Category Archives: Local business

More Than Just A Bungalow

Mention “downtown shopping,” and Westporters think first of Main Street.

That’s long been our retail heart. But it’s not the only one.

For more than half a century, Sconset Square has sat happily — and with plenty of parking — just a few yards from Main Street. It’s attracted local merchants, with a variety of offerings. Its stores (and restaurants and services, like tailors) have loyal clienteles.

Sconset (which started life as Sherwood) Square is an often-overlooked, and quite successful — piece of Westport’s retail puzzle.

Wende Cohen

Wende Cohen is one of those long-time merchants. But she did not set out to be one.

More than 2 decades ago she moved here from New York City for the usual reasons: 2 kids, more room, beaches, golf, the schools and community.

Wende had worked in magazine ad sales, before turning to her next job of raising kids. But her mother-in-law was in the antiques business, and when Wende traveled with her on European buying trips, she was hooked.

More than 2 decades ago — while still in her 20s — she opened a store called Bungalow, in the former Brandman’s Paints in Sconset Square.

She loved being part of the small shopping center. There was a camera store, a travel agency and more. Through the shop she met people outside her “circle of mom friends”: decorators, summer people, empty nesters.

Wende’s first container sold out in months. She went back to Europe, and returned with more unique items.

Over the years, Bungalow added gifts, jewelry, books and cashmere. It morphed into a “lifestyle store.” Wende expanded, and with the help of landlord David Waldman renovated her place.

Her merchandise is a mixture of old and new, with prices from $8 to $8,000. She works hard finding special pieces. She celebrates local artists, with pottery, photos and paintings.

And — as a small businesswoman — customer service is important.

Wende lets people take items home, and see how they fit or work.

In the store itself, she’s got a space in back where she’ll open a bottle of wine, or have an espresso. Le Penguin — a couple of doors away — sends over lunch on china.

She’s not immune to the winds of change sweeping retail — particularly the internet. So she’s making sure she does not sit still.

Recently, Bungalow renovated its space. It’s airier, more open. There are high new high ceilings.

Sconset Square has been around for a while. So has Bungalow.

Both are success stories, in a Westport retail environment that needs some good news.

Unsung Hero #70

In the aftermath of last week’s torrential downpour, alert — and grateful — “06880” reader Lee Feldman writes:

Tonight, I left the gym at the Saugatuck Rowing Club to find my car with a dead battery. Though several folks there offered to help, no one had jumper cables.

I decided to walk over to the Bridge Mobil service station on Riverside Avenue. My expectations were low, since I knew the garage was closed.

When I explained the situation to the night attendant, he told me all the mechanics were off duty. But he offered to call the manager, Johnny (I apologize for not knowing his last name.)

Again, I thought he would tell me that couldn’t help until they opened in the morning.

Instead, Johnny showed up a few minutes later with a jumper battery in hand. He drove over to the SRC and got my car started.

Bridge Mobil, on Riverside Avenue.

When we weren’t sure whether it would keep running, he offered to follow me home, in case I needed another jump along the way.

And when we got there, he refused to accept any payment. He just advised me to have the alternator on my car checked.

With all the anger and ugliness that seems pervasive these days, people like Johnny are a reminder of our better selves. I hope you can recognize him as an Unsung Hero. I intend to patronize his business, and encourage others to do the same.

Done — with joy and gratitude!

Women Cancer Survivors: Get Pampered!

Westporters who have battled cancer are lucky to have the support of friends and family.

Now they’ve got local businesses behind them too.

Upper Deck Fitness and National Hall are sponsoring a special Women’s Wellness and Survivor Day next Saturday (October 20, 9:30 a.m.).

The event honors the strength of women who have overcome cancer, by treating them (and their friends and families) to a morning of nourishment.

Participants will enjoy a gentle outdoor workout on the Saugatuck River, followed by a communal brunch courtesy of Bartaco, OKO, Winfield Deli, Amis Trattoria, New Wave Seafood and Rye Ridge Deli.

