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Those who have worried about the number of empty Evanston storefronts have reason to celebrate. One of them is being filled – in this case on Main Street – by an enterprising Evanston merchant with a store that is both old and new. Jim Bilger, a 25-year Evanston resident, is opening Corrado Cutlery at 716 Main St. just in time for holiday shopping.
If the name of the store sounds familiar, it may be that you remember the Corrado Cutlery Store in Old Orchard. Or for those with longer memories, it might be the Corrado Cutlery store that was a fixture of the Chicago Loop for nearly a century. The new store, as did the old ones, will sell high quality kitchen knives, Swiss Army products, shaving and grooming supplies, manicure sets, and other sharp tools for daily living.
Dominic Corrado founded Corrado Cutlery in 1905. The original store opened in 1908 on Clark Street in Chicago. Before that, he sharpened knives and other tools and sold hand-made razor strops from a pushcart in the Loop. Company legend has it that Dominic was a left-handed barber who grew frustrated that barbering tools were made only for right-handers and went off on his own to provide and maintain tools for barbers and householders alike.
The Corrado family ran the store until the 1970s, when first Dan Bilger and later his brother Jim bought into the business. Their empire grew as they bought out Otto Pomper, with a line of goods similar to Corrado’s, whose store was established in 1890. The Old Orchard Store opened in 1995, and Jim bought out his brother in 1999. But tough economic times hit, and Mr. Bilger was forced to close the stores in both Old Orchard and the Loop.
But the Corrado products never went completely off the market. Jim Bilger had opened his first online store in 1999, a continuation, he says, of the Corrado business acumen that made them one of the first to sell through mail-order catalogs. Internet retailing – or etailing – is a necessary facet of 21st-century merchandising, says Mr. Bilger. In his case, the continuation of the Internet business will complement the business of the brick-and-mortar store on Main Street.
Mr. Bilger developed this business plan, merging bricks and mortar with etailing (“bricks & clicks”) with the advice of a SCORE mentor, a member of the Service Corps for Retired Executives. These volunteers, resource partners with the Small Business Administration, offer free business advice to those who need it. Mr. Bilger says that his mentors would not even let him treat them to a cup of coffee. “The SCORE people were great,” Mr. Bilger says. “I first used them to bounce ideas off their experience when I debated whether to close the Old Orchard store. Then, when I decided it was time to go back to a store, I turned to them again. I couldn’t have gotten it all together without them.” Mr. Bilger has hired one Evanston resident full-time and will look in the area for additional staff as needed.
Funding for the store came from the First Bank of Evanston as well as the Evanston Office for Economic Development, both eager to support the rebirth of Evanston’s business areas. The perfect location turned up on Main Street in the storefront owned by Shaun Chinsky of Good’s of Evanston, freed up when he decided to close down the art supplies section of his store. “Sean was picky about who could move into the storefront,” Mr. Bilger says. “He wanted to make sure it was a business that would add walk-in traffic on Main Street as well as the sales tax collected.”
Mr. Bilger says he is picky too about his product lines. He stocks only goods that reflect the quality and integrity of his business legacy. “I want my customers to be here with me for a long time,” he says. “One of the things that attracted me to this company in the first place was the fact that the Corrados never had their sales staff work on a commission. They never wanted them to spend more time with a customer looking at a $500 knife set than with the person who’s shopping for a Swiss Army toothpick. That’s how it was … and that’s how it still is.” Corrado Cutlery is set to open in mid-December.