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updated: 10/14/2010 4:09 PM

Arlington Hts. downtown losing design store

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  • Mike Stopka, owner of Design Tuscano in Arlington Heights is closing his retail store after nearly 20 years in favor of strictly online sales.

      Mike Stopka, owner of Design Tuscano in Arlington Heights is closing his retail store after nearly 20 years in favor of strictly online sales.
    Mark Black

  • Mike Stopka, owner of Design TOscano, says there is plenty of foot traffic in downtown Arlington Heights but not enough buyers.

      Mike Stopka, owner of Design TOscano, says there is plenty of foot traffic in downtown Arlington Heights but not enough buyers.
    Mark Black

 
By Eileen O. Daday

Design Toscano brought a unique element to downtown Arlington Heights, with its gargoyles, Egyptian sarcophagus coffins and even complete coats of armor,

Its gallery windows once displayed a London telephone booth, and its collection of rare prints and tapestries offered plenty to peruse.

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But that turned out to be its problem. While owner Mike Stopka says there is always good foot traffic in front of his store at 17 E. Campbell St., there have been increasingly fewer buyers.

"It's a twofold problem, Stopka says. "People don't shop like they used to, and now it's all about the web, and doing business to business.

Stopka has reinvented his business, turning his attention now to web customers, through outlets like Amazon.com and the Sky Mall airline magazine, and catalog sales.

He still maintains the warehouse in Elk Grove Village, where the statues and collectibles are stored, and he will continue to mount its annual sale in May, but the last of his five retail locations, in Arlington Heights, is closing.

Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder says the store's departure is a big loss for the village, both in terms of the vibrancy he offered shoppers and in terms of lost sales tax revenue.

"He was a draw, Mulder says. "His store was a destination for shoppers who had found something in their catalog, but wanted to see it in person.

After more than 20 years on the same block, Design Toscano remains one of the oldest retailers in the village, along with some family jewelers and a frame shop.

"Bricks and mortar are not the way to sell product any more, Stopka says. "It has to be web-based.

Stopka first opened a retail store on Campbell Street in 1990. Initially, business surged, leading him to open four more retail sites, including ones on Michigan Avenue and Clybourn Street in Chicago, and shops in Hinsdale and Milwaukee.

In the late 1990s, Design Toscano was named to Inc. Magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing privately-held companies in the country, and 15th in Illinois, when it peaked at $30 million in sales.

Yet, where he once reported $800,000 in annual sales from his retail locations, he most recently posted $150,000. Last week was the final straw. He hung out liquidation signs.

"What? exclaims an astonished customer, Bob Gienko of Huntley, when he heard the news on Wednesday.

"This has been my lifeline, Gienko said, explaining he and his wife, Karen, are longtime customers who customize their home with Egyptian items they find at Design Toscano. They even have a pair of the full-size sarcophagus coffins for their garden room.

"We've been coming here for years, Gienko says. "This has been the only place you can find this stuff.

Likewise, Rick and Patty Sperando, of Lakewood, loaded their SUV on Wednesday with Roman and Greek-styled pedestals and statues.

"We love the Roman-themed statues, and have them throughout our house and in the garden, Rick Sperando says. "We're really sorry to see it go.

So are retailers next door to Design Toscano, who say the storefront drew different clientele to Arlington Heights' downtown shopping district.

"He brought customers from out of the area, which was good for us, said Jamie Bellizzi, owner of Ala Mode Collections, a women's boutique which opened last spring.

Likewise, Katie Van Egeren, owner of Vignettes of Arlington Heights, worries about finding another comparable retailer to fill Design Toscano's space.

"We need more retail down here, Van Egeren said. "So many people come to Arlington Heights to eat, but they want to make a day of it, and shop.

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