Pampering is provided by Whip Salon, Beautycounter and the massage therapists of Upper Deck Fitness.

Lululemon, Athleta and others are contributing raffle prizes.

National Hall and Upper Deck Fitness.

Guest speakers include Maureen Lutz, who has written about surviving breast cancer and founded the non-profit Necessities Bags, and Upper Deck CEO Suzanne Vita Palazzo, who founded the Badass and Beautiful blog.

The event is free, but RSVPs are requested. Email spalazzo@upperdeckfitness.com. Questions? Call 203-309-6231.

After 55 Years, Dr. Stan Freeman Hangs Up His Drill

In 1963, Stan Freeman and his wife Sharon took a ride up I-95. He was completing 2 years as a captain in the US Air Force dental service.

At lunchtime, they took Exit 18 to find a place to eat. The Clam Box — at the end of the Sherwood Island Connector — seemed welcoming.

It was a beautiful spring day, so after lunch they explored the town. A sign outside a new Imperial Avenue office building said, “Dental Offices for Rent.” Freeman — who was ready to open a solo practice — was intrigued.

The office complex that helped convince Dr. Stanley Freeman to move to Westport.

He and his wife had strong ties to their native Bronx. But they kept coming back to Westport.

The owners of the new building — orthodontist Arthur Thomas and general dentist Norman Feitelson — offered to help Freeman design his own office.

His practice thrived. He added dentists — Brian Duchan in 1977, his son Adam Freeman in 1992, then Hannah Ahn and, most recently, Kimberly Farrell.

He moved to 329 Riverside Avenue. He stayed on top of all the advances in dentistry: the latest equipment, composite fillings, new techniques.

Finally, 55 years later — long after both the Clam Box and its successors, including Bertucci’s, have closed — Dr. Stan Freeman is retiring.

Sort of.

After December, he’ll no longer see patients. But he will continue to work with the Connecticut Dental Association. He’ll still teach at Touro College of Dental Medicine, where — like Columbia University School of Dental Medicine before it — he earned the rank of full professor.

He’ll add to his published works too, which now number over 25 original papers, in international journals.

Dr. Stan Freeman

Freeman says he’s enjoyed every day of his 55 years in Westport. But his route to dentistry was almost random. As a student at NYU’s Bronx campus, he had to pick a major. On a whim, he attended a meeting of the Pre-Dental Society.

“There was no magic moment,” he says. “It seemed like a good idea.”

He earned his medical degree at McGill University. Then came the Air Force, I-95 — and the rest is history.

Freeman has watched Westport evolve, from a “small town with mom-and-pop stores” to what it is today. But it’s still relatively small, and it has always been filled with “great people,” he says.

He has watched young patients grow up, get married, and bring their own children to his office. He built his practice by getting to know all his patients.

And his town.

Freeman served 12 years on the Conservation Commission — 8 as chair — and chaired the Zoning Board of Appeals too.

He was also a member of the Democratic Town Committee executive committee, attending 3 state conventions.

Dr. Adam Freeman (left) joined his father Stan’s dental practice.

Freeman is not going anywhere. He and Sharon raised 4 children here — including Adam, now president of the practice — and there’s no reason to leave.

Dr. Stan Freeman looks forward to November 7 (5:30 to 8:30 p.m., 329 Riverside Avenue), when his entire office celebrates his long career.

The tens of thousands of patients he’s cared for over 55 years are invited too. Just call 203-227-3709 to RSVP.

Ron Provenzano’s Promise

Back in 2009, Ron Provenzano opened a barber shop across from the train station. It featured wooden floors, an old-fashioned cash register, a striped barber’s pole — and actual “shaves.”

A few years ago, he moved to 190 Main Street. Settling into the famed Sally’s Place record shop, he kept that old-fashioned feel and his many loyal customers. He added plenty of new ones too.

Earlier today, a guy walked inside. He held a business card from the old Railroad Place spot. On the back, the barber had scrawled “One free haircut.”

