Skillful Shopper Serves Westport

As befits the owner of a 900-square foot store, Christine Utter believes in the importance of low impact.

It’s easy to miss The Skillful Shopper. The antique furniture store at 748 Post Road East — near the Double L Market, sharing a building with New York City Jewelers — consists of just one room.

But it’s jam-packed with stuff. There’s barely room to move.

That suits Utter fine. She calls her shop “a recycling, go-green boutique.” She saves consumers money and helps the environment. By giving new life to old chairs, tables, lamps and handbags, she and her customers do a tiny bit to reduce their carbon footprint.

Shoppers include designers, decorators, and “anyone who loves finding unique items at great prices.”

Christine Utter, surrounded by some of her very interesting items...

Christine Utter, surrounded by some of her very interesting items…

Utter is passionate about every item that crams her store. “This is quality furniture from a bygone era,” she says, pointing to custom chairs with down cushions ($425 each). Styles range from traditional and retro vintage to mid-century modern.

“I love vintage jewelry and glassware. I’m getting into vintage clothing. This is all about collecting beautiful, well-made items, and selling them at consignment prices.”

She has dreamed of a store like this since she was young. She ran booths at the Stamford antique center, but wanted to be her own boss.

Utter moved to Westport 14 years ago. She often drove by the Post Road property across from New Country Toyota. When she saw a “For Rent” sign, she envisioned her dream.

Landlord Mike Calise “respects small businesses,” Utter says. Since opening last year, he’s encouraged her to make The Skillful Shopper a lively place.

It certainly is.

...and another corner of The Skillful Shopper.

…and another corner of The Skillful Shopper.

While “some people take 5 steps in and leave — I think they’re used to everything being new,” Utter says that she’s thrilled to meet “so many great people. Not everybody in Westport can afford all new things.”

Utter encourages customers to poke around. There’s something intriguing in every nook and cranny of the small store.

Her goal is to open customers’ minds. “There are beautiful items here, made with great craftsmanship. People built things; they didn’t just manufacture them. You can tell they loved what they did.”

She does too. As you can see in her store, Christine Utter is a very skillful shopper.

Mark Hennessy’s Covenant With Chicago

It’s never easy being homeless.

But for 2,000 or so young people, being homeless in Chicago is especially tough.

The city has experienced high rates of violence. The weather is often bad.

Aged out of foster care, escaping dysfunctional homes, Chicago’s homeless young people try to sleep on trains. At McDonald’s. Or with dangerous folks who take them in — often for sex.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy loves Chicago. It’s where he grew up; where he and his wife Tracey started a family; where their kids Jack and Mollie now live.

Hennessy is passionate about helping young people. He did it during his family’s 13 years in Westport, often through his children’s sports teams.

He did it on a larger scale too, as a longtime board member of Covenant House International. That’s the wonderful organization that offers housing, counseling and much more, through 30 programs in the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America.

Hennessy is a tireless volunteer. But he does much more than strategize. Every November, he takes part in the Covenant House “Sleep Out.” Spending a night on the street — as he’s done in 3 different cities — helps raise both money and awareness of the plight of homeless youth.

It’s an empowering event. “The stories I’ve heard, the kids I’ve gotten to know, the people I’ve met who are committed to this cause — it’s so worthwhile. And it really reminds you how difficult being homeless is.

Mark Hennessy heads to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Mark Hennessy heads to the Lincoln Tunnel for his first “Sleep Out,” 5 years ago.

A couple of years ago, Covenant House launched its first expansion in 17 years. Board members studied 11 cities. Chicago was identified as the most urgent.

Hennessy — who retired in 2015 after 34 years with IBM, most recently as general manager — has worked ferociously to make Lawson House a reality. Located on the corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Dearborn Street, it opened February 10.

Covenant House Illinois serves breakfast and lunch. It offers showers, laundry, storage, legal aid, mental and physical health services, drug and alcohol counseling, and educational opportunities.

