Customers as lifeblood. Pride in the quality of product. A tireless work ethic seasoned by Yankee ingenuity.
That pretty much describes each of our winners in the Best of Shopping category.
Let’s begin with Sal Esposito, widely considered the chief arbiter of what is tasteful and where to get it.
That rare talent explains, in part, why P.S. Fine Stationers in Branford is this year’s Best Shop to Buy A Gift.
Walker Loden in Madison and Stony Creek’s Taken for Granite were the other winners.
P.S., which opened on Main Street in 1999 as a literal post script to the iconic Branford Book & Card (it closed in December 2017), exists for occasions like weddings and engagements that call for sophistication and style, and as a one-stop shop for gifts for all occasions.
The well-stocked, cozily lit shop also prides itself on attention to its customers’ needs. That’s only natural, considering Sal and co-owner Tami Tiboni learned first-hand from their father Sal, Book & Card’s beloved owner, how knowledge and personal service were essential to the health and longevity of a small business.
Nor, for that matter, is it any wonder that so many of the eclectic array of items evidence are made to last, given that Bob and Maria Esposito taught them that one well-made piece “is better than 10 that aren’t,” Sal said.
It’s a similar attention to quality that has Branford’s Possessions prevailing, yet again, as the shop with the Best Women’s Fashion, along with Talbot’s in Essex and The Apparel Shop at Saybrook Home.
It’s not just owner Elaine Parisi’s seemingly impeccable taste in pieces distinguished by their simple elegance, timeless style, and uptown and downtown chic that has kept Possessions thriving since 1987.
From the beginning, Parisi has put a premium on an individualized approach that’s helped Possessions weather successive recessions, competition from big-box stores, and the Internet.
“I care about my customers, I want them to look their best, and my staff does too,” she said, crediting Annie Cohen, Denise Amendola, and Lora-Jean Kohloff for Possessions’ continuing success.
R.J. Julia Booksellers cares about its customers too —specifically, with its enduring mission to transform and elevate their worlds by putting “just the right book” in the right hands.
An online service by that name providing subscribers with books aligned with their reading preferences is one reason readers have named the Madison Main Street institution the Best Independent Bookstore in the area, along with Whitlock’s Book Barn in Bethany and Niantic’s The Book Barn.
There’s also the countless luminaries it’s been attracting in its 29 years of existence. This year included, among others, bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson and NPR humorist David Sedaris.
Not to mention the friendly bibliophiliac staff who are happy to recommend books that they’ve read and loved, or just leave you alone to browse.
The staff at Old Saybrook’s Old Glory, the mecca for dead head clothing in this area for more than 40 years, is also happy to leave you alone, though the sweet scent of patchouli and dreamy, melodic tracks by The Doors might usher in a less cerebral, more far-out, state of mind.
The Route 1 store which readers named, together with Guilford’s Sunshine Daydreams and Zumiez in Trumbull and Meriden, as Best Deadhead Clothing Store in the area, offers tie-dyed items and Birkenstocks, semi-precious jewelry for body piercing, as well as every kind of Grateful Dead memorabilia.
“There’s a sense of nostalgia for a lot of people,” owner Glenn Morelli told the ShoreLine Times. “It reminds them of the shops in the late ’70s.”
At Shelley’s Garden Center in Branford, there’s likewise a certain peat-moss scent of nostalgia. After all, they’ve been at their current site since 1957, six years after owner John Chambers’ parents, Norman and Marion, started a fruit and vegetable stand a few streets away, naming it after their oldest daughter.
That, in 2019, Shelley’s is still thriving in part explains why readers named Shelley’s, along with North Branford’s Van Wilgen’s and White House Florist in Guilford, the Best Flower and Garden Center on the Shoreline.
Another reason is John’s practice each morning of driving his truck from Northford to Cheshire, “cherrypicking,” as he put it, the best product. Not to mention the willingness of John and his wife Yvette, as well as their daughters Taylor and Christiane, to dispense advice on why a plant is wilting in the sun or which soil is best for which strain of begonia.
That small-town brand of personal service also distinguishes The Pets Choice in Deep River which scored a win as a Best Pet Supplies Store, along with Petco in Guilford and Clinton and Guilford’s Petvalu.
The Main Street shop specializes in pet washing and grooming, as well as providing “feeds and seeds for all your Pet’s Needs,” as its online profile reads. Owner Lynn Ditta and her staff have also earned a reputation for making themselves available to discuss their customers’ unique pet requirements, including the most nutritious and safe products.
When Winter Storm Maximus buried the Shoreline in three feet of snow a few years back, Richlin Home & Auto in Branford showed a similar dedication to its customers’ needs, staying open to provide customers with ice melt when every other store in town was sold out.
Richlin, which readers named, along with Page Hardware and Hamden’s Spring Glen Hardware, as Best Old-Fashioned Hardware Store in the area, has been coming through for the last 30 years — and not just during blizzards, hurricanes and power outages.