The man had never redeemed it — never been to Ron’s, in fact.

Was it still good?

“Of course!” he said.

It took a decade. But today, Ron Provenzano made a customer for life.

Ron Provenzano, and the 10-year-old business card.

Willkommen, Westoberfest

For a decade, the Westport Downtown Merchants Association sponsored Blues, Views & BBQ.

This year, after the Labor Day weekend music and food festival evolved into a regional event — drawing visitors from as far as New York, but who seldom ventured beyond the Levitt Pavilion and Imperial Avenue venues — the WDMA handed it off to the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce.

That left a hole in the downtown group’s calendar. They wanted something new — but Main Street oriented.

Welcome, Westoberfest! It’s set for next Saturday (October 13), from 1 to 5 p.m.

Like Oktoberfests everywhere, this one features beer, food, music and more. Over 18 local and regional breweries will offer seasonal craft beers in the Elm Street parking lot. Merchants will walk around, handing out coupons and free items.

Rothbard Ale + Larder and Kawa Ni will serve special cuisines. Amber Anchor plays; kids can enjoy face painting, and the Westport Artists Collective, Historical Society, Library, Wakeman Town Farm and Earthplace will all participate too.

Also on tap: a pop-up artisan market courtesy of the Westport Farmers’ Market, and a classic car rally and exhibition through the Small Car Company of Westport.

It’s all free (except for the beer tasting). Those tickets ($35 for single, $60 for a pair, in advance online only, and a pack of 10 for $280, in advance online only) are available here.

If you think a lot goes on in Westport next weekend, you’re right. There’s also Saugatuck StoryFest at the library, Jesup Green and other sites.

This is one time no one will sing the downtown blues.

Friday Flashback #110

For an otherwise unremarkable spot on Post Road East, #1700 has a long and storied history.

Today’s it’s the site of a thriving Goodwill store.

For many years before that, it was the Peppermill — one of the first steak-and-all-you-can-eat-salad-bar restaurants in the country.

Before that, it was a different steak place. Bonanza Sirloin Pit served up meat in a quasi-fast food way. You got in line, snaked through, and picked up your meal at the end.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

Dan Blocker — “Hoss” on the great “Bonanza” TV show — made a personal appearance there once. I was in elementary school. He seemed huge. Now I know it wasn’t just because I was small

But the site has a history even before steak spot and Goodwill. Back in the day, it served as Westport’s Greyhound bus depot.

It was called the Greyhound Post House. There must have been food available inside too.

If you’ve got any memories of the bus depot or Bonanza, click “Comments” below.

Peppermill: sure, why not?

As for Goodwill: Save them for a Friday Flashback in, say, 2048.

Tommy Greenwald: Football’s “Game Changer”

Like many Americans, Tommy Greenwald has a complicated relationship with football.

He was thrilled when his son Jack played.

“If I saw him limping or shaking his head, I’d say ‘Get back out there!'” Tommy says. “I was as happy to see my kid hitting and getting hit as anyone else.”

In 8th grade, Jack hurt his ankle. “My first concern was not going to the doctor,” Greenwald admits. “It was, could he finish the game?”

Jack had a great football career, with Westport PAL and Staples High School. His father appreciates what he learned from intense practices, tough games and his relationship with his coaches.

But, Greenwald says, “the football culture — with its pressure to be tough and strong, to play hurt, to not be perceived as soft” — has its downsides.

That’s the heart of “Game Changer.” Published this month, it’s the local author’s 10th book — and a departure from his previous “Charlie Joe Jackson” (named for his 3 sons) and “Crimebiters” young readers’ series.

Jack Greenwald (center), with his brothers Charlie and Joe.

There’s not a laugh to be had in this one. There are no wise guys, no dog with special powers.

“Game Changer” is deadly serious — almost literally.

13-year-old Teddy lies in a coma after a football injury during preseason camp. His family and teammates flock to his bedside to support his recovery — and at the same time trade rumors and theories on social media.

