Woog's World / Silver anniversary marks 60 years, not just 25, in Westport
In 1904, Bridgeport was thriving. That year, Sam Silver opened a store on Main Street. At first he sold only canes and umbrellas; soon he added handbags, luggage and trunks.
By the 1920s, Silver's was booming. There were $5,000 days -- back when wallets sold for $1.
But the Depression, followed by war years, were tough. Silver had to pay cash for everything. His store -- and family -- were nearly wiped out. It closed in 1963.
Yet by then, another Silver's store was doing quite well. In 1951 Silver's son Philip had gone into business in the fledgling Compo Acres Shopping Center on what was then called East State Street. There were just two other stores: Franklin Simon at one end (now Patriot National Bank) and Finast supermarket (now Trader Joe's). Wooden boards served as sidewalks.
Gradually, Compo Acres grew. There was a drug store; Morris Kalman ran a lunch counter in the back, before striking out with his own luncheonette. In came Benedict Jewelers, Budget Liquors, Maurice & Georges hair salon and Carousel Toys.
Six decades later, Silver's is the only original business left. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary in Westport, it is probably the oldest retailer in town.
Silver's long run has featured plenty of growth and innovation. But it was not always easy. A 1963 fire leveled the shopping center, sparing only the two anchors. The cause was faulty electrical wiring. With no firewalls, it spread rapidly between stores.
But the blaze enabled Silver's to rebuild. Architect Larry Michaels created a modern, contemporary look that added 800 square feet to the original 2,200.
To satisfy customers Silver added luggage, travel clocks, accessories and small lights to his stock of wallets and handbags. In the early 1960s the store joined with several other luggage stores to produce a catalog. By the end of the decade the catalog became a full-color, 28-page book.
In 1972, Phil's son Steve joined the business full time. Within a decade Steve's sister Susan came on board, too.
Steve succeeded his father as owner in 1986. Steve had vowed to himself that by age 40 he would not be working for his father. But after three days, he realized his father could not work for him either. The deal was restructured to a 50-50 partnership.
Phil retired in 1996. Today, Steve and Sue are co-owners.
The 1980s and '90s were great, Steve Silver recalled last week. A two-story warehouse behind the current site of Wachovia Bank was almost not big enough. The owners considered moving -- and looked at sites, including property near Calise's -- but decided to stay in Compo Acres.
They relocated a few yards east, adjacent to what now is Trader Joe's. The present location -- with its modern look and 4,000-square-foot basement that replaced the warehouse -- opened for business in October 1992.
Silver takes pride in that his "newest" full-time employee has been working there for 12 years. The most veteran has been there for 37.
Unlike many small business owners, Silver has always paid health insurance for full-time employees. For a long time, he insured entire families. He still covers employees and their children, although the staff contributes more than they used to. Premium increases have been huge, but Silver believes it is the right thing to do.
Flexible scheduling helps employees handle challenges like childcare and college courses. "Our staff is an enormous part of what we do," he says. "We joke that we close at 5:58 p.m. We realize people have to get home to their families. In some ways, our staff can be more important to us than our customers."
Not that customers are an afterthought. Their loyalty has helped Silver's stay in business while many locally owned stores -- here and around the nation -- have folded.
"Everyone makes a big fuss that Westport has changed," Silver says. "But there are so many nice people here. We light up when they come in. Westport is such a warm and caring place.
"We've had customers bring us cookies and candy at Christmas. Generations of families shop here. And people come back from wherever they've moved to to shop here.
"A family business is more than the family that operates it," he notes. "It's the family of the community it's in. This town is still our family. We give to charities and organizations, and they give back to us."
Recently, Silver's signed a 20-year lease. In 2031, Westport's oldest retailer will celebrate its 80th anniversary.