By Bob Uphues
Abby Brennan had been working for seven years as an art teacher at an elementary school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago when she decided that her future lay elsewhere.
That was in 2007, the year she opened Brennan Massage and Spa on Grand Boulevard in Brookfield's downtown district. On Jan. 8, Brennan, her staff and others who have contributed to the success of the business celebrated its 10-year anniversary – one of just a handful on the street that can boast that kind of longevity.
"I don't think I understood what being part of a community could be like," said Brennan during an interview last week inside her office in the converted home at 3700 Grand Blvd. "People here take care of one another."
Brennan didn't necessarily think that Brookfield was where she'd land, even though as a Riverside native who attended Hollywood School, Brennan was plenty familiar with the area.
Certain that teaching wasn't in her future, Brennan became a licensed massage therapist and by 2007 was about to make the leap toward running her own business.
Brookfield wasn't in the plan. Brennan had scouted locations as far afield as Evanston and Geneva. She was driving back to Forest Park, her home at the time, after looking at commercial space in LaGrange in the spring of 2007 and decided to do a drive-by in downtown Brookfield.
"I drove by and I saw a 'for sale' sign falling out of the bushes," Brennan said.
She called the real estate agent on the spot, confirmed that the property was zoned for commercial use – and then spent the next couple of months convincing the Brookfield Village Board to amend its zoning code, which prohibited "massage parlors."
With the zoning change made, Brennan bought the home at the end of July 2007, which gave her about a month to whip the inside of the home – covered over in linoleum, wallpaper and drop ceilings – into something resembling a comfy spa.
The place certainly has retained a homey vibe, with its hardwood floors, wood trim and cozy rooms.
"People walk in and say, 'Is this a house?'" said Brennan. "They're walking into a setting that's like the comfort of their own home."
Brennan started with two main-floor therapy rooms and just a couple of employees. That first year, she kept her teaching job, rushing home after school on weekdays in order to open the spa's doors by 4 p.m. in addition to full days in Brookfield on Saturday and Sunday.
Even though Brennan opened amid a shrinking economy where spa treatments might have been considered something of a luxury, the business established itself quickly, drawing not just from Brookfield and Riverside, but from Berwyn, Oak Park, Forest Park, LaGrange and Hinsdale. About 80 percent of the clientele is female, Brennan said.
After leaving her teaching job in 2008, Brennan expanded the spa's hours to 10 to 8 Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 5:50 on Saturday and 10 to 3:30 on Sunday. She also quickly moved away from practicing massage therapy to running the business.
She says she often gets her best work done while sitting at the Riverside Public Library, away from the distractions of the spa. Brennan Massage and Spa employs a staff of 18 now.
"No one ever told me business could be so creative," said Brennan. "I was never good with numbers or writing. I didn't know I could use my mind in a business setting."
But being an entrepreneur runs in the business. Brennan's dad, Keith, has run his bird-related/garden business For the Birds in the Eight Corners district for about as long as the spa has been around.
Her grandfather and father ran a moving and storage business; her aunt, Joan Tromp, for many years ran a women's clothing store called Ananas in Oak Park; and her sister Nora, owns Nora's Shoes (which also used to have an Oak Park location) in Geneva.
Brennan is also involved in the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce, organizing the annual Brookfield Fine Arts Festival each fall.
Even though she's just 40, Brennan can consider herself an old-timer on Grand Boulevard. She's seen plenty of turnover during the past 10 years, but sees the business district on the verge of success.
"I see a business district with a lot of potential," said Brennan, who often bikes to work from her Riverside home, which she shares with her husband and two young children. "I think it's getting very close to being where people think it needs to be."