Was this a tragic but fairly common result of a violent sport? Or did something more sinister — bullying and hazing perhaps — happen on the field that day?

“Game Changer” is different type of book. It mixes together dialogue, text messages, newspaper stories — and Teddy’s own inner thoughts.

It’s different too in that it’s a no-holds-barred look at the terrifying risks of a major American sport — and the entire culture supporting it.

Greenwald is emphatic that this is a work of fiction. He added an author’s note to that effect at the end. He says he never saw or heard anything like what happened in “Game Changer” during Jack’s Westport career.

But, Greenwald says, it is “based on a culture I saw through Jack. It’s not far-fetched that this could happen. We’ve all heard about terrible cases in college, high school, even middle school.”

“Game Changer” is not, he insists, a condemnation of football. “My respect for coaches, the life lessons they taught, the lifelong friendships Jack made, is amazing,” Greenwald says.

He calls Westport PAL and Staples “great programs.” And Greenwald has done enough research to know that football in Fairfield County — while intense — is “a dust speck compared to programs around the country. When football is the dominant event in a community, the pressure ratchets up unbelievably. Westport seems to have a good balance. We don’t pin our hopes and dreams on young kids.”

But his book is “a wake-up call for everyone — including me,” he adds. “People — including me — have to pay more attention to the culture and the injuries” of football.

Tommy Greenwald

Greenwald never had to confront the even more dangerous effects of football at the higher level. Though Jack was “semi-recruited” for college, he ended up at Elon and did not play. He graduated from there last June, and now works at a Boston cyber-security firm.

“Jack’s era was a tipping point,” Greenwald says. “The media started focusing on concussions, and parents started looking at football differently. If Jack wanted to play in college, that would have been a much larger discussion.”

Greenwald — who won a state championship as a Staples High School soccer captain in 1978, and whose son Joe was a Wrecker soccer captain in 2012 — remains a “huge” NFL fan.

“I read, like everyone else, about the dangers,” he says. “And like everyone else I camp out every Sunday looking for the best games.

“It’s a weird feeling to like a game you probably shouldn’t.”

(Tommy Greenwald will host a discussion on the pros and cons of youth sports at Barnes & Noble this Sunday [October 7, 12 p.m.] Panelists include his own son Jack; former Staples High School, Temple University football captain and Staples assistant coach Mac DeVito, and Dan Woog — in my role as Staples boys soccer head coach.)

Mitchells At 60: Westport Flagship Store Flies High

A couple of Saturdays ago, hundreds of folks from Fairfield County and beyond jammed Mitchells.

They celebrated the store’s 60th anniversary — and its just-completed major reconfiguration.

The 27,000 square feet sparkle with updated designs, new collections, fresh lighting and an ultra-modern feel.

The fresh, new interior at Mitchells of Westport.

One floor below — where dozens of employees direct the operations of the 9 stores Mitchells owns on the East and West Coasts, and 18 tailors work their magic — another renovation has launched the business far into the future too.

It’s a far cry from the first Ed Mitchell’s store in 1958. All those celebrating customers last month could not even have fit in that tiny shop on the corner of Post Road and North Compo.

Back then, “the Mitchells” consisted of Ed and his wife Norma, and Ed’s mother (who did the tailoring).

The original Ed Mitchell’s. It’s now the site of People’s United Bank.

Yet 60 years ago they put out a coffee pot, and poured free cups. It was a small gesture, but a telling one. We want you here, the Mitchells said. And we’ll do whatever we can to make you feel at home.

The coffee pot has been replaced by a fancy machine, with espresso and capuccino options. Ed and Norma’s family is now on the 3rd generation, with a 4th waiting in the wings. Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past generation 2.

The coffee cup and family feeling are why Mitchells has survived — and thrived — over 6 decades.

I’ve known Bill and Jack Mitchell — Ed’s sons — since my father took me to the store as a child. I coached all 3 of Bill’s sons. I know many other Mitchells.

