When the Oak Park Women’s Exchange — a business dedicated to empowering women to help support themselves through arts and crafts — was first established in 1974, its organizers had a problem getting the store off the ground.
“At the time, nobody would give them a loan,” said Deanne Alexander, publicity chair and display chair at the exchange, explaining the widespread discrimination women faced only four decades ago.
“Somebody came in and backed them up — it was a man,” she said with a knowing chuckle.
That’s what it took for women to succeed in an era where many still were blocked from the workforce.
While the glass ceiling still needs plenty of breaking, times have changed, and such exchanges, once numbering in the hundreds nationwide, have largely closed, due in part to inactivity from members.
The Women’s Exchange in Oak Park, located at 839 S. Oak Park Ave., is following suit, its members announcing it will close Dec. 29. The exchange is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 12 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday; and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Online sales, higher rent and difficulty staffing the store contributed to the closure, members say.
“We are very thankful for our loyal customers over the 44 years,” said Janet Paulin, of Forest Park.
She has been a member since 2012, making scarves, doll clothes, aprons and more. The shop, which features the work of 33 local artisans — that number was once closer to 200 — is one of the last women’s exchanges in the country. Only about two dozen such shops remain.
“We will continue as a sisterhood of crafters and do craft shows throughout the area,” Paulin said. “It’s very sad over there to have customers come in who have been there for many, many years and saying goodbye.”