Woog's World: Westport's tides of retail change: Silver ebbs, Mitchells flows
Published 7:20 am, Saturday, December 13, 2014
In 1904, Samuel Silver opened a shop in Bridgeport. He sold canes and umbrellas, and did quite well.
In 1951 his son Philip expanded to Westport. Compo Acres Shopping Center was new. The economy was booming. Westporters spent freely on specialty items. With the advent of jet planes, Phil added luggage. The store changed with the times. For half a century Silver of Westport was the place to go for all travel needs, plus gifts for holidays, graduations and weddings. There was no other place like it in town.
But times always change. The Internet introduced online shopping The recession cut into discretionary spending. Compo Acres showed its age. New owners gave it a facelift, but construction dragged on for months. Parking -- never easy -- grew nearly impossible.
The day after Thanksgiving, Steve and Susan Silver -- Phil's kids, Samuel's grandchildren -- announced they'll be closing. The run of three generations of Silvers will come whenever they run out of merchandise.
It's the end of an era, for sure. But as much as Westporters -- many of whom long ago stopped shopping at Silver's -- rue the demise of yet another local institution, this is not the death knell for family-owned businesses. Sure, Klein's and Greenberg's and Shilepsky's are gone. Much more recently, Max's Art Supplies sold its last paint brushes, picture frames and Letrasets. But plenty of others remain.
The granddaddy -- actually, great-great-great-grandaddy -- of locally owned businesses is Gault. Founded in 1863 -- nearly half a century before Samuel Silver sold his first umbella -- the Saugatuck company even predates the arrival of Italians in that neighborhood.
Far more than Silver's, Gault has changed with the times. It started as a coal business, with a sideline in horse transportation. Then came freight hauling, plowing, grain threshing, gravel, mason supplies, barge transport, oil, stone and cement.
Today, Gault is an energy conservation company. Its headquarters is still in Saugatuck -- but a Saugatuck that, like (and because of) Gault, has reinvented itself. No one can predict the future, but I'm betting that in 2063, some iteration of Gault will celebrate its bicentennial.
Fifty years from now, we'll probably be shopping at Mitchells, too. That's another Westport institution that started out -- literally -- as a mom-and-pop shop. In 1958, Ed Mitchell gave up the commuting life he hated. He sold suits in a former plumbing supply store on the corner of the Post Road and Compo Road North. His wife Norma made coffee. And his mother was a tailor.
Today, Mitchells has expanded enormously. They left their 800-square-foot shop for Colonial Green; now they own a very high-end 33,000-square foot building half a mile (but light-years in other ways) from the original store.
The second generation (Jack and Bill) have given way to a third. Mitchells now owns stores in Greenwich, Long Island and California. But the family ethos remains strong. And with a fourth generation waiting to take over, Mitchells too stands poised to flourish for years to come.
Those are the big guys -- the family owned companies that everyone thinks of. Yet many others remain in Westport, providing roots and stability in a business landscape that seems to change each month.
Food is a constant that keeps family members involved. For instance, the Nistico family opened its first Arrow Restaurant in 1932. (Its name came from the arrow-like location at Franklin Street and Saugatuck Avenue.) They outgrew that tiny spot and moved around the corner to Charles Street, where they thrived until 1991. A decade earlier, the third generation of Nisticos had bought (and saved) the Red Barn, a Wilton Road institution. More than 30 years later, they're still there.
Another Italian family -- the Miolis -- are the beloved owners of Westport Pizzeria. Their recipe is as simple and timeless as their name. A recent move from Main Street to the nearby Post Road has not changed a thing.
Calise's -- the small Post Road deli -- has been in the same family for years. They've added a few items to account for changing tastes. But they've kept what works, and customers keep coming.
Not far away, the Kowalsky family runs the contracting company founded in 1946. Across town, the Gilberties have sold flowers and herbs since 1922.
Just over the Norwalk line, a pair of Westport families run very popular companies bearing their name. Stew Leonard turned his father's Clover Farms dairy into a tri-state behemoth that still feels very local. And Tauck World Discovery offers high-end travel with a family touch that's endured since Arthur Tauck Sr. gathered his first clients into his roomy roadster, for a motor coach tour of New England.
Think of all those companies as you head to Silver's, for their going-out-of-business sale. And -- more important -- keep giving them your business.