Part of being a long-time columnist for a local newspaper is that you become the go-to guy for every random thought that pops into readers' heads. Whether it's the names of all the restaurants that preceded Shake Shack, confirmation that the Doors really played at Staples, or settling a bet about a Little League game from 40 years ago, I field your letters, emails and texts.
Sometimes the answer is easy. (Yes, to the Doors. I was there.) Sometimes I'm stumped. (There were far too many restaurants at the site of Shake Shack to count, though I do remember Beefsteak Charlie's and a Mongolian place.) Sometimes -- as with Little League games -- I really don't care.
But my favorite questions are ones like this, from a couple of days ago: "Is Calise's Market still there?"
I like being able to say, "Of course. They've added hot Italian meals and catering. There are a few tables now, for coffee and sandwiches. But it hasn't changed much. it's still in the same place, and the same people go who were there 50 years ago."
I like being able to say that Calise's is still here, because although I'm not a daily patron -- I go for an occasional newspaper, bag of ice, whatever -- it is a place you will find nowhere else. There is no Calise's chain. There is not even a second Calise's in Fairfield or Norwalk. It's one of a kind, and it's ours.
But it's also an archetype. Around Westport, you'll find other Calise's. Each serves its neighborhood -- and the people who wander through it -- in a low-key, friendly, "Cheers"-style way. What you see is what you get. And if you stop by often enough, everybody knows your name.
That's certainly the case at Christie's Country Store. (Which, like Calise's, has kept the name of its original owner. Part of that is homage; part, because it would be real stupid to change.)
One of Westport's oldest stores -- dating to 1926 -- Christie's has had to adapt to 86 years of change. As the photos on the wall attest, Christie's started as a farm produce stand. It must have been a welcome sight, an outpost in the middle of a long Cross Highway haul from Fairfield to Norwalk.
The menu has evolved over the years. There are fewer fruits and vegetables, more dinner takeout items. But it's still a great spot for construction workers, delivery people, and everyone else finding themselves in this far-from-other-stores neighborhood to stop at for breakfast or lunch. And when the power goes out -- as it often does in that neck of the woods -- Christie's instantly turns into a community center.
In another part of town, Elvira's is another community center. Judging from the outside -- and remembering back to the days when the Old Mill store was a bit (shall we say) grubbier -- you'd never imagine the menu would be so diverse, the shelves so full, the place so lively.
But Elvira's hums with activity -- while never losing its neighborhood vibe. Families run monthly tabs. School photos of neighborhood kids line the counter. Stacey, Nikki and the other owners pass along messages, news and gossip: Homes for rent, babysitters to hire, births and deaths.
Business is seasonal at Elvira's. In the summer, the place swarms. In the winter, it's slow. But the staff never stops smiling; the grill never stops sizzling, and Old Mill residents never feel more cared for than when they're there.
Zoning regulations being what they are, it's hard to imagine a Christie's or Elvira's opening up today. In 2012, planning a business that draws steady traffic in the midst of a residential area would be a laughable non-starter.
But what would northwest Westport be without the Country Store? This is a different "country store" than Christie's; it sits on the corner of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike. Like its country cousin, it's morphed a bit over many years. A bakery and catering operation are now attached to the traditional deli. Yet at its heart, it's still "The Country Store" -- a place two minutes away, where hundreds of people know they'll find hearty sandwiches, healthy salads, and that extra quart of milk they need right now.
We don't often think about these mom-and-pop shops (or, more accurately, great-grandma-and-grandpa shops -- that's how long they've been around). They've become one more part of the neighborhood landscape. They've always been there, and we assume they always will be.
Well, they may not be. Running a small neighborhood store takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Profit margins are razor-thin; competition is everywhere.
Calise's, Christie's, Elvira's and the Country Store have become vital parts of our Westport family. But we're like families everywhere: We often take other members for granted. When was the last time any of us said to them, "Thank you"?