Category Archives: Local business

“Abacus”: Academy Award Campaign Starts Here

Next month, the eyes of Westport will focus on Justin Paul. The 2003 Staples High School graduate/songwriting wunderkid could win his 2nd consecutive Academy Award — this time for best original song (“This Is Me,” from “The Greatest Showman”).

Most Westporters will not be as excited by the Best Documentary Feature category.

But most Westporters are not Erin Owens.

Erin Owens

She’s a high-ranking executive with PBS Distribution. Part of her job involves promoting Oscar nominees to the people who matter most: the 7,000 voters.

Right now she’s working on “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.”

And she’s doing it right here in Saugatuck.

“Abacus” tells the story of the tiny, family-owned Chinatown community bank that — because it was “small enough to jail, not too big to fail” — became the only financial institution to be prosecuted after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

Competition is tough. PBS’ “Abacus” goes up against 4 other documentaries. Two are distributed by Netflix. They spend a lot more money.

But Owens is happy to battle the big boys. (Interestingly, “Abacus” director Steve James also directed “Hoop Dreams,” a film about overcoming great odds.)

So she’s sending James to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for promotional events. She’s also devising many other ways to make sure that the independent film’s compelling story gets in front of the folks who count.

Owens and her husband Mark Kirby moved to Westport 3 years ago. She worked with Long Shot Factory, a distribution and consulting company specializing in documentary ad and educational campaigns.

She particularly enjoyed her PBS projects. Last January, she began working full-time, in-house with them.

It’s a short walk from her home in Saugatuck to Westport Innovative Hub — the popular co-working space on Ketchum Street.

Owens’ 2 partners work remotely too — from Woodstock, New York and North Carolina. Together, they’re pushing “Abacus” as hard and far as they can.

This is not Owens’ first Academy Award race. She spearheaded “Waste Land” in 2010 and “Hell and Back Again” in 2011, and worked on 5 other campaigns.

Voting takes place February 20-27. The Oscars ceremony is March 4.

Justin Paul may grab the headlines the morning after.

But don’t count out “Abacus.”

(“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is available for free on Amazon Prime, and by clicking here.) 

Unsung Hero #35

Happy Valentine’s Day!

There’s a lot to love in Westport. At the top of anyone’s list should be Le Rouge by Aarti.

Aarti Khosla — owner of the luscious handmade chocolate shop on Main Street — is always looking for ways to give back to the community. Last year she raised nearly $10,000 for hurricane relief, children’s cancer research and various charities.

This year, she’s reprising her “Give a Little Love” chocolate heart campaign.

The idea is simple: Buy a selected item, and 10% of the proceeds go to a different charity — every month throughout the year.

“Give a Little Love” with these chocolates.

Included are one-of-a-kind hand-painted chocolate portraits, champagne truffles (for her), bourbon and ale truffles (for him), hand-painted heart puzzles, moulded chocolate purses and cars, open truffle flowers, preserved rose truffles and ganache cake — and anything for sale in Le Rouge’s red heart box.

There’s a lot to love about Aarti.

On Valentine’s Day, and every other one.

(Le Rouge by Aarti is at 190 Main Street, beneath the former Sally’s Place.)

Aarti Khosla, in her red-and-black-themed chocolate shop.

Celebrating 75 Years Of Staples Tuition Grants

In 1943, the Staples High School PTA gave $100 to a group of Westporters. They in turn found a worthy recipient, who would otherwise be unable to attend college.

With that donation, Staples Tuition Grants was born.

In 2017 — nearly 75 years later — the organization provided $300,000 in assistance to over 100 recipients. They were graduating seniors, and college students who had received previous grants. They’re attending public and private universities, junior colleges and vocational schools.

They supplement their grants with jobs. They work hard. They’re grateful that college — exponentially more expensive than ever — can be a reality.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

STG is rightfully proud that for three-quarters of a century, they’ve provided millions of dollars to tens of thousands of students.

So they’re throwing a party. The theme — naturally — is “75 years of college.”

Set for Saturday, March 10 (7 p.m., Branson Hall at Christ & Holy Trinity Church), the casual, fun event features college-ish food (pizza, burgers), drink (keg beer, wine) and music from (most) attendees’ college years. There could be ping pong and foosball too.

