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Shu Zhang/MEDILL

‘What the Traveler Saw’ nears end of 10-year journey

by Shu Zhang
March 19, 2014


Shu Zhang/MEDILL

Laurel Stradford has a collection of hand-painted plates from Japan on sale in her shop.


Shu Zhang/MEDILL

A map on the wall of "What the Traveler Saw" shows where many of Stradford's customers are from.

Laurel Stradford has made a tough decision. The owner of a small business in Hyde Park has been selling artworks, sculptures, bags and clothes from around the world since 2004. But by the end of the year, “What the Traveler Saw” will close.

The shop, located at 1508 E. 55th St., has been feeling the pressure of rising rent and competition from bigger local and online retailers for several years.

"The original concept of Hyde Park was all these little businesses here. Now it’s not. There are national chains and big boxes that have moved in,” said Stradford, 53, who will devote her time to a new project, writing a book on her family history.

Richard Boureston, a marketing consultant at Red Fox Associates, said the continued commercialization of art leads to the difficulty for small businesses. "Now that art is so easily accessible, people don't value art as they once did," he said.

Stradford will be able to get back to her first love—traveling, which inspired her to start the business in the first place. “Everywhere I traveled, I always wanted to bring something that reminds me of that place,” she said.

When illness forced her back home to Hyde Park, Stradford decided to use the large art collection she amassed on her travels as the basis of a business.

The original store was located on 53rd Street, where her mother owned a shop when Stradford was young. Stradford saw a store vacant and asked the alderman about it. The alderman asked the owner, and soon, she had the key.

A former director of international marketing at Revlon Inc., Stradford had exposure to retailing and years of savings. She named the shop after her first book, a self-published collection of travel essays.

Five years ago, the shop moved to its current site, just blocks from the University of Chicago. Stradford said Hyde Park is ideal because of its diversity. Growing up biracial in the ’60s, Stratford said it was the only neighborhood she didn’t feel isolated.

“In fact, I use that kind of like a byline to my business, ‘What the Traveler Saw' represents the diversity of the university,’” Stradford said.

Her customers followed her to the new location.

“She’s always had a unique line of items from all kinds of different cultures,” said Joan Grey, who has been a loyal customer for ten years. She said ‘‘What the Traveler Saw” is her favorite spot to shop for birthday and holiday gifts.

For more youthful customers, shopping at “What the Traveler Saw” is like an adventure in a fantasy world.

“I was always a really big fan of the parasols because I have a really big imagination,” said 10-year-old Sarah McCarthy, who owns a pink one bought at the shop. “A simple parasol can serve in many roles.”

Stradford also organizes international trips for small groups of people to places such as Morocco, Turkey and Egypt. This year the shop is leading a trip going to Europe for the second time.

Stradford is able to draw on her own vast travel experience when organizing these trips. She has visited at least 17 countries and speaks four languages. When she was seven, Stradford’s family moved to Mexico. She said she still remembers the excitement the first time she was able to buy bread by herself using Spanish.

At school, she loved geography and felt deeply curious about Egypt and was able to go years later to see the Pyramids. Stradford majored in photography and film in college, which gave her the expertise to visually document her travels. Also an artist, her artwork was selected to represent the U.S. in an African festival in Nigeria.

On the wall of Stradford’s shop is a world map dotted with colorful pins denoting the places her customers come from.

“The map is covered all the way down to here,” she said pointing to the furthest southeast corner on the map. “That’s the middle of nowhere, of New Zealand. How did they get to Hyde Park?”

Stradford hasn’t announced to the community yet that she is closing up shop, but some shoppers, including Grey, have picked up on it.

“I would be upset,” if the shop closed, Grey said. “I’m just telling you, I would not be happy at all.”

It’s the customers Stradford says she’ll miss the most.

“I’ve been here for a long time," she said. "It’s not based on the money I’m making, but out of the connections I’ve made with the shop and the loyalty of people who are here."

But Stradford said it’s time to move to the next stage of life, one that will not include running a business.

“There is a lot paperwork and counting figures, columns of numbers, and I really don’t enjoy that part at all,” she said. “Now I’ve proved enough to myself. I’m happy with what people feel about the store and I’m looking forward to the future."

Stradford, whose annual revenues are in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, said the shop has always been more about sharing art.

“If I was more aggressive, I probably would have figured out a way to be on Michigan Avenue,” she said.