Immediately, staff members went to work. A girl who showed up the first day has already been placed in long-term housing. A boy who came hours later is now receiving substance abuse treatment.

On the 2nd day, 14 youth showed up before noon.

All that happened even before the official ribbon-cutting, on Valentine’s Day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many aldermen, and leaders of Chicago’s key service providers and foundations were there.

The mayor and many others have been steadfast supporters of Convenant House, Hennessy says.

So have a number of Westporters. Hennessy asked for help — “time, treasure and talent” — and they responded. “I’ve been so impressed by the love and compassion of this community,” he says.

He used “love” again, describing Covenant House’s philosophy.

“We treat every young person with unconditional love and support,” Hennessy says. “The kids at Covenant House are like kids everywhere. They just need a chance.”

Covenant House logoChicago has gotten a bad rap lately, in the national press. But Hennessy sees much that is good in his home town.

“In these times, what we’ve done with the help of the city and so many private groups is a great example of people stepping up to make a difference,” he says.

Lawson House has been open only a few days. But Hennessy is already looking  ahead.

Covenant House Illinois will team with an adult jobs program, and the University of Chicago, to develop job training for 18-24-year-olds.

He adds, “We’d really like a new facility, for residential services. We have a lot of innovative ideas.”

And, he knows, the need is definitely there.

(To learn more about Covenant House, or to donate, click here.)

Jeremy Dreyfuss, Clement Mubungirwa And Refugees

As countless hopeful refugees feel whipsawed by events that seem to change hourly, individual stories are providing human faces for a crisis that can seem far away and difficult to grasp.

Jeremy Dreyfuss knows one of those stories well. And he told it even before the current refugee crisis seized America’s imagination.

He’s a 2011 Staples grad. In high school he discovered a passion for film and TV production in the Media Lab. Instructors Jim Honeycutt and Mike Zito encouraged creativity, and provided a welcoming space for free expression.

Jeremy Dreyfuss

Jeremy Dreyfuss

Jeremy went on to study film and TV at Boston University. Today he works at Business Insider in New York, helping lead a Facebook-based lifestyle publication for millennials. It’s fun, creative work.

But there’s another part of his resume that’s worth noting. “Seeking Refuge: The Story of Clement Mubungirwa” is a video that shows — simply and powerfully — the effect America has on refugees.

And the impact one refugee can have on America.

In his junior year at BU, Jeremy wanted to tell a multi-layered story. He’d always loved sports, so he searched for something more than just “an athlete doing something impressive.”

He stumbled on an article in a Louisiana paper about a boy from the Congo. Clement had escaped from brutal war, wound up in Baton Rouge, overcome adversity, found football and was propelled into a new life. About to begin his senior year of high school — with a possible college scholarship ahead — he suddenly was denied the chance to play. He’d repeated a grade because his reading level was low. Now — too old — he was ruled ineligible for sports.

Jeremy reached Clement by phone, and was taken by what he heard. The filmmaker flew to Baton Rouge. He met Clement, the family that took him in, and others. He returned one weekend in October, with his camera.

Clement Mubungira with the family that welcomed him into their Louisiana home.

Clement Mubungirwa with the James family, who welcomed him into their Louisiana home. Clement’s mother, Masika, is next to him in the front row.

“I thought the story would be about a kid from a war-torn nation who used sports to find a community,” Jeremy says. Clement was cheering for his team from the sidelines, and that’s what the filmmaker expected to focus on.

But it was Homecoming weekend. Clement had been nominated for king. That became the magic moment of Jeremy’s video.

“When Clement’s name was announced as the winner, the crowd erupted,” Jeremy says. “All the other candidates embraced him. It was a joyful moment.

Clement Mubungira is crowned Homecoming King.

Clement Mubungirwa is crowned Homecoming King.

