SoWe Strives to Make Westport Shopping Special
by Frances Moore

A new organization has evolved in Westport, with a goal of creating "a friendly, embracing, safe, exciting, fun, compelling, creative, supportive, innovative, secure, business-friendly, convenient and community environment." So says the mission statement of SoWe, a group of merchants located on the Post Road, just off Main Street.

The movement began when a few independent retailers off Main Street, including knoyzz, Bebop, Specs of Westport, Robert's, Lillian August and Just Nancy, to name a few, realized the potential for Westport to become a hip, cultural center.

"We're all privately owned stores trying to do something unique, fun and different behind the mass market that Main Street has become," said Robert Mazzucchelli, owner of Robert's of Westport.

The group hopes that, together, it can attract people to the area because of the unique products it sells, and the individual attention it is able to give each customer.

"We are individual stores. I think if we join together, people will respond," said Catherine Groener, owner of Bebop. Her store, previously called Little Feet, has been in the same location for 13 years. Over the years, she has seen many changes in the dynamics of shopping in Westport. "I've seen so many people coming and going. It's not easy to stay in business."

Mazzucchelli agreed that rising costs on Main Street are making it more and more difficult for independent retailers to move into space there. "The increasing rental costs on Main Street are what's precipitating the change in town," he said.

In fact, it is for that very reason that a lot of the mainstays on Post Road got their start there, rather than Main Street.

Chris Cannella, owner of Specs of Westport, tried breaking into Westport about eight years ago, and waited for space to open up on Main Street. When Banana Republic moved into a new location, he was offered its original space. But the rent and square footage were "over the top," said Cannella. So he waited a year and eventually moved into his current space, where he has been successfully operating for the last six years.

"I love the space we're in, and I love where we are," said Cannella. "We want to give [people] more of an acknowledgement that it's OK to come around the corner." The fact that the stores are all independently owned, and offer unique merchandise, is what SoWe hopes will attract people.

"Main Street is like a mall it's a pretty one, but it's still a mall," said Groener. By contrast, she said, SoWe stores offer individuality. "A store is part of the personality of the owner. There's a little bit of each person in their store," said Groener.

Mazzucchelli added, "There's a craft-oriented quality and uniqueness that we want to come back to this area." For example, he said, Robert's features many hand made products, and has a design studio in the back of the store, created because Robert's wanted to have the ability to custom design articles of clothing for individual customers.

This individuality, say SoWe retailers, is exactly what used to give Westport shopping its distinct personality.

"Westport can be a place where there's some substance," said Mazzucchelli. Some of SoWe's retailers think the key way to attract patrons to the area is to offer a night life.

"We want to create an environment that's open at night. Right now there is no place to go," said Richard Moskowitz, chief knoyzz maker at knoyzz. "It could be a place for adults and kids to walk at night. It could be a community."

Moskowitz and the other SoWe retailers would like to see a successful restaurant or bar come to the area.

"I think Westport has a pent-up demand for fun," said Mazzucchelli. "I would stay open late if there was some reason for people to be walking around at night. I can't believe everyone in Westport is in bed by nine."

But the night life isn't the key for every store, especially for one like Bebop, whose clientele is usually in bed by nine. Instead, Groener is focusing on other ways she can attract more business. For the last couple months, Bebop has been opening its doors on Sundays, and will continue to do so through June. Robert's will also be focusing on the weekends, hosting live jazz music on its patio on summer Sunday afternoons.

Right now the SoWe organization encompasses stores from Riverside up to Playhouse Square, but Moskowitz hopes to get even more stores involved. "It's all about community," he said.

He is optimistic that SoWe will be something visitors make a point of visiting.

"We're like a new tour stop," he said. "First the beach, then SoWe."