The 17,000-square foot space, which is owned by Richard Amerling — the “Rich” of Richlin — stocks not just all basic hardwares and chemicals, but an array of lawn and garden supplies, automotive parts and sporting goods.
“If we can get what the customer is looking for, in any situation, we’ve done our job,” said store manager Steve Milano, who keeps a pad of paper up front to list anything customers tell them they should stock.
The Stork & Fashion Exchange also might ascribe its success to keeping their ears attuned to what their customers want. Fourteen years after it opened as an upscale consignment shop in Westbrook, the owners added CT Bridal Exchange.
That the 2010 addition features new and consigned wedding gowns, as well as prom and special occasion gowns, all substantially below retail prices — and, in many cases, with complimentary alterations —is likely the reason readers named The Bridal Exchange, along with Michele A Bridal in Westbrook and Clinton’s The White Dress, Best Bridal Shop on the Shoreline.
Zane’s Cycles, which readers once again selected as Best Bicycle Store on the Shoreline, along with Pedal Power in Essex, goes even further. Its mission is to win customers for life.
Owner Chris Zane backs up that heady aim with a host of warranties that begin with a guarantee of lifetime service for anyone who buys a Zane’s bike. There’s also a 90-day price protection guarantee if a customer has found a bike at a lower price, and the trade-in program, enabling any child who outgrows a Zane’s bike to trade it in for a full credit toward another bike.
It’s that same practice of treating customers as precious commodities that has SARAH Cupboard Thift Shop as a winner of Best Consignment on the Shoreline, together with The Stork and Fashion Exchange and Guilford’s Hole in the Wall.
Except owner Joe Vidal takes it to another level.
“I want people to feel as though it’s their store,” he said, of the 43-year-old shop whose proceeds support activities and services for intellectually or otherwise disabled SARAH Foundation clients not covered by state or federal funds.
That might mean 99-year-old Bill Brody telling war stories in the backroom or the plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies near the cash register everyday.
It’s also evident in the care he’s taken in transforming the Branford Meadow St. mainstay, with the help of co-manager Mary Lou Markham and a cadre of volunteers, into eye-catching displays of housewares, accessories, and dramatically discounted clothing and shoes.
“We owe it to our customers to be the best we can be,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Vera and Wolf Guibbory, owners of Vera Wolf Design on the Guilford Green, it seems, feel the same way—and not just toward the family-owned silversmith groups on the island of Bali that provide them with the silver in the Wolf Guibbory-designed Vera Wolf jewelry.
There was also the serendipity of Guilford Jewelers closing in 1998, affording a once-in-a-lifetime space for Vera Wolf Design, whose nationally-distributed jewelry is known for its clean and graceful design, whimsy, and affordable prices.
“We still look outside at the Green and say, ‘Is this for real?’” said Vera, who does ear piercing too.
From readers’ recognition of Vera Wolf Design as Best Artisan Jewelry on the shore, the feeling, it seems, has been mutual.
Deep River Jewelry Design and J. Horton’s in Madison were also winners.
That Deep River Jewelry Design also prevailed in the category of Best Traditional Jewelry Store—along with Branford Jewelers and Christo in Clinton—is a recognition, no doubt, of the sheer artistry in the work of designer and goldsmith Russell Cunningham who, with his wife Lisa, has been running the South Main Street shop since 1992.
For this literal hidden gem, it’s also the free design service, which uses hand renderings in actual size in concert with modern technology, such as CAD/Cam design, to place a ring, or bracelet, on a virtual woman’s hand and then rotate it, enabling the customer to view the piece from every angle.
It’s that same practice of going the extra step for the customer that has Clinton Bootery notching a win, along with New Balance in Westbrook and Guilford’s DSW, as the Shoreline’s Best Shoe Store.
That’s because Gene Arida is not just the owner, along with his wife Trish. He’s also a certified pedorthist, who’s trained to fabricate orthopedic shoe inserts prescribed by foot doctors.
The Boston Post Road shop also engages in the old-fashioned exercise of measuring feet. No surprise, given the selection of foot-friendly brands like Blondo, Dansko, and Merrills, as well as UGG shoes and boots.
Clinton Bootery is all about ensuring the perfect fit.
You could say the same about Guilford Sporting Goods, which was a winner in the Best Sporting Goods Store category, along with Goal Sporting Goods and Clinton Sporting Goods.
One look at the wide selection at this “one-stop-shopping” emporium on Boston Post Road, and it’s clear that Gail and Barry Latham and their crew of 4, including Tom “Boomer” Walker and Mike Moreno, put a premium on customizing to specification.
That means uniforming a team from head to toe, making team varsity jackets, and providing a full line of equipment in sports that range from basketball, baseball, and football to field hockey, soccer, swimming and cheerleading.
According to Gail Latham, the full line of end-of-the-year trophies, plaques, and medals that Guilford Sporting Goods also offers isn’t confined to sports.
That’s a good thing. Because that shop, like the extraordinary award-winning places to shop in the 2019 ShoreLine Times Readers Poll, are all deserving.