by Jenn Bergin
Former Chicago public school teacher Belinda Carucci opened Chicago Teacher in 1996. Located in the heart of the Windy City, the parent-teacher store recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. We spoke to Belinda about how she fills 2,800-plus square feet of space, and her store’s all-teacher staff. Here’s what she had to say.
Congratulations on your store’s anniversary! How’s business?
Belinda: Business is good! We’ve had great success the past 19 years. We recently celebrated our 20th year with a bash on July 7 from noon to 4 p.m.! Everything was 20 percent off. It was attended by a host of regular customers and we were honored to have a handful of past employees show up.
It was a great time to reflect on why we have been successful. It’s been hard to compete with Amazon and other online resources, but in the end, I think teachers are “touchers” and “feelers.” They like to see product with their own eyes and take it to their classrooms immediately. I think I have been tenacious and lucky. I’ve had a handful of sales reps who have advised me well not just on product, but on the industry. Our store is inviting and warm and our staff is kind and engaging.
Speaking of your staff, your employees are – exclusively – teachers, right?
I have a soft spot for teachers. I began hiring teachers during our second year in business and soon realized they were a valuable part of the “uniqueness” of our store. Their background in education is essential to helping customers talk about their needs. They use their expertise to assist teachers and parents in different capacities.
Some of the best days at Chicago Teacher are when we have teachers hanging out at the counter, bouncing ideas off of each other or telling classroom “war stories.” I love when that happens, and I can actually see teachers helping other teachers. Our customer base is mainly a teacher composite in the city that includes the Chicago public, Catholic and private schools.
My first year in business, I couldn’t even afford employees, and now I wonder how I stayed sane without them. Some have been with me for six to eight years. I always say, they each bring something different to the table. One may be great at decorating, while another may be great on the floor with customers. We all fill in the blanks.
And then there’s my father, Ray Carucci. Everyone calls him Papa, including our customers. Papa was in the military, a lieutenant colonel, and he has helped me since day one. He helped me finance the store and is essential in any big decisions. He is kind, funny and punctual! Sometimes Papa is here as early as 5 a.m. to straighten the shelves, take out boxes or run to the bank. He is also known for leaving donuts and sweets on the counter before the weekend staff arrive.
Tell us about the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood where your store is located.
It’s on the west side of Chicago, and when we first opened, the neighborhood was not great, but the rent was affordable. Slowly the community has evolved into a buzzing mecca of condos, restaurants and shops, so more families have moved in and discovered us.
The City of Chicago has also worked to upgrade the neighborhood, and developed The 606, a renovated train line that’s been turned into almost 3 miles of much-needed green space. Tracks have been converted into a walking/running path that runs adjacent to Milwaukee Avenue, where our store is located, and generates new foot traffic.
What are some of the unique needs of teachers in urban communities like Chicago?
The schools in Chicago are poorly funded. Teachers purchase most of their supplies and decor with their own money with little help from their schools. That’s actually the reason I decided to open Chicago Teacher in 1996. At the time, classroom supplies were hard to come by and usually required a trip to the suburbs. Ordering online was not yet an option. There was a need for classroom supplies in the city where teachers could come and peruse product.
Your website calls Chicago Teacher “a small business with big inventory.” With 2,800-plus square feet of space, how do you manage and arrange your merchandise?
Our store is located in an old manufacturing building where there was once a terrible fire. We were the first tenants to move in after the rehab. It’s a very cool space with brick walls and a tin ceiling that was partially salvaged. It immediately feels warm and nostalgic when you enter.
The large space was once hard to fill, but now, we carry just about everything a teacher could want. One whole side is dedicated to décor, which as a category has evolved beyond what many of us would have ever imagined 20 years ago. It is not just apples, buses and owls. “Collections” are the trend. Companies have left no stone unturned when it comes to product, either. CTP is a favorite because they have mastered the ability to create product that is adorable, but not necessarily cutesy. Some of our customers are the big hotels and corporations downtown and they want pretty, colorful borders and letters that are not filled with characters and creatures.
We are big on displaying product. We have 20 boards around the store that we decorate, not including two huge front windows. Some get changed out every month and a few get to stick around a bit longer. It takes a lot brainstorming to keep the ideas fresh! Sometimes we take an old theme or product and tweak it so it becomes sellable again.
We also have an incredible craft area. Parents and kiddos seem to be drawn to it. There are sparkly things, sticky things, colorful paints and papers. The craft area is where customers just grab a basket and fill it up!