Lisle's Wild Birds Unlimited feeds birders' hobby

Does anybody else remember The Nature Company? The retailer had a store at Oakbrook Center in the 1990s. It was a fun place to look around, like a shop you'd find in a natural-history museum but on a grander scale with Disney-like branding and merchandising. Perfect for the mall.

Well, The Nature Company didn't survive. Maybe the goods were too pricey, or perhaps the advent of online shopping played a role. Or maybe the store simply didn't carry enough bird stuff.

These thoughts entered my head after a recent visit to Wild Birds Unlimited in Lisle. The franchise on Ogden Avenue is going on 28 years, a pretty amazing run. I went there to find out more from its original and current owner, Brian Neiman.

I'd never met Brian and frankly expected him to be older. And why had we never crossed paths on a bird walk or at a bird club meeting? Because my assumptions were misguided, that's why. Neiman is 52 and even though he caters to birders, he is not inclined to go birding. Birds are his business, not his hobby.

After graduating from Michigan State in 1986, Neiman took a job with Apple Computer in California. But he quickly realized corporate life didn't suit him and high-tailed it back to the Midwest. He wanted to be his own boss.

Neiman didn't know a kinglet from a kingbird, but he knew of Wild Birds Unlimited because a college roommate's mother fed the birds and frequented a WBU store in Okemos, Michigan. After researching the business of bird feeding and the franchiser, Neiman and a friend took the plunge and opened four WBU franchises in four years.

Lisle was the first, in 1988. The store, initially located in a shopping strip at Route 53 and Maple Avenue, moved to its present location at 1601 Ogden Ave. in 1998. All four stores remain open, including one in Arlington Heights, but today Neiman is involved only with the Lisle outlet.

"I don't consider myself a birder, but I do love birds," he told me.

He loves being more than bird seed retailer, too. With a reliable staff and his store on solid footing, Neiman keeps an eye on the bigger picture.

"As owner, I use the business as a platform to get people educated and engaged in feeding birds, and for making people more aware of how their backyard landscape choices can affect our local biological diversity."

Neiman believes in native plants and pesticide-free natural landscaping. He practices these tenets on his home property in Naperville and in the garden outside the store.

Customers, though, needn't fear a lecture when they stop by for a package of Bark Butter or a bag of No-Mess Blend. The Lisle staff is casual and friendly, with helpful advice available for all who visit.

"We're as likely to have a conversation about ridding your feeders of 'blackbirds' as we are to chat about attracting bats, the best native shrubs for berries or how to combat carpenter bees at your home."

The subject of squirrels and their quest for world domination comes up often, too.

Of course Wild Birds Unlimited is primarily about the birds, dedicated to those who love feeding and watching them. It can and must be said: Birders enjoy hanging out at the seediest place in Lisle. Inside is a candy store for bird and nature geeks. Outside, well-stocked feeders and birdbaths tempt visitors to stay and see what comes in. (In 2014 a European goldfinch appeared; Neiman swears he didn't "plant" it.)

The store's top selling points are seed freshness and product variety. Customers can keep their bulk seed purchases at the store and pick up supplies as needed. Try asking a "big box" store for that.

"We don't sell lumber, motor oil, drywall, chemicals or paint," Neiman explained. "We offer products sold by an adult who can answer any question related to the hobby and who actually cares about your success in attracting the birds you desire."

Seed is No. 1 at WBU, but the store also offers a wide choice of field-tested bird feeders, bird houses and water features. Related accessories, gift items and gear round out the inventory, including binoculars from Eagle Optics.

Neiman expects 2016 to be his store's best year ever. He credits the freshest bird seed and good service for building customer loyalty. The closing of a Wild Bird Center franchise in Wheaton a few years ago hasn't hurt WBU's business either.

When I asked about challenges, Neiman mentioned competition but not the kind you might think. In his view, the enemy is those time-sucking electronic gadgets that increasingly rule our lives.

"People, especially those under the age of 40, are completely disconnected from nature," he said, "and I fear we'll keep drifting in that direction. Virtual reality is isolating us from the wonder of the natural world."

Neiman's loyal shoppers are more connected to nature than most, even if that connection, for some, exists mainly in their backyards. I think about the children and the grandchildren of Neiman's customers as well, because bird feeding can provide a spark.

Kids who grow up watching birds outside the kitchen window may or may not become birders, but they might acquire a bit of that wonder.

At any age, letting more nature into our lives can only be good. Studies prove it. So I'm a big fan of stores like Wild Birds Unlimited that make it easy to bring birds a little closer.

The Nature Company is long gone, but our community has something better: a thriving, locally owned bird and nature store with real people inside. It's a fun place to get connected. No gadgets necessary.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

Inside the Wild Birds Unlimited store, it's easy to get inspired. Business owner Brian Neiman wants to help people connect (or reconnect) with the natural world. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter
The store at 1601 Ogden Ave. in Lisle is locally owned and operated. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter
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