Arrivederci, Vilardo’s

Arrivederci, Vilardo’s

Another Champaign retail store is biting the dust — not a big chain like Toys ‘R’ Us or Bergner’s, but a home-grown gift shop with loyal customers from Philo to Hollywood (more on that later).

News of Vilardo’s closing came in a Facebook post and an email to customers late last week from Linda Kahler, who has owned the shop for 22 years since she bought it from the Vilardo family in 1996.

The gift shop, which featured home accents and gifts when it opened in 1988, evolved under Kahler’s ownership to include higher-end personal items and collectibles. It was the first store in town to carry Brighton jewelry, Vera Bradley purses and bags, Nora Fleming dishware and sleek Italian charm bracelets that were all the rage 10 years ago.Blog Photo

“I’ve been shopping here since it opened,” said Theresa Smith of Allerton, who stopped by on Friday. “It’s just always been a great place to shop, and they always have a lot of new things.”

Kahler, 65, said she’s ready for a break, citing “two bad knees and a bad hip” and a desire to travel the world with her husband, Chuck, who is already retired.

But Vilardo’s was also affected by the same factors that have prompted major retailers to file for bankruptcy: changing customer habits brought on by online shopping.

“Truthfully, everyone is buying online,” Kahler said. “It’s the way of life. Millennials aren’t gathering together and going on shopping trips. They’re into their phones and buying online.”

Overhead costs and shipping charges have also gone up, in some cases 25 percent of an item’s cost.
In general, though, Kahler is just ready for a break.

Her three daughters, who live in the area, tried to persuade her to open a shop in a smaller town Blog Photocloser to them, so they could help out. But the last straw was when she came down with pneumonia earlier this spring and had to close the shop for a few days.

“I just said, ‘I’m going to be 70 in five years,’” she said. “Why would I want to open another store?”

She bought the shop after her daughter Angel started working for the Vilardos. Kahler was then director of the extended care program at St. Matthew’s School in Champaign, and before that was a kindergarten teacher in Galesburg. The family had moved to Champaign for Chuck Kahler’s job managing Coca-Cola operations for Central States.

The store attracted some well-heeled customers — including the Fresh Prince.

A friend of Kahler’s was working as a personal staffer for Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, when they were building their 44,000-square-foot mansion in Calabasa, Calif., near Malibu. The couple loved to burn candles 24-7, Kahler said, “and you couldn’t buy on the Internet back then.”

“The stores in California would get mad because they’d go in and buy all the candles off their shelves,” she said. “He called me and said, ‘Can you help them?’”

So Kahler became their supplier. She’d order candles from three U.S. companies they liked, then ship them to the Smiths’ home in California, their apartment in New York, recording studios and various hotels or vacation homes.

“One year they spent $20,000 on candles,” she said.

When their son Jaden was filming “The Karate Kid” in China in 2010, a staff member called and asked Kahler to ship cases of the candles there.

“I said, ‘You’re going to be done with your movie by the time they get through,’” she said. “So they had me ship these dozens of cases of candles to California, and they just flew it on their own plane.”

Kahler is proud of the quality of the items she carries. The modular charms for the Italian stainless Blog Photosteel bracelets that were the “hottest thing imaginable” in the early 2000s have the name “Vilardo’s” engraved on the back. Kahler traveled to a trade show in Italy and found a factory in Florence that produced the charms, then paid to have them personalized with the store’s name.

“Vilardo just happened to be an Italian name, in the Piedmont region,” she said.

Unfortunately, she had to pay $3,000 to ship the first box of charms back to Champaign, because of the tariffs on stainless steel.

“That was a shock,” she said.

So was the response from her customers. To handle the demand, she tore out a wall of the store and installed a separate counter with five display cases for the thousands of charms.

“During the holidays, we’d have four rows deep of customers,” she said.

On Friday, a stream of faithful patrons stopped by to browse or chat with Kahler. She said she’ll miss their “friendly conversations and camaraderie.”

Smith said she will have to drive to Peoria now to find the Brighton jewelry she likes. She could order online, but “the people in the store kind of know what your taste is and what you like.”

Ronna Simmons of Maynard Lake said there’s nothing like seeing and touching an item up close.

“Even if it’s free shipping, I don’t want to mess with sending it back and forth,” she said. Besides, “I enjoy shopping.”

Kahler worries about other stores, even chains, who are affected by the online boom.

“When people buy online and then they return that merchandise in droves to the stores, it is affecting their bottom line” in terms of sales, she said. “And that’s for Wal-mart, that’s for everybody.”

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Retail

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