don’t come into the store and what will attract them. … Antiques used to be a mainstay of the store, … but the younger generation doesn’t collect antiques. We didn’t see a future in that business, so we changed that space into our fair trade gallery. That’s attracted someone who may be younger, more socially aware and looking for things they’re not going to find in most stores. … [We carry a jewelry line,] Alex and Ani; we have the biggest selection of them in the Chicago area. And Brighton accessories and handbags and jewelry—we’re their biggest retailer in the Midwest. Whenever we find something that people love, we try to do it bigger and better than anyone else. … We are changing things every year and are definitely keeping an eye on the trends. We try to make it interesting, so you’re never in the same store twice.

What are you most proud of when you look back at your time as owner?
One of the things I’ve learned is how important the tradition of the Little Traveler is to so many generations. There are people who come in who remember shopping with Mrs. Raftery and they brought in their daughters and their daughters’ [daughters] … I get introduced almost every day to a multigenerational family who has come here. … It’s a feel-good experience and we want it to continue as that. The most generations I’ve seen at a table in the [Atrium] Cafe is five.

The Little Traveler
404 South Third Street, Geneva