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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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Woog's World / For Westport's locally owned stores to survive, we have to shop there

Updated 8:47 am, Monday, February 10, 2014
  • Rick Dickinson, owner of Great Cakes in Westport, takes a cake order from Chris Ahlgrim, a longtime patron who also bought a dozen cupcakes. Ahlgrim was one of many customers to support the shop after word got out that Dickinson would have to close shop if he did not come up with $4,000 for a town tax bill. Photo: Michael C. Juliano/Staff Photo

    Rick Dickinson, owner of Great Cakes in Westport, takes a cake order from Chris Ahlgrim, a longtime patron who also bought a dozen cupcakes. Ahlgrim was one of many customers to support the shop after word got out that Dickinson would have to close shop if he did not come up with $4,000 for a town tax bill.

    Photo: Michael C. Juliano/Staff Photo

 

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The closing last week of Great Cakes was not unexpected.

A year earlier, owner Rick Dickinson thought he'd have to shut down. The national economy, changing tastes in breakfast and baked goods, a typically slow winter -- and a school district-wide ban on cupcakes at elementary school parties -- created the perfect storm.

But when word circulated about the imminent closing, Westporters rallied. Customers flooded the small bakery. They handed over cash and checks. They opened pre-paid accounts. They offered advice on developing a viable business plan.

It worked -- for a while. But business trailed off again. Last Sunday, Great Cakes closed for good. Its 32-year Westport run was over.

Among the sad-faced customers a couple of days earlier was a woman. "I haven't been in here for seven months," she said. "But I want to let you know how sorry I am."

Well, duh.

If you don't patronize a business, it has a tough time staying open. That's a lesson learned long before Economics 101. The lesson applies all over the world, from Park Avenue to Middle East souks. And though we tend to think of Main Street, Westport, as a lot more special than Main Street, USA, it's a fact of life here, too.

Sally White learned that lesson last fall. She was the much-loved owner of Sally's Place, the legendary record store on the less-expensive stretch of Main Street, just beyond Avery Place. Beneath posters of Frank Sinatra and surrounded by tchotchkes from a lifetime in the business, Sally dispensed wisdom and advice to generations of music lovers. She was a guru to Keith Richards, guitar-playing wannabes, and everyone in between.

But Keith Richards and everyone else no longer buys records or CDs. We download our music, from an Internet filled with exponentially more choices than Sally could ever offer. And despite her otherworldly ability to track down an obscure album based on a customer's off-key humming of two bars of one song, there was not enough call for that to sustain her business.

When customers heard Sally was closing, they poured in to say goodbye. As with Great Cakes, their sorrow was real. They felt they were losing a friend. But -- just like the woman who told Rick Dickinson that she hadn't been to Great Cakes in months -- many had not seen Sally in years.

Silver's of Westport is another local store in an industry that's seen enormous change. For more than half a century, it's been an anchor of Compo Acres Shopping Center. Steve and Sue Silver -- and, before that, their father -- have helped countless Westporters buy the best luggage, the finest pens, the perfect gift.

But luggage is losing its luster. We no longer need fine bags for long trips; just give us something that survives being tossed around by underpaid airline workers. We get our pens from Bic (or the office), and it's a heck of a lot easier to order a gift card online than actually shop for a graduation, birthday or holiday present.

Silver's has tried to jack up its online presence. But -- like Sally's Place -- at its heart it thrives on human contact. The Internet helps us find music, and delivers a gift or luggage with plenty of ease, from home, 24/7/365. It can't make exactly the right recommendations based on looking a customer in the eye, remembering a purchase he made many years ago, or sensing something in his tone of voice. Sometimes-- often -- we decide that's OK. It's a choice we make, just as it's a business owner's choice not to change her product mix or his menu, or hire a costly consultant to figure out how to better compete in a rapidly changing environment when know one really knows what's coming tomorrow, anyway.

Silver's is not planning to close. But business is down from the boom years. The familiar faces come in less often. Steve and Sue are happy to help them, whenever they stop by.

It's one thing to stop going to a chain store or eatery. If we decide that the Gap, Williams-Sonoma or Starbucks no longer suit our needs, so be it. They're big boys. Their executives are paid big bucks to figure out how to get our attention, and hold it. Their stockholders demand it, too.

But supporting our local merchants is something else entirely. It's a conscious decision. It demands action: driving somewhere, interacting with a human being, spending perhaps a bit more money than we need to.

We can decide to do that, or not. But when we decide to shop online, or save a few bucks at a national chain, there are consequences.

One of which is that we should not say "I'm so sorry" to the owner we haven't seen in months, on the day he or she closes up shop.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.