Party-goers are encouraged to wear their school colors or logowear. A 1955 recipient has already RSVP-ed. Organizers hope other former recipients will attend too.

The cost is $75. (It’s a fundraiser, obviously.) Organizers are soliciting 75 business sponsors, at $100 each (in honor of that first-ever grant).

Gault Energy and Melissa & Doug have signed on as lead sponsors.

Igor Pikayzen — a 2005 Staples grad, and STG recipient — will play. Westport filmmaker Doug Tirola — whose father was on the STG board — is making a special video. Former STG recipients Ned Batlin and Trevor Lally will give brief remarks. So will Miggs Burroughs, who designed the logo.

Everyone — Staples grads, and those of every other high school; college alumni and people who never went; anyone who ever got a scholarship, and anyone who did not — is invited to the 75th anniversary celebration.

Let’s make sure that Staples Tuition Grants is still doing great deeds in 2093 — 75 years from now.

(Click here for tickets to the 75th anniversary celebration, and more information. If you’re a former recipient and would like to be taped for a video, or are interested in helping sponsor the event, email poley@optonline.net.)

Thanks, T. Hanks

On Friday, “06880” highlighted a great new Westport store. Tucked in behind Little Barn, Backspace is a spot where folks can admire and buy old typewriters — or pound out poetry, prose, even a thank-you note.

Readers flooded the comments section with praise for the concept.

One suggested that owner Karin Kessler contact Tom Hanks. In addition to his day job, he’s an avid typewriter collector.

Karin replied:

He does not give email address, only a physical one. Wants people to actually take the time to write a letter. I have typed him 4 letters so far. I think he will respond when he actually receives one – don’t know who passes along mail. In his movie “California Typewriters” he says he would respond if someone typed him a letter. We will see!

Cohl Katz — the popular local hairstylist who counts Tom Hanks (among many other A-listers) as a client — heard about Karin’s quest. Cohl suggested Instagram. (He’s @tomhanks — and, she says, he loves seeing photos of cool typewriters.)

Karin immediately posted a photo, with a link to the story.

And — just as immediately — Tom typed a letter in return.

Karin was thrilled to hear back. She promises to let us know if when he stops by her store.

I gotta say: I think it’s pretty cool that he read “06880” too.

Diptyque: Latest Loss On Main Street

An alert — and disappointed — “06880” reader named Babs writes:

Diptyque, a beautiful candle store on Main Street (next to L’Occitane), just called and said they are closing their store on February 25.

They have been here 4 years.

Very, very sad! It’s my favorite store on Main Street.

Not only did they sell wonderful and gorgeous products, but the employees are the nicest women. Especially Claire, the store manager!

This store is so customer-service oriented, and so personable. It is a real loss for Main Street.

Sunday Funday Brunch Crunch

It’s the perfect Sunday.

First you do a tough boot camp workout.

Then you have a refueling brunch.

Finally, you cap it off with a relaxing 15-minute mini-facial.

Breno Donatti — the community-minded owner of Winfield Street Italian Deli — has organized a “Brunch Crunch” for this coming Sunday (February 11).

You start at Upper Deck Fitness, next to the ‘Port restaurant. There are 2 time slots — 9 and 9:45 a.m. – to work out in a strength-based group class (all levels welcome).

Happy — and hungry — you’ll be ready for an amazing spread of food across the street, courtesy of Winfield Street Deli. They’ll debut a new brunch and coffee menu. Participants can select anything from the revamped menu.

Stop 2 of a 3-stop Sunday fun day.

The event finishes with that much-needed facial at Organachs beauty boutique, right next to Winfield

It’s $30 a person for the workout and brunch — first come, first served. To register, email info@upperdeckfitness.com, or call 203-329-6231.

It’s another $15 for the mini-facial. Pre-registration is required — email info@organachsfarmtoskin.com.

Just tell ’em Breno sent you.

Phil Levieff Is In The TecKnow

Phil Levieff takes his hands off his Tesla’s steering wheel. The self-driving car zooms up Sturges Highway. It avoids an oncoming vehicle. It does not crash into a mailbox on my (passenger) side.

