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2023 History Maker Dotti Bushnell cooked up a 'shop local' movement at the Garlic Press

A woman in a purple sweater with grey hair and glasses seated on a large piece of driftwood at the beach smiles at the camera
Dotti Bushnell
courtesy McLean County Museum of History
Dotti Bushnell purchased the Garlic Press in 1976 and served as proprietor for 42 years. Her daughter Sarah McManus and long-time employee Pam Locsin now operate the kitchenware store and popcorn shop next door. Bushnell has been selected as a 2023 McLean County History Maker for her decades of service to the community.

Six community members have been selected as the 2023 McLean County History Makers, an award recognizing those who’ve given decades of service to McLean County. For the next few weeks, WGLT will profile this year’s History Makers, beginning with Dorothy "Dotti" Bushnell.

Bushnell’s quaint, one-bedroom apartment at Westminster Village is beautifully decorated with artifacts from her travels—and a well-appointed kitchen. The longtime proprietor of the Garlic Press in Uptown Normal uses a walker to get around now, which has a Garlic Press logo on its seat.

For nearly 50 years, the Garlic Press has been an institution in Normal, but Bushnell is not its original owner. She bought the store about a year after it opened, participated in the revitalization of Uptown Normal and cultivated a culinarily-minded community passionate about shopping local.

Bushnell was born in India and spent parts of her childhood in Uttarakhand, where she attended an international school in the foothills of the Himalayas. Her parents were Christian missionaries and returned the family to the United States during World War II.

“We were here for several years and then went back again," she said. "I went to the Woodstock School and graduated from high school there.”

Voyages between India and the United States were by steam ship, which Bushnell said foreshadowed her career at the Garlic Press.

“The last one that I was on was the Mauretania,” she said. “Sometimes I say that’s a little bit connected to what I did at the store later because we had a chance to have these ships’ dining rooms’ menus and that sort of thing.”

Of course, around these parts Bushnell is best known as the longtime proprietor of The Garlic Press in Uptown Normal. She and her husband Paul lived in Nashville with their young children when a job opportunity for Paul at Illinois Wesleyan University brought the family to the Twin Cities in 1966.

“We were quite thrilled because we actually were pretty determined that we wanted to raise our family in the North,” said Bushnell. “We had, I think, one week to find a house to live—and we did!”

Bushnell worked a variety of jobs while raising four children. She taught at a Montessori school and, for a short time, was the librarian for the Mennonite School of Nursing.

“The last thing I did—of course, before the big thing—I was working as the elementary education coordinator at the First Presbyterian Church,” said Bushnell. That role was shared with a friend, Norma Ashbrook, who encouraged Bushnell to take a look at a storefront for sale in what was then called downtown Normal.

“I was getting to the point where I knew I needed to make some other move,” Bushnell said. “I didn’t have any big academic thing in mind. I didn’t want to be a nurse of a teacher, and I heard about this little store. … I think my husband and I talked all night, and by the end of it all I said, ‘I can do this.’”

Riding the wave ushered into American kitchens by Julia Child, Bushnell bought the Garlic Press in 1976, catalyzing a “shop local” movement in Uptown Normal that persists today.

“There were a couple good men’s clothing stores and a women’s clothing store, but it was mostly just little, old buildings,” Bushnell said. The Garlic Press’s original location was a few doors down from its current spot on North Street near Uptown Circle.

“It was very tiny,” said Bushnell, “about 12 feet wide, and then it got skinnier as it went back. It gave me a chance to get my feet wet and learn how to do it before I got thrown too deeply into it. There was a part-time employee leftover from the original person, and she had to teach me how to make change. That’s how new I was.”

Bushnell may have learned on the job, but the Garlic Press quickly became an anchor in Uptown Normal. Bushnell witnessed and, in many ways, shepherded revitalization efforts in the area, including the important addition of the Children’s Discovery Museum to Uptown Circle in 2004.

“I do think the store’s made a big difference,” said Bushnell. “Personally, I’m glad I did it and how I stumbled through it, I don’t know, but I did. The store has developed way beyond what I thought it would.”

The Garlic Press operated a café and deli next door to the shop from 2005-2017. That second storefront is now a popcorn and candy store. Bushnell’s daughter Sarah McManus and longtime employee Pam Locsin currently operate the business, which continues to be a draw to Uptown Normal for shoppers from near and far.

Humble to the core, Bushnell said the Garlic Press is the real History Maker.

“I think the store has done wonderfully as far as being a place people come to,” she said.

As big chains like Bed, Bath & Beyond close shop, the Garlic Press is a bastion for the “shop local” movement, providing an assortment of premium kitchen wares and other artisanal items, plus cooking demos and an evergreen presence at street fairs and events.

“It points out the big difference in the type of stores,” she said. “When we were told Bed, Bath [& Beyond] was going to move here, we thought, oh dear, they’re going to sell all these things and it’s going to hurt us. It was hardly a blip.”

The 2023 History Makers Gala honoring Dotti Bushnell takes place Wednesday, June 21 in the Brown Ballroom at the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. Individual tickets are $75-$100, with table sponsorships available. Tickets and additional details are available at (309) 827-0428 and mchistory.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.