Local Showcase

The Connecticut Store promotes the wares—and history—of our state.

 

Ray Bendici

”One of Nature’s most perfect inventions is the human hand,” Hank Paine of The Connecticut Store is fond of saying. To which he adds (melodramatically): “But here in Connecticut, we have the brains to use it to the best advantage.”

Those brains—so to speak—are on display throughout The Connecticut Store, a retail pantheon dedicated to the Land of Steady Habits. Standing proudly on Bank Street in Waterbury, it’s housed within the landmark Howland-Hughes department store, a former city institution owned and operated for over a century by Paine’s family. “It became obvious that there was no rescuing big department stores,” says Paine, who modestly lists himself as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer on the store’s business cards. “So to stay, we decided we needed to capitalize on retailing that no one else did.” After Howland-Hughes closed, the space was renovated, and in 1997 The Connecticut Store—featuring only merchandise produced by Connecticut-based manufacturers and artisans—came into existence. In 2007, it was moved to its current location adjacent to the main floor of Howland-Hughes.

A visit to The Connecticut Store is not only an opportunity to buy some local products, but also to get a lesson (or two) on the history of Connecticut manufacturing. “Hit me with a Wiffle Ball bat if I go on too long,” jokes Paine. He continually extols the virtues of the state’s creativity, but laments the ineffectiveness of its self-promotion. “When I drive to work, I see billboards promoting skiing in Vermont,” he says. “Everyone knows about Ben & Jerry’s and Vermont Teddy Bears. Why can’t Connecticut promote itself like Vermont promotes itself?”

Paine’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for—and bottomless knowledge of—all things Connecticut is inspiring. The aforementioned Wiffle product line is the store’s most popular, and thanks to an agreement with the Mullany family of Shelton, who own and operate Wiffle Ball Inc., The Connecticut Store’s Web site is the official online retail outlet for the company. “We’ve shipped Wiffle balls to all 50 states and to 54 different countries on the planet, including to China. I’ll repeat that: To China,” says Paine. “Have you heard of McMurdo Station? It’s a U.S. research base in Antarctica, and we’ve sent Wiffle balls there, too.”

Speaking of supplying the world, Paine holds up a frame with its back to me and asks: “Do you know what Connecticut company has been in business for almost 200 years, and has made items for fashion houses like Liz Claiborne and Donna Karan as well as for Disney Cruise Line, The Masters golf tournament and most every railroad, state police department and fire department across the United States?” When I shrug, he flips the frame around, and I can see it’s full of brass buttons. “The Waterbury Button Company!” he exclaims, and goes on to explain how the company now produces buttons for military organizations around the globe, including Great Britain’s Royal Navy.

The Connecticut Store is chock-full of such trivia, and Paine flits from display to display along the long glass counters in the wood-paneled store, freely sharing little-known nuggets about objects for sale, from Woodbury Pewter and Liberty Candles to Pez candy and Mel’s Hellish Relish. Also available are Connecticut-themed T-shirts, coffee mugs, key fobs and flags as well as items that skew toward finer art like copper weather vanes by John Garret Thew of Norfolk and original handmade enamel-and-copper Bovano sculpture from Cheshire. I also notice there’s an interesting selection of books by state authors. (Although I already have a copy of Connecticut Icons—thanks anyway.) Local farms are represented by jars of jam and bottles of honey, among other treats. And there’s stuff for the kids, too—Connecticut-map puzzles and rubber-band-based jump ropes and balls from West Pole Toys, which Paine tells me was started by a local teacher who was interested in designing an activity to help improve dexterity in children and ended up with a marketable line of brightly colored build-it-yourself toys.

The Connecticut Store is home to the local convention and visitors bureau, and moreover, there’s also access to the former Howland-Hughes department store. The architecturally iconic building harkens back to the beginning of the 20th century and is available to use for special events; in addition, it houses the Waterbury Hall of Fame, which Paine lets me in to visit.

Paine’s wife Holly also helps out with the business, 70 percent of which Paine says is done online. Still, there’s a steady trickle of customers who come to the store looking for something uniquely Connecticut. And sometimes more.

“People want to shop somewhere where they really know about the products they sell,” says Paine. At The Connecticut Store, there are no scanners, no distracted salespeople, no shrill advertising gimmicks and no extra charge for the local history lessons.

For more info, call (800) 474-6728 or visit ctstore.com.

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