We arrive safely at Levieff’s house. We get out in the driveway. The garage door opens. The car drives itself inside, and parks.

Phil Levieff

We walk around the back. Levieff talks into the air. The back door unlocks. We stroll inside. He commands the lights to go on. Instantly, they do.

Of course, there’s only so much that technology can do. Levieff has to light the logs in his fireplace himself.

But that’s about it. Levieff is an early adopter. His car and home are as cutting-edge as 2018 gets.

The house includes 177 connected devices, operating in 24 zones. His voice controls lights, locks, thermostats, TVs, music, security cameras, alarms, blinds, fans, garage doors, solar storage and irrigation.

But Levieff’s home is not just a one-off. His business —  TecKnow — works with leading tech companies to “build the home infrastructure of the future.” It’s an attic-to-basement, indoor-and-out service that customizes and integrates the best home automation technology for individual homeowners.

They design, install and program your “smart home ecosystem.”

And — this is key — they teach you how to use it.

Nearly everything in Phil Levieff’s living room — in fact, the entire house, inside and out — is interconnected, and voice-activated.

Think about how many features of your smartphone you don’t use — either because you have no idea they exist, or you can’t figure them out.

Now multiply that by an entire house: TVs, music, kitchen, HVAC. You may not understand it all.

But Levieff does.

A Tesla battery in the basement runs Phil Levieff’s entire house.

The 1988 Staples High School graduate has been a tech geek since his days  building the first networked gaming PCs. He spent 23 years working for Automatic Data Processing (ADP), leading sales, marketing and strategy teams.

Now he’s struck out on his own. All he has is an Apple Watch, Apple TV remote, iPhone, iPad, Mac, and a Dick Tracy-like, intriguingly technologically advanced home on the Westport-Fairfield border, where he lives and utters voice commands with his wife and 2 kids.

Well, okay. He’s also got a great logo. It suggests the power of a voice, a Wifi geofence and the sun to efficiently run a home.

And Levieff has clients, both for new construction and retrofits. He’s turned Robin Tauck’s new Old Mill home into a smart marvel. He’s working with other homeowners in the area, and Massachusetts. Oh, yeah: Ralph Lauren too.

Levieff has spent the past few months offering demos to builders, architects, brokers, developers and skilled workers.

“A lot of people have tried and failed in smart home technology,” he says.

He is adamant he won’t be one of those.

After all, when it comes to home ecosystems, Phil Levieff has the “tech know.”

TecKnow ties together every element of a smart house.

Backspace: A Very Different “Type” Of Store

It was not your typical Christmas gift.

A few years ago, Karin Kessler wanted to give her 4 children something more than electronics or gift cards. She thought a typewriter — a big, black 1930s-era machine — might be a way to connect them to a world beyond screens and stuff.

She found one online.

Her kids had never seen a typewriter. They had never heard the clicking sounds of keys on platen, or the “ding” at the end of a line. They never knew the frustration of whiteout, or the fact that “cc” on emails come from “carbon copy” years ago.

A relic from a bygone era.

They may or may not have loved Karin’s gift. But it sparked a curiosity in her to know more about typewriters, of all kinds.

She researched the history of the machines. (Did you know that the QWERTY keyboard developed as a way to space out the most popular letters — to avoid jammed keys?)

She began collecting typewriters. She found early models — like one where the typist could not even see what he was typing.

She found crazy-looking bat-wing typewriters, heavy typewriters, and the amazing portables that enabled journalists to type anywhere (of course, they had to carry them there).

4 of Karin Kessler’s many typewriters.

The machines — including still-newfangled electric models, with rotating balls instead of keys — became dinosaurs in the 1980s, when word processors were all the rage. But, Karin notes, “for 100 years typewriters were a part of people’s lives.”

Many times, sellers had emotional attachments; the typewriters belonged to their parents or grandparents. But the machines were useless, and taking up room. Sellers asked Karin to take good care of the typewriters.

She does. (First though, she cleans them. Many have decades-old nicotine stains.)

Karin’s typewriters come from all over the world. She’s amassed a mind-boggling collection of fonts and keyboards — including languages like Spanish, French, German, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic (the latter two type, obviously, in the opposite direction as ours).

