MIDDLETOWN — Ericka Whalen, owner of The Man Cave in Main Street Market, has been a tomboy her entire life.
“I was always fascinated by the things men did, like football. Why does a guy get to enjoy this, and what’s so great about it? I want to enjoy it,” said the 43-year-old entrepreneur, who opened her gift shop at 386 Main St. last October.
It features “nonessentials” — quirky and whimsical presents for males.
She opened up shop in October, and was so delighted by the Forest City she decided to move from Thomaston and settle in Middletown.
Whalen said she is “obsessed” with Middletown.
“I see so much growth and potential here. When it seems all these medium-size cities are struggling, this one seems to have so much energy,” said Whalen.
She credits the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce, and in particular, the guidance of President Larry McHugh.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else, because this is wonderful. I get to meet the most amazing people,” said Whalen, who began her career in the insurance field. She loved that work but the problem with it was perpetual cuts, layoffs, and being offered jobs for which she’d need to relocate.
A couple of years ago, Whalen launched The Cigar Social, an event-based business that specializes in cigar tastings, private parties and special events.
She said she has a knack for knowing what a customer wants, even when he or she doesn’t. “The biggest thing is listening,” Whalen said.
Whalen also said she has always been a “take-charge” type of person. For instance, she became obsessed with learning how to ride a motorcycle at 21. One day, she strode into Libby’s Motoworld in New Haven looking for the perfect bike.
She approached the salesman. “I said, ‘I will buy anything you teach me how to ride.’ He looked at me like I was crazy,” Whalen said.
But it worked. The clerk taught her how to ride in the back parking lot. There were more than a few laughs — but Whalen got what she wanted.
Her mother was also a motorcycle enthusiast. “I come from a long line of strong, independent women. It’s in our DNA,” Whalen explained.
She will launch a website and online store very soon, which will sell “everything and then some,” including subscriptions to products, such as a sock-of-the-month club.
On a recent afternoon at the store, a female customer perused the Hunterson Magic Wallet display on the front counter. Only a few remained.
“You put your money in, you close it, it locks it in,” Whalen told the woman.
“What? Wait! Do that again,” the customer insisted.
So Whalen walked her through how it’s used. “It’s our biggest seller this year. This is all that’s left. And by, the way, they came in yesterday.”
The woman bought two — for her husband and son.
Last week, a man came into her shop and examined the items, writing notes on a pad of paper. Whalen, who thought he might be a reporter, asked if she could help with anything.
“‘I’m writing my Christmas list for my wife. I’m going to give it to you. She’ll be here in the next day or two,’” the customer said.
Whalen was floored for a few moments, then her business sense kicked in. She went into the office and created thin strips of shopping sheets made from semi-heavy paper stock.
She coined them “MANifests.”
“I was trying to come up with a cheesy name,” Whalen said. Male customers can now draw up a list of wants and hand it to anyone looking for the perfect gift for them.
Whalen insists on showcasing primarily products made in the United States. She builds strong relationships with her vendors.
“Something that I love about this store is I can tell you Adam owns the sock company we work with (Friday Sock Co.’s ‘purposely mismatched’ offerings). Veronica owns the Sober Dough company,” which only requires a bottle of beer and comes in myriad flavors: Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto, Cinnaful Raisin, Buffalovin’ Wing, Herb & Olive Focaccia.
The socks come in wild colors, such as acid green, decorated with banana bunches on one sock, and partially peeled bananas on the “matching” one. Other themes are food, sports and pizza.
“I know these products in our store so well, I know people on a first-name basis. If there’s ever a problem, we back everything. We can afford to do that because everybody we work with backs their product,” Whalen said.
Ninety-five percent of what is on The Man Cave’s shelves cannot be found on Amazon, said Whalen, who spends her down time Googling “weird gifts for men” and other search terms to find exactly what she and her customers would love.
“Men seem to be intimidated to ask for expensive items. It’s so interesting. Men love bags, gadgets. I think a man is afraid to ask his wife to spend $125. Women tend to always go for the socks and candles,” she added.
Whalen points out an array of Aged & Infused alcohol infusion kits: cherry vanilla, apple cinnamon, blueberry lemon lavender among them. It’s another female-owned business. The owner’s mother, who creates handmade display signs for the products, is also involved in the business, something Whalen finds charming.
She also carries Maine-based, ergonomically designed Rogue pocket wallets, an array of groomsmen’s gifts, and Benchmade sportsmen’s knives — all great for stocking stuffers.
“I know there’s no certainty here, but I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep this going,” she said.
The shop is open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, visit Man Cave CT on Facebook or call 860-788-3373.