Matthew Abitbol had just opened his dream business, one he’d been thinking about for a decade, when the statewide shutdown order came down.

Commonwealth Running, on Sherman Avenue in downtown Evanston, was open all of 17 days before the coronavirus pandemic caused businesses around Illinois to close.

Today, Abitbol had a ribbon cutting in his store, to symbolize both survival and hope for the future. While he actually reopened in June, Abitbol wanted a ribbon cutting when his family could attend.

“I truly think that there will always be people who will want to shop in a store,” to get service you can’t find online,” Abitbol says. He sells running shoes. Yes, you can buy those through a website. But, he adds, proper fit and expert advice are things you can only get in person.

It was just coincidence, but Abitbol’s ceremony came the same day that Downtown Evanston kicked off its fall marketing campaign, on turning a year of lemons into lemonade.

Stores with lemon stickers or posters on their doors (including Abitbol’s) are offering special promotions. There is also a lemon-themed scavenger hunt.

Abitbol knows something about making lemonade out of lemons. His business year got off to an incredibly sour start. His customer list totaled all of about 100 before he had to lock down. Other businesses near him closed for good.

So Commonwealth Running had to pivot to completely online sales. Not a first choice, but an absolute necessity under the circumstances. Abitbol still has an online presence, because some customers still do not want to shop in person.

Abitbol believes the future of a post-pandemic downtown is keyed to shopping experiences you can’t get online, nor in a mall (assuming malls are even around). “I think downtowns will survive based on specialty stores,” he says.

Evanston, he says, has been “incredibly supportive” in helping him make it through the worst economic conditions in decades.

Abitbol has faced challenges before, on a regular basis. An avid runner, he’s completed more than 80 marathons, including the Boston Marathon ten times.

And business survival, he says, is like running those 26 miles, 385 yards. “If you get to mile one and say 25 miles to go,” he explains, “you’ll never make it.”

Right now, Commonwealth Running is sort of at mile one in the marathon to stay in business at the time of the coronavirus. “If we can open a store and get through a worldwide pandemic,” Abitbol says, “just wait until we’re past it.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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