Never underestimate the power of a gift.
It’s believed that the imported gifts Kate Raftery received from close friends early in the 1900s led to her selling similar items out of her home; today, The Little Traveler is celebrating 100 years of business, providing an unparalleled shopping experience within the comfy, charming environs of the mansion’s 36 rooms, which are loaded with treasures from all over the world.
“It’s really humbling to realize the responsibility that goes with owning the Traveler and knowing it means so much to so many generations of people,” said owner Mike Simon. “I think the neatest part of the Traveler is meeting the multiple generations that come in every day knowing that it was the great-grandmother who introduced her daughter, who introduced her daughter, who introduced her daughter, and they’re coming in to have lunch together and experience dining and shopping together. It’s a magical place that we know means something special to people in a world where having experiences that are personal and profound are becoming increasingly rarer.”
According to the Geneva History Museum, one of Raftery’s dearest friends, Lucy Calhoun, was married to the American ambassador to China. In 1912, Calhoun received an allowance from the Art Institute of Chicago to purchase items for the museum, and would later purchase gifts for Raftery.
Excited to show her friends the unique things she had received, Raftery invited them over to see the pewter figurines, jade ornaments, festival lanterns and other items that she displayed on top of her piano. In September 1922, she began selling similar items out of her home.
The Little Traveler was destined for greatness.
“So she starts in ‘22 and by ‘25, she’s already connecting the carriage house with the original house, and then her biggest addition happens right after World War II,” said Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Museum, which currently hosts an exhibit to mark the 100-year anniversary. “(Raftery) says women are now going to be working and they’re going to want to look their best, so she put in a huge dress and fashion wing. She knew the trends of the community, of society, and was ahead of her time.”
At the same time The Little Traveler continued to gain in popularity, Raftery helped others achieve success, further molding Geneva into a shopping destination. She encouraged two sisters to start a restaurant in a former blacksmith shop along the Fox River. Their Mill Race Inn would become a famous dining spot for nearly 80 years before closing in 2011. Raftery welcomed Marian Michael Children’s Clothing Store into The Little Traveler in 1930. The Little Traveler’s book department ultimately outgrew its one-room home, and manager Robin Dienst and a friend opened Robin’s Book Shop in a two-bedroom cottage on South River Lane.
“She was very encouraging to other people to start businesses,” Emma said. “(Dienst) couldn’t afford rent, so Kate gets her a house for the bookstore. She never saw them as competition. It didn’t matter if you swept her floor or if you were side by side with her in business, she was always good to everybody. She tried to look for your creativity and what you were good at.”
Today, more than 160 specialty shops and restaurants surround The Little Traveler.
“The Traveler certainly started that, and we’ve all been incredibly fortunate since that time to have had a plethora of entrepreneurs pick up the baton and run with it to make the district what it is today,” Simon said. “When I was growing up in the ‘60s, The Little Traveler was the unique thing about Geneva. Now when you think of Geneva, you can go on and on and on, the unique parks, the shopping, the sense of community. The Traveler started the ball rolling, and it’s picked up momentum for generations to make it an incredibly cool place.”
No one was better than Raftery at finding treasures of all sorts and sizes for her customers. She had relationships all over the world that helped her secure unique merchandise.
“She’d go into the Merchandise Mart or wherever they were back then and she’d ask if anyone from Geneva had bought the item because if they had, she wouldn’t want it,” Emma said. “But if no one else was carrying it, she wanted all of them. She wanted her place to be unique, and they listened to her.”
While today’s world offers the convenience of shopping almost anywhere from our phones, The Little Traveler strives not only to continue offering an experience and history that you cannot find elsewhere, but also looks to delight shoppers.
“When we’re looking for products, our main focus is to make people say, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen this anywhere else,’” Simon said. “It’s always the wow factor that brings people and makes them want to come back, and just as important is what I’d call the people factor — the specialness of the people who work at the Traveler. As much as we work hard to find unusual merchandise that people will come back for, we also know that in today’s world people need to have a shopping experience where they feel special and valued and where they leave the store happier than when they first came in.”
The Little Traveler has been making great first impressions since Warren G. Harding was POTUS.
“Most people come in for the first time because somebody told them about The Little Traveler and they’re going to come in and look around and hopefully be impressed with something,” Simon said. “Unless they have an encounter with people who work here that makes them feel special and valued, and engages them, they’re going to go out the door. The warmth and intelligence of our people brings people back.”
After Raftery died in 1953, Julie Steven and Walter Krafft purchased The Little Traveler and maintained ownership until selling it to famous restaurateur Fred Harvey in 1963. Harvey had ambitions to take The Little Traveler global, opening The Little Traveler Shop inside the Albuquerque, New Mexico, airport, but it never took off.
A few years later, Sol Simon, whose family was already successful with its Merra-Lee shops, purchased The Little Traveler. Upon Simon’s passing in 1987, his wife, Sylvia Simon, son Mike Simon and business partner Alvin Rosenthal took over. Rosenthal retired in 2013 and died shortly after; Mike Simon continues to run The Little Traveler today.
Walking into The Little Traveler these days, you’re likely to be amazed by many of its exclusive offerings. There are Cookie Fries and Bone Suckin’ Sauce, as well as Make-At-Home Ice Cream Mix For Dogs and Rosie the Riveter bobbleheads. There’s stuff for babies, bath and body, candles, gourmet eats, garden items, jewelry, kitchenware, lighting, linens, pet accessories, shoes, stationery, toys, wine, women’s fashions and certainly much more.
“My goal is to continue to build it and make it more and more unique until someone comes along who I’m able to pass the baton to [to] take it to the next level for another generation,” Simon said. “I’ve been fortunate that my family are the fourth owners of the entity, and no doubt if I’m able to pass it on to someone that has the same sensitive feel for creativity and uniqueness and service that they’ll take it on for the next 100 years.”
This story originally appeared in the May issue of Kane County Magazine.