“He’d been robbed of the opportunity to play his senior year, but he was not robbed of an amazing community. He’d found a home, and they were touched by his special character.”

While studying abroad in London that winter, Jeremy spent nights and weekends editing his film. He entered 5 festivals, winning first place in Oklahoma for documentary, and 2nd in a student contest in Los Angeles.

As for Clement: He enrolled in a school in Texas, but returned to Baton Rouge. He’s working now, trying to go back to college. Pro football is no longer an option. But, Jeremy says, the joy Clement found leading his team from the sidelines may spur a career in coaching.

Though Jeremy made his video before the current immigrant controversy, he believes its message resonates strongly today.

On one level it’s about “the transformative power of sports: making bridges and breaking language barriers,” he says.

But it’s also about how by embracing a refugee like Clement, the citizens of Baton Rouge helped him reach his potential — and grew in the process too.

Jeremy loves his job at Business Insider. But he hopes to keep exploring ways in which sports can unite people of diverse background, and open amazing new paths for refugees.

“There are a lot of stories like Clement’s out there,” Jeremy says. “It’s important for people to understand how great immigrants can make us all.”

Click here to view “Seeking Refuge: The Story of Clement Mubungirwa.”

(Hat tip: Jim Honeycutt)

Clement Mubungira

Clement Mubungirwa

For Everyone Who Went To The Caribbean This Weekend, And Wonders What A 65-Degree February Sunday Looks Like In Westport…

 

compo-beach-playground-february-19-2017

Photo Challenge #112

“06880” readers really know their onions.

Well, their coal, anyway.

Last week’s photo challenge showed an old coal bin, on a couple of yards of rail track.

It’s right on the Saugatuck River, behind Saugatuck Sweets. Gault Energy put it there when Saugatuck Center was being redeveloped (in part by their company) several years ago. It pays homage to the long-ago days when boats brought coal up the river to Gault’s headquarters. The coal made part of its journey by rail, before being delivered to Westport customers. Click here for the photo.

Seth Schachter answered correctly, within 4 minutes of the posting. He was followed quickly by William Adler, Daniel Cummings, Virginia Tienken, Robert Mitchell, Peter Flatow, Jamie Roth, Linda Amos, Seth Goltzer, Josh Moritz and Brandon Malin. Congratulations to all (and thanks to Saugatuck Sweets, whose treats are the reason so many folks are down by the river in the first place).

This week’s photo challenge comes courtesy of John Videler. Coincidentally, he grew up right across the river from where the Gault coal bin now sits.

But his image shows a different place entirely. If you know where it is, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/John Videler)

(Photo/John Videler)

 

From Cuba, With Love

Westporters June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel just returned from a great National Geographic expedition to Cuba. June sends this report, and some wonderful photos:

Our “people to people” visa facilitated a unique cultural exchange. We met extraordinary teachers and students in the visual and performing arts, including an 18-year-old young man in Cienfuegos who choreographed and danced a pas de deux of passion and violence in gay love.

At Isla de Juventud, an all-girl string quartet played a Telemann violin concerto.  We were energized by the percussion and dance of Habana de Compas, rooted in Santeria rhythms. We spoke with cigar factory workers, farmers and a Santeria priest.

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

We met a librarian who ran a Google-donated internet center with computers for children, and mechanics skilled in antique car restoration. We visited open-air markets where butchers sold unrefrigerated meat, alongside fruits and eggs.   We walked through a crumbling, abandoned prison for political prisoners and hard-core criminals.

Cuba is both amazing and sad. It is amazing because of the openness, compassion and joy of the Cuban people — their resilience, love of family, and music and art that infuses their world.

The sadness was ours, as we observed Cubans lacking what we consider essential to our everyday lives, like appliances, food (without needing a ration card), cars, even functional plumbing.

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Yet the United States continues its embargo — not sanctions, but an embargo — an anachronism that has outlived its purpose. All it does now is deprive poor hard-working people.

