Under new owners, Christie's eyes its past

Under new owners,Westport landmark eyes its past

In the 85 years since it was founded, Christie's Country Store has had numerous incarnations -- a general store, a general store with a gas station, a delicatessen, a pizza shop, a convenience store and a natural foods market.

Since buying Christie's two years ago, a Fairfield couple has created an eclectic shop that's part convenience store, part deli and part catering business.

In homage to the business's origins as a farm stand, John and Renee Hooper have been hosting a weekly farmers' market in the parking lot on Sundays since June.

"That was my idea," said Renee, who works in New York City as a clothing designer. "I wanted to service the community and give working moms a place to come with their kids and create a destination for their families on Sundays."

The farmers' market, which will run through early-October, offers produce and goods from about 15 Connecticut vendors, including local farmers, a bakery and local artisans.

Inside the store, they've upgraded the food service and brought in a host of new products, including their own Connecticut Bloody Mary Mix and juices and lemonades from Farmer's Cow, a consortium of six Connecticut farms.

"We're now (Farmer's Cow's) biggest seller," said John, a Westport native who traces his ancestry in town back to the 1600s with names such as Gorham, Nash and Sipperly.

The couple created a new bill of fare under Dan Renzulli and Diane De Fillippo, former chefs at Fairfield's Patterson Club. The menu offers more than 50 items, including the "Godmother," a grilled chicken sandwich with artichoke hearts, spinach, feta and a yuzo-miso vinaigrette, and a Philly cheese steak with balsamic chipotle onions.

"When we bought this, I was semi-retired and wanted to turn this around from what it was with all the previous owners," said John, a former partner in a restaurant management operation who wanted to take Christie's beyond basic convenience items and serving lunch to local tradespeople. "We envisioned supporting that, but also wanted to bring this back to what it was 85 years ago, a focal point for the neighborhood."

Expanded offerings soon will include a selection of beers, as the store recently obtained a beer license from the state liquor commission.

They also plan on installing a fireplace at one end of the 2,300-square-foot store near the store's three tables.

"That will eventually change the tone here," John said. "We hope to have that in by November."

The store also has a detached ice cream stand and a porch with six tables.

While the name has remained the same since 1926, Christie's has seen its share of changes over the decades -- including a seemingly endless series of identity crises over the past 25 years.

The founders named the store after their daughter, Christine, and subsequent members of the Massiello family operated it as a store and garage with gas pumps.

Then in 1988, the Massiello's sold the property to neighbors Charles and Julia Manuel, who turned the store portion into a deli.

Seth Finkelstein bought the building in 1994 and continued to run the store as a deli for several years while a separate operator ran the garage and gas pumps.

A Russian couple bought the property in 2002 and ran Christie's as a pizzeria for just two years before selling it to Bob Corroon in 2004.

Corroon leased the store to a Korean couple, who removed the pizza ovens and brought a dry-cleaning business in as a sideline. But that didn't work out.

Corroon then decided to convert the garage into an antiques store, but he failed to get zoning approval.

So he sold the property in 2008 to Tim Purcell -- a mechanic who had been running the garage since 2001 -- for $1.7 million. Corroon then leased the store back from Purcell, and spent $250,000 to turn Christie's into a natural foods market.

As a deli and even as a pizza shop, locals and tradesmen had frequented the place for lunch. But the natural foods market didn't appeal to them.

So Corroon pulled out and sold Christie's business to the Hoopers, who signed a 25-year lease on the store.

Purcell took the gas pumps out last year.

Allen Raymond, the 88-year-old town historian who visited Westport as a child and lived in town since 1949, remembers when Christie's was a very busy place in the pre-supermarket era.

"It was a different world back then," he said.

Despite the frequent turnover over the past two decades, the name Christie's has survived. And the Hoopers insist on keeping it.

"How can you change the name?" asked John.

Beyond offering good food and products that cater to a wide variety of people, John said they want to again make Christie's a neighborhood meeting place.

"There's nothing better than kids with bicycles and red wagons with their parents eating on the front porch," he said.

The store's hours are Mondays through Thursdays, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For information, call 203-222-9999 or visit www.christiescountrystore.com.