One lesson I learned in seven years of studying Latin in the New Canaan Public Schools involves the word ‘mos.’ It’s a noun and in the singular it means habit or custom. In the plural, ‘mores,’ it translates as character because, taken together, a person’s habits and customs form his or her character. It’s where we get our word ‘morals.’
At the time I launched NewCanaanite.com, nearly three years ago, convenience and cost alone guided my own spending habits. I only asked ‘Can I find it here in New Canaan?’ if I were downtown already and needed something straightaway.
Yet today, before purchasing or signing up for anything, I consciously seek out a local retailer or service provider—a habit so ingrained that it’s become second nature, part of my character.
The change took hold over time. Here’s how.
First, the New Canaanite exists and endures because local people, representing a couple dozen businesses here, pay to advertise on it. You can see their banners up above this editorial and down the right-hand rail of the website. They had chosen to spend advertising dollars with me, so I started buying from them. As I frequented these advertising businesses, I found that they had singularly high levels of expertise, quality and customer service. As a result, my roster of favorite local merchants expanded to include others, whether we were doing business together or not.
Here’s an example of customer service: In the middle of a bad day recently, I popped into Walter Stewart’s for a few items—milk, sugar and a lunch of homemade soup (one of New Canaan’s best-kept secrets) and a chicken salad wrap. Approaching the registers with arms full, I saw a cashier quite literally run from bagging in one aisle in order to open another one. For me.
A thing like that can make your day. (Not to mention that the ring-up came to $19 and I got $5 off with my loyalty card.)
The owners-on-site—the people who pay rent or taxes on their commercial spaces, greet you inside the door and man the register—know their own products in ways that hired hands rarely do. If you’re not getting Rick Franco’s reviews of newly acquired and featured wines and liquors from the Franco’s Wine Merchants newsletter already, sign up. Geoff and Kelly Sigg of Pennyweights attend gem shows throughout the nation to pick out stones, then design jewelry and travel twice a year to Thailand and Bali to work with the artisans who create it. Eugene Chun studied at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, then worked at a sandwich shop in Washington D.C. with a rapidly changing menu of fresh ingredients before deciding to open his own version here, Connecticut Sandwich Co. on Pine Street.
I also found that New Canaan features fabulous and nimble shops, a grab bag of new retailers and service providers among more familiar storefronts that are constantly changing their offerings and layouts inside. In her cozy space at the “50-yard-line” of Elm Street, opposite the Playhouse, New Canaan Olive Oil owner Heidi Burrows rearranges her shelves and tables incessantly, spotlighting newly acquired products. Many of them are featured in a wide-ranging collection of recipes printed on index cards that customers are invited to take. Phil Williams, owner of New Canaan Music, regularly acquires new instruments for purchase or rent—responding to customers’ needs as they arise, including for the kids in school bands and orchestras—and hires instructors to teach students of all ages how to play them.
Here’s something I had known, though not to the degree it exists: Local businesses sponsor or otherwise support many of the community’s most cherished events and traditions—wreaths on the lampposts downtown, for example, exhibitions at the Carriage Barn Arts Center, outdoor summer concerts at Waveny, youth sports and New Canaan Dog Days. True to the New Canaan Chamber’s mission of “connecting community with commerce,” they host special sales whose proceeds benefit nonprofit agencies, cut deals with those same groups to help them raise funds, partner with service organizations and employ local people. Press releases for these efforts often include a list of sponsors at the bottom and those lists often do not survive to a published version.
The face of ‘Shop Local’ in New Canaan is not a business owner, storefront or product. It’s your son fielding a ground ball at Mead Park, your daughter accepting the Award for Achievements in Arts at the annual New Canaan High School assembly. It’s huddling around a lyric sheet on God’s Acre during Christmas Eve caroling.
And it is something far more nuanced.
Realtors say the two things that sell prospective homeowners on New Canaan are its public schools and the downtown.
As New Englanders, we sense that downtown New Canaan is as it should be: Small shops line brick sidewalks with granite curbing, occupying short old buildings that form interesting rooflines.
The effect of downtown New Canaan is to lift visitors’ spirits in ways that may not register, much the same as the efforts of the Department of Public Works, Garden Club and Beautification League—the wildflower meadow that blooms along Route 123, for example, the flower pots outside of Town Hall or plantings at traffic triangles.
Those who own businesses in New Canaan are deeply invested in it, and their contributions may be less conspicuous than, say, the way Baskin Robbins owner Anna Valente each morning hand-washes the pedestrian plaza out front of her store, scraping gum from the sidewalk.
Two summers ago, news broke on a Thursday afternoon that New Canaan High School graduate Curt Casali had been called up to the major leagues. A Tampa Bay Rays catcher, he became New Canaan’s first big leaguer. It was two days before the Sidewalk Sales downtown, and Casali’s ascent came up during a meeting I had with Steve Karl of Karl Chevrolet, the 1927-established dealership that sponsors countless community activities, including New Canaan Baseball.
I told Karl that I had an idea of shooting a video at my Sidewalk Sales tent of locals congratulating Casali. A busy guy who also serves as vice chairman of the Town Council, Karl gave me the idea of having people give a Derek Jeter-style tip of the cap to Casali in the video, then drove with me to Mead Park to help remove a New Canaan Baseball outfield fence banner to use as a backdrop for the video. On the day itself, he took time away from Karl Chevy’s own busy Sidewalk Sales area to bring town resident and sports personality Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo to my tent to participate in the video, and also dropped off a handful of NC Baseball caps for interviewees to use.
Everything Karl did elevated the experience of visitors to our tent during the Sidewalk Sales, as well as the Casali story and video itself, which subsequently was viewed by thousands.
A call for locals to ask ‘Can I find it here in New Canaan?’ is not a push for charity, and this editorial is not written wearing rose-colored glasses. Supporting New Canaan is not exclusive to locally owned small businesses, and merchants here do not elevate the town in equal measure.
It also is true that items purchased locally may cost a bit more, and for good reason—at design solutions, for example, 95 percent of the furniture sold is made in the United States. At a meeting this month of the Park & Recreation Commission, members of the Garden Club asked for permission to install a wood bench and plaque in honor and memory of deceased New Canaanite George B. Moore, a past president of the New Canaan Community Foundation involved in a number of local causes. Planned to face the main house from the Weed Street side of the park, overlooking the thousands of daffodils in front of the main house that Moore himself enjoyed, the bench will be identical to the one located outside design solutions. It is to be purchased by the Friends of George Moore and the local shop gave the group a good price to facilitate the transaction.
If residents of New Canaan, who rightly enjoy this town so much, do not at least give local businesses the chance to compete for their patronage by trying to find what they need here, then all that business owners do to benefit the town is in jeopardy.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that one prominent early use of the word ‘moral’ appeared in the English poet Edward Young’s “Night-Thoughts.” Published in the 1740s and divided into nine sections that correspond to nights during which the writer muses on life and loss, the blank verse poem regained fame in the 1920s following one critic’s observation that it comforted soldiers in the trenches during World War I. The final section includes this passage: “No fancy’d god … descends To solve all knots; to strike the moral home.”