For instance, Cubans can’t import US cars or car parts. As a result, Cuban mechanics in a time-warp fashion parts for cars from the 1950’s, or import parts from other countries.

One man showed us his ’58 Chevy. He was allowed to import a Mercedes engine from Germany, but not from the US.  Then he pointed to a Chinese container ship in the harbor that was delivering a shipment of new buses.

'58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

’58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Another embargo-imposed time warp is that Cuban-Americans who send money to their relatives in Cuba must use Western Union, not US banks.

So what does Cuba have to do with Westport?

Westporters and Cubanos have shared values:  love of family; devotion to children; engaging in hard work; living in an inclusive society.

Cubanos do not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. They see themselves as one people — not black or mulatto or white.

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews.  “Gentleman’s Agreement” — the 1947 movie with Gregory Peck about anti-Semitism in Fairfield County — told this ugly story.

Cubanos are passionate about the arts and creativity — whether dance, music, theater, painting, sculpture, embroidery, weaving, sculpture or pottery. Life in Westport is energized by groups like Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Art Center, Westport Public Library, Staples Players and Westport Community Theater.

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

On the flight home I thought about transforming the “people to people” Cuba expedition into a two-way street.  Charleston, South Carolina has already provided a model in its annual Spoleto USA Festival.

This event has become one of America’s major performing arts festivals, showcasing both established and emerging artists with performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz.

Imagine the positive impact of Westport hosting these gifted Cuban artists of all ages with performances over a week at different venues throughout town.  And imagine how it would bring people together at a time when our country is so divided.

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Bradley Stevens Paints Washington’s Interior

Like the rest of President Obama’s cabinet, Sally Jewell is gone.

But — at least in the Department of Interior’s Washington, DC office — she will never be forgotten.

That’s because her portrait now hangs there, alongside her 50 predecessors.

It’s a non-traditional painting. And it’s of “06880” interest because the artist is Staples Class of 1972 graduate Bradley Stevens.

A Wrecker basketball star (and rock guitarist) who earned both a BA and MFA from George Washington University in 1976, Stevens is one of America’s leading realist painters. His work — depicting Vernon Jordan, Allen Iverson, Felix Rohatyn, Senator Mark Warner, and dozens of other politicians, financiers, educators, judges and sports figures — hangs in the Smithsonian, US Capitol, State Department, Mount Vernon and Monticello.

Bradley Stevens, at work in his studio. (Photo/GW Magazine)

Bradley Stevens, at work in his studio. (Photo/GW Magazine)

His Sally Jewell commission came on the recommendation of collectors of his work in Seattle, who knew her. Her previous job was CEO of REI, based in that city.

Last April, Stevens met the secretary at Interior headquarters. Over the next 8 months, as he worked on the portrait, they met many times in his studio.

Stevens hiked with Jewell in the Cascades. “Luckily,” he says, the experienced outdoorswoman — who has climbed Antarctica’s highest peak — “chose a more moderate mountain.”

He posed her on the Manassas battlefield in Virginia — near Stevens’ home — at sunrise, to get the right light.

“It’s not your typical government portrait,” Stevens says. “The landscape plays a prominent role in the composition.”

But, he says, because as head of the National Park Service — and because of her love of the outdoors — he thought it was important to paint her in front of Mt. Rainier. It’s an iconic image of her home town, and she’s reached its summit 7 times.

Jewell — who as secretary helped expose underprivileged young people to the environment — asked Stevens to include Youth Conservation Corps volunteers on the trail behind her.

In the portrait, she wears silver tribal jewelry. That symbolizes her efforts to protect Native American sacred lands.

Sally Jewell's official portrait, by Bradley Stevens.

Sally Jewell’s official portrait, by Bradley Stevens.

The painting was unveiled at the Department of the Interior on January 13. There was a big ceremony, with many speakers.

Stevens says, “It was an honor to get to know Secretary Jewell. She is passionate and driven about her work protecting our nation’s lands.”

