Small business has seen many changes over the decades, but aims to continue serving Lansing with integrity
By Ashlee De Wit
LANSING, Ill. (February 1, 2020) – Just off the corner of Burnham and Ridge Road in downtown Lansing, a local business is quietly celebrating a big milestone: 65 years of serving Lansing and the surrounding area.
Towne Interiors — originally called Lansing Paint and Supply—has been a fixture of Lansing’s downtown since 1955.
It’s not easy to run a small business or keep it running for 65 years, especially when it seems like everything is available online. But owner Don Vander Zee is hopeful that a movement back toward local shopping will give them a boost as they continue to maintain their well-established relationship with the Lansing community.
Like father, like son
“When they started to develop downtown Lansing, my dad [Andrew Vander Zee] bought this property with two other guys, and they started a painting business—they went out painting and selling paint,” Vander Zee said. “Within a few years, he bought [his partners] out. Soon after that, he expanded to doing window treatments, carpet, and tile.”
At the time, the store was only half the size it is today. In the early 1970s, the west side was built.
Don Vander Zee began working for his father in 1986, after graduating from college.
“I started mainly by installing floors for my dad,” he said. “I worked toward being in the office, and then took over as he retired.”
Andrew Vander Zee is still living at his home in South Holland with his wife, Alberta, not far from his son’s South Holland home. “My dad raised five kids while working many hours, and I also raised five kids while working many hours—like father, like son,” Don Vander Zee said.
All of Don Vander Zee’s kids worked in the store at some point, but most have moved on to other careers; his youngest son is still in college. “[He’s] the only holdout,” he said.
Vander Zee isn’t necessarily counting on another generation of his family to take over the store, but when he’s ready to retire, he’d like to see the shop continue running: either under the management of another small business owner, or as part of a larger organization.
More than paint
In his time at the store, Vander Zee has seen the bulk of the business shift from paint to flooring, and in 2007, he decided to change the name to reflect that shift.
“The name [Lansing Paint and Supply] wasn’t telling people that we did carpet, and tile, and hardwood; we wanted to make the name all-encompassing,” he said.
Towne Interiors does most of its work in Lansing and Northwest Indiana, but also bids on projects in Chicago. Locally, they’ve done work not only for homeowners, but also for businesses, churches and schools.
Vander Zee has one in-office employee: Emily Parpart joined the staff in 2017. Sales and decorating consultant are her main roles, but that’s only the beginning. She jokes that she’s “co-boss” in the two-person office.
“She’s very good,” Vander Zee said. “She has the keys! She opens up, closes up, and takes care of whatever needs to be done. But we both clean the bathroom too—that’s what small business is.”
Small business benefits
As a small business, Towne Interiors relies on partnerships with larger companies. It is aligned with Benjamin Moore (Towne Interiors is a signature store for the well-known paint brand) and with Shaw Floors.
“Partnering with big companies like Benjamin Moore and Shaw, we connect into value—they help promote us, and provide technological services we can’t,” Vander Zee said.
On the Benjamin Moore and Shaw websites, you can see paint colors and flooring options; you could even see a virtual version of what the products would look like in your home. But to see the products in person—to feel the texture and see color in natural light—and to get an expert opinion, you have to go into a store.
“We also offer free estimates in Lansing, which keeps us competitive with big box stores,” Vander Zee said. But he points to personal, in-store service as the primary thing that sets Towne Interiors apart.
“If you purchased paint from Towne Interiors 10 years ago and forgot the color, we can tell you what it is. All our customers are on file,” Vander Zee said. “I don’t always realize how valuable it is, but for people who continue coming in, I feel like we can offer them so much service.”
With so many options available online now, Vander Zee understands that it’s tempting to go another way.
“Younger generations have a lot of power at their fingertips to find information, but I don’t think a lot of them understand the benefits of the experience you can get at a small store,” Vander Zee said. “I feel that we can really help people. Seeing it [a paint color or flooring sample], touching it, having someone tell you in person that this is the right way to do it: service that helps you get the right things will save you money in the long run.”
A promising trend
As a business owner, Vander Zee’s main goal has always been the same: “Always try to have integrity in what you do—that’s the long-range goal,” he said. “That’s how a store like us survives. There aren’t that many of us around anymore!”
Ultimately, he has welcomed his role as a small business in the community.
“As I get older,[business] becomes more personal,” he said. “It seems like businesses are always trying to grow and be bigger. But then, if we do that, at some point we’re not a small business anymore.”
Instead, he likes to focus on the people who are in front of him.
“When a customer walks in, we take care of them,” he said. “It seems like the people who come in are appreciative.”
Vander Zee has also noticed a change in the way customers approach his services and business.
“I’ve noticed that people used to always say, ‘I want to fix this [house] up and make it nice to sell it,’” he said. “Now, I don’t hear that as much. Now I’m hearing, ‘I want to make this nice for me.’”
“I also hear more people say that they like to come in here because they want to support local business—that’s currently a strong phenomenon,” he added.
For his part, he’s happy to help.
“I like to serve where I’m at; that’s how I look at it,” he said.
Towne Interiors is located at 3219 Ridge Road in Lansing. Find them online at www.towneinteriors.net, or call (708) 474-4260 for more information.
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- Obituary: Andrew Vander Zee (February 2021)