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Revival And Challenges On Main Street In Evanston Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Reopening

EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — Businesses across the Chicago area and the country are doing what needs to be done to keep operating.

The goal is to survive the lean times, and if all goes well, to thrive again in the not-too-distant future.

CBS News’ Adriana Diaz visited Main Street in Evanston to check it out.

Main Street – 8400 North by Chicago numbers as used to the west in Skokie, 900 North by Evanston numbers – is located about halfway between the Chicago-Evanston line and downtown Evanston. Near the Purple Line stop and Chicago Avenue – the Evanston extension of Clark Street – the familiar sound of traffic is returning to the vibrant business strip.

“This is really busy now compared to what it was two months ago,” said Terry Straker. “There was no traffic on the street. Zero.”

Straker should know. He has owned Guitar Works, 709 Main St., since 1979.

There’s sound inside the store too, in the form of jazz being played on an electric bass behind the counter. But during the shutdown, the music almost stopped.

“I ran out of money to pay my people four or five days before the PPP money came in,” Straker said. “It was on Friday, and then the following Tuesday is when the PPP money hit my account. I was very pleased.”

Friends and customers, including out-of-work musicians, also raised $22,587 on a GoFundMe. Straker used that to cover payroll for five weeks.

And while customers can’t come in and browse, there’s still plenty of work coming in.

“Everybody’s digging out their old guitar and bringing it in to get it repaired,” Straker said. “My shop is overflowing. My two shop guys are busy little beavers.”

A few doors down, it’s a little quiet at D21 Fit Studio, 739 Main St. There is just a trainer with a tripod, doing personal training sessions virtually.

Dietrich Horsey said he’s lucky. Just before COVID-19 hit, he had just started expanding to virtual trainings, which became his lifeline during the pandemic. And 85 percent of the gym’s members have stuck with him.

“A lot of my clients, they say, ‘You know, well, we’re kind of comfortable being at home anyway. It’s my own gym. It’s my own space,” Horsey said.

But Horsey said working with clients virtually via a small screen is far from the same as having them there in person.

“That tiny screen kills me,” he said.

Yet, the tiny technology has had a huge impact. Horsey has kept all of his trainers employed.

He credits the smaller overhead that comes with a one-room operation, and the shutdown forcing him – like many Main Street business operators – to evolve.

Will it ever go back to the way it used to be at D21 Fit Studio?

“I think eventually, we could go back to where it used to be,” Horsey said. “Would I want to? I’m not sure.”

It’s still a far cry from business as usual all along the Main Street strip. Good’s of Evanston, a family-run frame store at 714 Main St., is going out of business after 117 years.

The business has been passed down through four generations of the same family.

Meanwhile, the corner Mexican restaurant La Principal at 700 Main St., at the intersection with Custer Avenue across from the Union Pacific/North Line Metra tracks, is just getting by. Diaz asked owner Eric Young what the hardest thing has been in terms of surviving during the pandemic.

“I don’t even know where to start,” he replied.

Young had to lay off 15 employees to survive. That’s more than half his staff.

“There are people that are on unemployment that are constantly checking, you know: ‘When can I come back? Have you heard of any job leads?’” Young said. “That’s difficult to hear.”

But just like at Guitar Works, Main Street customers are taking care of their own – leaving generous tips at La Principal and leaving cash gifts. The largest was $2,500, Young said.

“We’re very, very active in the community,” Young said. “I really feel like the community recognized that, and they said, ‘Hey, you guys, we want you to survive.”

Indoor dining resumed in Illinois with Phase 4 reopening. But Young is keeping it outside – even opening a side street-turned-patio with other Main Street shops.

According to the book, “Evanston: A Tour Through the City’s History,” the corner of Main Street – once called Lincoln Street – and Chicago Avenue was where the commercial area for the then-independent municipality of South Evanston originally developed. But while Main Street is more like one of several main streets in Evanston today, Young said it does have that small-town main street feel that he is proud to be part of.

“It’s kind of an honor. There’s this small-town feel,” Young said. “It’s kind of an honor to be so ingrained in this community.”

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