She is also “a humble and self-effacing public servant. It was never about attracting attention to herself. Her focus was solely on doing the right things for the environment. This experience restored my faith in government.”

President Trump has nominated Montana congressman Ryan Zinke to replace Jewell. A frequent voter against environmentalists on issues ranging from coal extraction to oil and gas drilling, he received a 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

 

Double L’s Secret Llibrarian

For over 3 decades, Westporters have known — and loved — the Double L Farm Stand. Lloyd Allen’s Post Road spot is the place for locally grown fruit and veggies, grass-fed beef, banter and community.

For more than 5 years, it’s also been a library.

Every 2 or 3 weeks, someone leaves a book just underneath the front window. Most are by best-selling authors, and/or from the New York Times bestseller list.

Some of the books left underneath the farm stand's front window.

Some of the books left underneath the farm stand’s front window.

Lloyd has no idea who his secret donor is. Nor does he know why he or she does it.

But he’s built a very nice lending library. His customers love it.

And — just like Lloyd’s produce — it’s growing very nicely.

Part of Lloyd Allen's lending library.

Part of Lloyd Allen’s lending library.

Friday Flashback #28

Before South Moon Under. Before Klaff’s. Before Muriel’s Diner, shaped like a trolley car.

Before all that — on the block between what is now Taylor Place and the Taylor parking lot, across the Post Road from what is now Starbucks and what was then the very new Westport Public Library — stood this very handsome row of buildings.

klaffs-block-in-1915

Click on or hover over to enlarge. 

According to Seth Schachter — who sent this fascinating 1915 postcard — the area was traditionally called “Hulbert’s Block” (or perhaps “Hurlbutt’s,” for the famed Weston family). This is the first time he’s seen it called “Post Office Block.”

The post office is at the far right (with a bicycle leaning against the pole). A store belonging to Wm. E. Nash is in the center.

As a bonus, here’s the back of the postcard:

friday-flashback

The sender — “Leffer” — tells Miss Jeannette Smith (in beautiful penmanship) that’s he (or she) has marked the building in which he (or she) will live with an “X.” You can see it on the far right of the postcard — just above the post office.

Meanwhile — totally coincidentally — just yesterday I received this photo from Lee  Saveliff.

It shows the entire block — this time, from the perspective of the corner of the Post Road near Main Street. Taylor Place is on the left. Club Grill later became Muriel’s Diner. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

taylor-place-and-club-grill

Lee says that her great-grandparents — Leonard and Julia Gault — owned the Club Grill building. The larger one — closer to the river and bridge, with Pat’s Diner and Achorn’s Pharmacy (!) — was owned by the Klaff family.

This shot looks to be from the 1940s or ’50s. In November of 1974, the block burned to the ground. Lee saw the flames from her home, on Imperial Avenue.

George Subkoff Antiques To Close

George Subkoff Antiques — for over 25 years Westport’s leading destination for 18th and 19th century American, English and Continental furniture — will close on February 25. Most items are now 30 to 50% off.

The owner — a former president of the Art and Antique Dealers League, and whose pieces can be found in the U.S. State Department reception room and Gracie Mansion – will sell by appointment only. He will work out of his Norwalk warehouse.

George Subkoff, in his store.

George Subkoff, in his store. (Photo/Betsy Pollak)

Subkoff began his career in New York City. In the mid-1980s he opened a store on Route 7 in Wilton. Several years later he moved to Colonial Green, a better location for customers from New York and throughout Fairfield Country.

Three years ago — as buyers began purchasing online — Subkoff relocated to 5 Post Road West, just across the bridge.

In addition to American and European items, he sells stock from China and Southeast Asia.

Wherever it comes from, Subkoff appreciates well-made pieces. In earlier times, he says, “it took 3 months to create something, from 300-year-old trees. Today it’s 30 hours, and a 30-year-old tree.”