But the other day, as I sat with Jack (now chairman of all 9 stores) and his son Andrew (chief marketing officer) for a quiet, casual conversation about the past 60 years, I realized what a remarkable story this is.

A Mitchell family photo. Jack is at far left; Andrew is 4th from left, and Bill is at far right.

Although the business is now national, its roots remain right here in Westport. And that is the key both to Mitchells’ success, and why it is such a great “06880” tale.

“We’re bucking a national trend,” Jack says. “The headlines across the US are about retailers — Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and a lot more — that are closing stores and concentrating online. We’re investing in brick and mortar.”

Mitchells does have a robust web presence. But, Andrew adds, “we believe the digital world must support the in-store experience.”

“Our value that the customer comes first, and our goal of building relationships, hasn’t changed since I was at Wesleyan University and my dad opened the store,” Jack says.

“But this has changed.” He holds up his iPhone.

His staff uses the internet to track inventory, and ship it so customers can find the right shirt, suit, blouse or shoes online. They’re encouraged to visit a store, try it on and have it tailored. An item in the Seattle store can be shipped quickly to any other store, in Westport, Greenwich, Long Island, California or Oregon.

Customers browse online. But many enjoy the in-store experience too.

But Mitchells does much more. Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people.

“People are busy today. If they can only look at shoes at 10 p.m. when the kids are in bed, fine,” Andrew says. “If someone in a London hotel room sends an email or text, it may be 3 a.m. here. But we’ll take care of it.”

When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of.

What is a “fashion emergency”? An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen.

A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Jack Mitchell (left) lives in Wilton. Bill lives in Westport. They — and their extended family — go the extra mile (literally) to help customers.

That personal touch is why customers continue to flock to the stores. Each one is different. However — as they’ve bought properties across the country — the Mitchells have been careful to keep each local identity.

And name.

“Why change Richards in Greenwich, Marsh’s in Huntington, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, or Marios in Seattle and Portland?” Jack asks. (There’s also a by-appointment tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 58th Street.)

“Every one of those stores is part of its community. Our customers have 9 times the inventory, but the heart and soul of the customer experience is local.”

And the local Westport experience informs everything the entire company does.

“Our corporate office is here,” Jack says. “We have more Mitchells on the floor here than any other store. This is our heart and soul. It’s where it all began.”

For 60 years, Mitchells has embraced the community. They host 2 major fundraisers each year — Pink Aid (which started here) and Near and Far.

But they open their doors to 150 or so smaller events each year. Shopping nights for charity, group meetings, small fashion show fundraisers — just ask, and the Mitchells say, “Sure!”

Their quiet, behind-the-scenes help is even more legendary. The stories could fill a book. (In fact, Jack — the “hug your customer” expert — has written 3.)

“My father always said, ‘if you’re good to the community, you’ll have a healthy business,'” Jack says.

“Westport has been good to us. We just try to give back.”

FUN FACT: Why — when Mitchells changed the name from “Ed Mitchell’s” — did they eliminate the apostrophe? “It’s not about us owning it,” Jack explains. “It’s about all of us growing, one customer and one family member at a time.”

And, he adds: “If we were starting the business today, it would not be Ed Mitchell’s. It would be Ed and Norma Mitchell’s.”

He pauses, thinking about his mother’s enormous contributions to the success of the store.

“Or Norma and Ed’s.”

Westport Signs: The Sequel

Yesterday, “06880” posted a(nother) story on sign pollution. It featured (sigh) a stop sign with another sign at the bottom pleading “Please No Signs.”

At the end, I challenged readers to send photos of the worst sign polluters in town. I promised to post the “winner.”

Aka, the “loser.”

John Karrel is our man. He cites his “least favorite” corner: the intersection of Hillspoint and Greens Farms Road.

(Photo/John Karrel)

He writes:

  1. It is an UGLY sign
  2. You’re not supposed to pitch a business.
  3. Would someone really choose a fitness option this way?!

Please don’t answer that.