AP NEWS

Hyperlocal shopping has its advantages

March 29, 2019

If news reports are to be believed — no #fakenews! — the new Norwalk mall is the only one of its kind under construction in America today.

And, if some Westport doomsayers are to be believed, it will sound the death knell for Main Street.

The 700,000-square-foot, $500 million behemoth is located inches off Interstate 95 at Exit 15. Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s have already signed leases. Many smaller tenants will be the types of stores long associated with Westport’s downtown.

The SoNo Collection — which sounds more like a cute shop than the name of a mega-mall — opens in October. We’ll see then whether Main Street turns into a ghost town, or if there’s a reason no one is building big shopping centers anymore.

Meanwhile, there are many reasons to shop hyperlocal. You just have to look between the big chain stores, and the “Space Available” signs.

If you do, you’ll find a place like Savvy + Grace. It’s underneath Tavern on Main, a few steps below the sidewalk. But once you step inside, you realize it’s the type of fun, eclectic place that once defined downtown. Owner Annette Norton has a keen eye for one-of-a-kind gift items that — to use a cliche — you really can’t find anywhere else.

Norton embodies community spirit. She’s the driving force behind a jewelry/craft/food/arts/music event in the lot behind her store, set for April 28. That’s the advantage of having a locally owned shop smack in the heart of downtown.

Norton has a kindred spirit in Mersene. She’s the one-name owner of Indulge by Mersene, a wondrous place in Saugatuck at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Railroad Place.

Mersene stocks the store with tons of funky merchandise, some of it Westport-themed and all of it worth discovering. As with Savvy + Grace, she giftwraps every item with love and care. Take that, chain stores!

Of course, there are chains and then there are chains. Some of the smaller ones care as much about community as any independent shop. Savannah Bee Company, for example, was among the first tenants in Bedford Square. I admit it: I thought they’d last as long as most of today’s honeybees.

But they (the store, not the bees) found a niche. They understood that to draw customers in, they had to offer something special and different. And they reached out to the community.

Yet, Bedford is not the only square downtown. Around the corner, newly refurbished Sconset Square is home to several interesting merchants. Bungalow’s furniture, antiques, home accessories, art, textiles, jewelry, books and gifts from around the world is always compelling and always changing. Kind of like the world, no?

There are a few other lifestyle and design stores at Sconset, as well as a “bespoke stationer” (named, of course, Bespoke).

The newest tenant, Fleet Feet, is part of a small chain. That provides access to cutting-edge technology that helps you find exactly the right running shoe. But owner David Wright is a local guy. In fact, he searched all over southern New England to find the right spot for a store, then moved here just because he believed in Westport so much.

Across the river on Post Road West and Riverside Avenue, you’ll find an intriguing mix: galleries, toy stores, restaurants and a coffee shop. Four retailers — Bella Bridesmaids, Stephen Kempson (bespoke suits), Organachs Farm to Skin beauty boutique and Noya fine jewelry — prove the power of community.

They join forces this Sunday (March 31, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for a “Westport Wedding” event. Dresses, suits, makeup, rings, event planning, photography — this is your place to find it all. And not a big chain store among them.

A mile or so away, Saugatuck is chock full of locally owned businesses. Like Savannah Bee, I shook my head at the idea of a paddleboard rental company. But Downunder has been wildly successful, and opened Westporters’ eyes to a whole new way of looking at the river.

Saugatuck Sweets is the 21st-century successor to the Ice Cream Parlor, providing today’s kids with great childhood memories.

Some of the best places in Saugatuck are small chains that remain intimate. Fleishers Craft Butchery, Garelick & Herbs and the new Mystic Market have all embedded themselves deeply into the neighborhood.

In fact, there’s only one truly national chain in all of Saugatuck: Dunkin’ Donuts. At least it’s not Starbucks.

The clock is ticking toward the opening of the SoNo Collection. No one knows how it will affect Westport. But I do know one thing: You’ll never find a Savvy + Grace, Indulge by Mersene or Downunder there.

Take that, Exit 15.

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 danwoog06880.com.