Owner of Winnetka’s Country Shop leaves behind beautiful memories, exquisite art, wonderful friends

No obit? No funeral? No burial? Who was Esther Gasser?

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Esther Gasser, who ran The Country Shop in Winnetka, died recently at 91.

Sun-Times files

Who was Esther Gasser?

Elegant, lithe and driven, how did a 19-year-old Swiss female immigrant, alone in post-war 1950s America, morph into a legendary North Shore shopkeeper?

What was her story? Why was she so private?

How did she develop the savvy to sustain a “Country Shop” in the big buck bastion of Winnetka, a glorious nook of fine antiques, folk art and exquisite crafts dusted with a whiff of pine and a pinch of cinnamon?

Who was she, really?

“Well, Esther was a very private person,“ said Sylvia Buck, a customer who became a trusted friend for 50 years and her longest working “shopgirl.”

“Trust was important to her,” said Buck. “It’s why Esther hired customers as her ‘shopgirls.’ ”

“You didn’t ask Esther for a job,” said former customer Mary Nelson, a 26-year Gasser shopgirl.

“But you were so very glad when Esther called and finally asked you to work in her shop,” said Nelson. “Hiring was all about trust.”

The elegant Esther also took great European pride in branding herself “a simple shopkeeper,” said Buck.

“In the store, the customers ruled,” she added. “Esther always claimed a great shop had great clientele … and customers did not want a shopkeeper to ramble on.”

Yet, Esther’s “private life was extraordinary,” added Buck. “Esther had quite a story to tell. She was magic.”

Stunningly, when Esther Gasser, 91, passed away on May 10, 2023, a very private woman left behind instructions … which upset her closest friends.

She was cremated. There was to be no obituary. No memorial. No burial.

Esther Gasser wanted a quiet exit. No fanfare. No publicity … issuing the same orders when her beloved husband, Kurt, a French-trained chef, who had once managed the Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. restaurants, died in 2008.

“Life is life. Then it’s over,” Gasser would say.

“After Kurt’s retirement, he would call Esther daily at the shop booming:

‘Frau! What would you like on the menu for dinner tonight?’ ” chirped Nelson.

“Esther and Kurt had no children, but a wonderful marriage, Esther arriving home to slippers placed by their front door and flowers next to her bed,” Nelson added.

In recent days, both Sylvia Buck and Mary Nelson, who were with Esther when she died, decided to ignore her edict and asked to memorialize Esther’s legacy via my column.

I had written a column about Esther closing up shop in February 2015; a shop around the corner basically done on a cash basis; minus a computer, little technology and a mini-charge card machine: the way Esther wanted it.

“I trusted my customers,” she told me. “No driver’s licenses required as proof. I knew they could drive,” she had chuckled.

Since then, Esther would enjoy chatting about the shop and fashion and her life with friends; eventually falling; breaking a shoulder, then ribs and hip, but not without the help of her trusted tribe of her dearest “shopgirl” friends.

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The Country Shop in Winnetka displays a Thanksgiving theme in one of its display windows.

Sun-Times files

So, next week, a non-obituary “memorial” will take place at Ruth’s Chris Steak House attended by shopgirls Sylvia Buck and Mary Nelson and Northfield Mayor Greg Lungmus, who described himself as Esther’s “adopted” son, his mother’s friend and former shopgirl; an introduction made when he was 9 years old.

“Esther and Kurt also raised me,” said Lungmus.

So Sylvia and Mary and Greg will exchange Esther stories; tales of a father dying young; surviving war food shortages with bread laced with Swiss chocolate; arriving in America via steerage on the Queen Mary; living at the YMCA in Chicago.

They’ll chuckle over Esther’s refusal to eat “anything that swam” because her last name was a Swiss word for fish; yogurt-only lunches; medium rare steak and her craving for mashed potatoes; Vouvray wine; rustic bread with Gruyere cheese; a dollop of Swiss fondue dipped in cherry liquor … and Esther’s never-ending supply of dark Swiss chocolate.

Home was her haven, a classical European-style one-story suburban ranch with uncut tall grass for visiting deer and a kneeling bronze boar.

Ultimately, Esther would spend the last days of her life in memory care and hospice.

Esther would no longer remember the two items she took with her when she left her Winnetka shop; a 6-foot Norfolk pine purchased in its infancy from Winnetka’s Hlavacek Florists, and a countryside watercolor given to her by a customer long ago of her first Country Store on Harms Road and Old Orchard, which did not have a toilet.

“That was it,” said Sylvia Buck.

“Esther donated the contents of the store to the Village Treasure House in Glenview for battered and abused women.”

“Who knew when I walked into Esther’s first ‘Country Shop’ on Harms Road 50 years ago, I would find the shop’s greatest treasure,” she said.

“And that would be Esther.”

Sneedlings ...

Saturday birthdays: soccer player Lionel Messi; singer Solange Knowles, 37 and basketball player J.J. Redick, 39. Sunday birthdays: soccer player Jamie Redknapp, 50; comedian Ricky Gervais, 62, and singer Carly Simon, 80.

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