Trade Winds: A Mighty ‘Wind’
It’s an average Tuesday afternoon at Trade Winds Cove in Crystal Lake. Owner Dave Helmer is hopping from customer to customer, making light conversation regarding a new skateboard or an interesting shirt someone holds, signing for multiple shipments of skateboard wheels and assisting a young man in his first longboard purchase.
Dave’s wife Nancy Helmer is next door in the Birkenstock store fitting multiple customers for sandals. The two women behind the counter are both on the phone and ringing up customers using pads of paper and calculators. One helps an interested customer find the perfect ring among stacks of boxes. The other opens the earrings case. It’s not even a busy day.
From the fort made of backpacks in the middle of the store to the endless piles of T-shirts with designs fresh out of the ’60s and ’70s, to an entire room devoted to longboards, Trade Winds is the place for everything hippie, hemp, longboard, skateboard, tie-dye, snowboard, jewelry, Birkenstock and T-shirt. The store has its own funky vibe, soundtrack and unique aroma. Trade Winds is one of a kind, and a staple of Crystal Lake and northern Illinois.
Child of the ’70s
Trade Winds was born in 1974 just so Dave would have a full-time job. The original concept for the store was inspired by the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, after the couple experienced the goods and antiques from countries all over the world. The original store was named Trader’s Cove — the couple wanted the merchandise to mirror that of “a boat trading along the North Atlantic Coast where the pirates and trading routes were.”
The name caused confusion, however, because many thought Trader’s Cove was more pawn shop and less ’60s flashback. “So I said, ‘Go get a can of paint and we are changing the name,’” Dave explained, “and we changed it to Trade Winds.”
The Trade Winds are prevailing westerly winds that aided captains in navigating trade routes from one side of the Atlantic to the other, representative of the many origins of the wares in their store.
In the original Trade Winds store, the Helmers and their newborn persevered while working through a tight, 100-square-foot space for five-and-a-half years. Their perseverance would soon be tested.
Enduring Tough Times
Six months after they moved to a larger space in 1974 and built up their inventory, they were robbed. “Somebody came and took everything except the rings,” Nancy said. “We were out $14,000.”
The dejected couple considered closing their shop, thereby prematurely ending their dream and moving on. “A lot of our customers came in and just kept me company,” Nancy said. “They said please don’t quit. One lady offered to give us a loan if we just kept going. We made it through when they ripped up Route 14 and nobody could get to the store.”
After overcoming multiple obstacles, Trade Winds finally settled into the current home at 372 W. Virginia St. (Rt. 14) in Crystal Lake in 1980 where they continue to flourish.
A Deadhead Named Donny
Their original business expansion, the addition of skateboards and Birkenstocks, is credited to a loyal employee, Donny Berlin. A high school dropout, he worked at Trade Winds. While there, he gave the store a touch of the modern teenager.
“He had quit school, but he was smarter than most with a graduate degree,” Nancy said. “By age 23, Berlin had already been to 92 Grateful Dead concerts. People would stay in our store for three or four hours and talk with him about all the shows he had been to.”
Berlin’s devotion to the Dead turned very profitable for Trade Winds when he explained that many concertgoers wore Birkenstocks — what he described as the most comfortable shoe in the world.
“After we had been in the bigger store for a few years I told him to go to the back room and create a first order of Birkenstocks,” Nancy said. They allowed him $7,000 to play with and the Birkenstocks were a huge hit.
Although Berlin has since married and moved away, he will go down in Trade Winds history as an important contribution to the success the business enjoys today.
Customers and Friends
Trade Winds continues to build its business on people, an easy feat considering the Helmers are incredibly personable and engaging, even on busy days.
“We like to help our customers, we get to know them,” Dave explained.
Dave said how important it is to make a positive impact on everyone who walks through the door, particularly the young people. “It is important to relate to kids, and try to love them and help them,” he said.
This attitude places a personal touch on their business and contributes to their national recognition. “This is home for some people,” explained Nancy as she glanced around the store. “They come in when they visit from Europe, when they live in Colorado or visit their parents. They always come in. Within the last two weeks we’ve had people from Oregon, Indiana, Michigan, Texas and Ghana, Africa,” Nancy said.
Recently, Nancy and Dave even received visits from children of the original customers of Trade Winds. “It’s the second generation!” the couple laughs.
It’s the offbeat and unusual personality of Trade Winds that draws in the younger demographic. The Helmers are fascinated by every story a person has to tell – the story behind each piercing, tattoo, T-shirt and skateboard wheel. To them, everything and everyone has a purpose.
“If I see a young lady or a young guy that looks like a snowboarder or skater, I just feel drawn to them,” Dave said smiling. “They are open and friendly. If Jesus was on earth right now, he’d definitely be friends with the skateboarders.”
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