There are complicated keyboards like Japanese, Korean and Chinese. There are Braille typewriters too, which have only a few keys but nonetheless seem very complicated.

Karin Kessler’s Braille typewriter.

Karin’s basement is filled with typewriters. She has no idea how many.

But she does have an idea what to do with them.

Last October, leaving Barnes & Noble, she saw a “For Lease” space on the small building behind Little Barn. She had an epiphany: open a space filled with typewriters. She’d sell them — but also invite anyone to sit, use them, and learn to love them as she has.

She got the lease. Now she’s filled the store (called Backspace) with all her typewriters — plus desks of different height (so people don’t feel like they’re on top of each other), sofas, and a sign saying “Everyone has a story to tell…put it in writing!”

A mentor from SCORE — the nationwide network of volunteer business experts — has helped keep her focus on the business plan.

Karin Kessler, in her Backspace space.

So who will rent these typewriters?

“Some people want to type thank-yous, or wedding invitations,” Karin says. “Or poems or short stories. Whenever you type, you feel really productive. You have to slow down, and think about your writing. There’s no spell check, no predictive text.”

Typing is particularly suited to fiction writing and journaling, Karin says.

Backspace is available to rent for events, like book signings, lectures and game nights. She also envisions people coming to take typewriters apart, and learn to repair them.

“It’s a work in progress,” she explains. “I see it as a fun, creative, positive educational place.”

There’s a soft opening this Wednesday (February 7). Then Backspace will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Write on!

Backspace is located at 8 Church Street South — right behind Little Barn.

Ann Taylor And Allen Edmonds Leaving Main Street. Tumbleweeds Next?

Yesterday, Nike handed over the keys to their Main Street store landlord.

This summer, Ann Taylor and Allen Edmonds follow.

That will leave 3 empty stores out of 4 in a row — smack in the middle of downtown.

Skip Lane — retail director for Cushman & Wakefield, the leasing brokers — minces no words.

“It’s a scary time for retail,” the Westport native and Staples High School graduate says. “Nobody knows where this will end.”

Nike has vacated 5,600 square feet of space. Ann Taylor leases 4,000 square feet; Allen Edmonds, 2,000.

The Nike store on Main Street is now closed.

That will be dwarfed when the GGP Mall opens off I-95 Exit 15 in Norwalk. It’s huge — and, Lane says, the only enclosed mall under construction in the entire country.

“It can kill street retail,” he predicts. “Rents will be lower, and foot traffic will be higher.”

Rents for stores like Nike are now in the $130 per square foot range, Lane says. Recent deals, he notes, are around $80 to $90.

Right now, there are 20 or so vacancies in downtown Westport. Lane worries the number will climb.

“I’m a cheerleader for the town,” he says. “But a few more hits, and it will be tumbleweeds down there.”

He offers a partial solution: “Stop using Amazon. Support your retailers. Shop local!”

In 1962 — and long after — Main Street was a vibrant shopping destination. Many stores were locally owned.

Unsung Heroes #33

It’s the middle of winter. The weather will get worse before it gets better. The flu season is the most deadly since the pandemic of 1918, or something like that. Everyone in town is sneezy and grumpy.

It’s time for a smile.

That’s what you — and everyone else — gets the moment we walk into Trader Joe’s.

It doesn’t matter if there’s no one in line, or the entire town has descended to buy milk, bread and eggs because an inch of snow is forecast.

It doesn’t matter if it’s 9 a.m., midday or seconds before closing.

The staff at Trader Joe’s is astonishingly — and always — upbeat, helpful, friendly, genuinely interested, and (a retail rarity for sure) efficient.

They smile when they ring you up. They smile when they tell you those berries look bad, and ring the bell so someone else can fetch better ones. They smile as you fumble through your change, then tell you to forget those pennies — no problem!

They smile when people grab the daily samples, without so much as a “thank you.” They smile as they corral shopping carts outside in the freezing cold, because too many people are too lazy to return them themselves.

They even smile when you complain about the parking lot, over which they have absolutely no control and hate as much as you do.

Everyone has his or her favorite Trader Joe’s guy or girl. But really, they’re all special.

Which is why everyone who works at the Westport Trader Joe’s is this week’s Unsung Hero.