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Mystery in an Old Red Barn

March 20, 2011 4 comments
Blog writer at theatre

Here I am, about to explore the mystery inside the old red barn

In an age dominated by flat digital screens that transmit mind-numbing television shows and formula-driven block-buster films, live theatre is a refuge for people seeking entertainment that stimulates rather than benumbs brain cells. The play is the thing: I do not want to see pixilated images perfectly edited and enhanced by the latest technology; give me instead a stage filled by flesh and blood human beings who work hard to win us over with talent, passion, and wit, their own mental and spiritual resources, as well as their understanding of a text, the play.

There is no escape: We are staring right at them. No film editor will cover up their mistakes. If the actors succeed the audience is rewarded with an emotional release, laughter or tears, and they are rewarded with applause.

The theatre lights go down. The play is about to begin. If a day comes when I do not feel a jolt of energy flow through my veins at this moment then I will know I have become irrevocably jaded and cynical, and the last ember of the fire within my soul has been forever stamped out.

The Barn Theatre

The Barn, the home theatre for Playcrafters of Skippack

For now, that fire is stoked each time I enter an old red barn a few blocks from my house with a sign that reads “Playcrafters of Skippack.” Soon after we moved into town, my wife and I became subscription members of our community theater. With all due respect to our fine retail establishments and restaurants, it is the best deal in town. Many evenings, we have walked to the Barn theatre, up the narrow stairs and taken our seats in this warm, intimate setting and been treated to a thought-provoking drama or delightful comedy.

This year, I decided to get a preview of the 2011 season. I wrote to Gay Hoyle, public relations co-coordinator for Playcrafters of Skippack, and now I find myself on a rainy rehearsal night visiting the director and cast for the season’s first show The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

I am used to the Barn theatre on show nights when it is filled with the buzz of conversation and jostling of overcoats. Tonight, it is eerily quiet. I find my way to the stairway that leads to the dressing rooms and backstage area and meet my contact, Thomas M. McGuire, the show’s director.

Thomas M. McGuire, director of this season’s first show The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

This is a community theatre: all the people who participate in a production are volunteers. They must earn their daily bread at some other occupation. At the end of a full work day they come to the Barn for rehearsals that usually last between two and three hours. Because of their work, the town where I live and made my largest investment is made culturally viable, an oasis in the suburban desert.

Tom wears his hair close cropped like a soldier in the army, and I am picturing him leading a rag-tag militia defending Skippack against the forces of shopping mall philistinism which seem to have thoroughly conquered most surrounding neighborhoods.

Tom, who in his day job is a professor of biology at Penn State Abington, describes The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 as “Agatha Christy meets Scooby Doo.” He explains that the production is not a musical, but a comic mystery written and first performed in the 1980s.

In the play, the creative team for a theatrical production company known for staging musical flops is brought together, ostensibly to stage a special performance of a new show for a potential financial backer. However, we learn that there is another reason for the gathering: During the run of a previous show, three chorus girls were murdered. The creative team has really been called together to find out which of these eccentric show biz folks is a serial killer.

There is another mystery: By opening night, Tom will have put more than a year’s worth of work into this production and not one penny in his pocket. Why does he do it?

The Play's the Thing: Linda Friday practices her lines with fellow cast member Steven Zanine

Linda Friday practices her lines with fellow cast member Steven Zanine

“I loved theatre ever since I was a kid,” says Tom, “it was always my avocation. It balances out my work in the sciences. In college, I was a double major; biology and English. I’ve always said that I enjoy both sides of my brain working.”

Tom introduces me to one of the cast members, Linda Friday, an elegant, well-spoken woman from nearby Quakertown who has been acting for many years (she first appeared at Playcrafters 10 years ago), and participates in many community theatre productions. I ask her what distinguishes Playcrafters of Skippack from other community theatres.

“Compared to other community theatres, Playcrafters is more willing to stage productions that are cutting edge or at least slightly left of center,” explains Linda. Many community theatres play it much safer, sticking to familiar plays and musicals to avoid offending the audience or potential patrons.

Linda credits the town that surrounds the theatre. Skippack, with its unusual shops and diverse restaurant offerings, attracts people, visitors and residents, who will support a sophisticated community theatre.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 in rehearsal. From left to right: Bill Lamack, Linda Friday, Elizabeth McDonald, Amy Reifinger, and Steven Zanine.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 in rehearsal. From left to right: Bill Lamack, Linda Friday, Elizabeth McDonald, Amy Reifinger, and Steven Zanine.

After our interview, I am invited to sit in on a rehearsal of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. I have never attended a theatrical rehearsal before. Memory cells are jogged as many of the actors are vaguely familiar to me (“wasn’t that guy the lead in last year’s production of Pippin?”). Predictably, the acting is rough around the edges, with actors stopping suddenly to call out “lines, please.” Sometimes, cast members break down in laughter at their own mistakes or find themselves standing at the wrong end of the stage.

But through it all, I sense characters coming into being, a story taking shape. Soon enough, I am hooked by the plot and by the eccentric personalities the actors depict. I want to stay, but force myself to leave. I have tickets for the performance Saturday April 2. I do not want to spoil my night of theatre. Give me the full production. I have learned that the easiest and most enjoyable part is to be a member of the audience.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is the first show of Playcrafters of Skippack 2011 season and opens March 31. For more information, visit www.playcrafters.org.

My date for the play The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940; let the show begin!

Categories: People, Theatre

First Fridays: A New Skippack Tradition

February 22, 2011 3 comments
Art Berger

Art Berger, co-captain at the Wooden Duck and advocate for First Fridays in Skippack

What dreamy-eyed young boy doesn’t look up to the soldier going to battle, the astronaut going to the heavens, the man on the flying trapeze ⎯those great heroes of adventure, who bravely and freely sparkle with life’s possibilities. But then life itself happens; the spaceship bursts into flames in the sky; the soldier comes home weary and disillusioned; the trapeze artist files a lawsuit against his employer the circus. How ridiculous the admiration for the heroes of one’s youth seems once one gets a salty taste of reality. The need to make a living becomes paramount. One sees accommodation and compromise and learns to play by the rules.

But there is one type of person, I’ll even say hero, who can instill some of that same sense of awe and admiration felt during my youth into the blood of my middle age. The hero of my later life is a man or woman who after many years of inhabiting a corporate cubicle or office, long after the fire of youth has steadied itself, cuts the umbilical cord connecting them to the corporation and strikes out to make a living on their own and live out the autumn of their life a free man or woman at last.

Such are my thoughts sitting in the office of Art Berger, the co-owner with his wife Jane, of the Wooden Duck, a store in Skippack which sells gift items and women’s apparel.

Art and Jane have owned the store for 11 years. For the first nine years of their ownership, Jane steered the course of the Wooden Duck, growing the business and developing the product mix that was their formula for success. Art held a position in the corporate world as a director of accounting in the health care Industry.

Byers' Choice

Byers' Choice carolers welcome visitors to the Wooden Duck

Just over a year ago, Art left his corporate job to become a fulltime partner with Jane, helping her commandeer the Wooden Duck and its crew. The Wooden Duck seems like a good name for a ship and I am picturing in my mind Art and Jane setting sail, leaving the shores of corporate security to chart their own course, to the benefit of us who live in Skippack and our visitors.

If Art and Jane are co-captains sharing the helm, then the passengers in steerage are the numerous wide-eyed, open-mouthed Byers’ Choice carolers that populate the store itself, as well as much of the space in Art’s office and a newly-built warehouse in the back. The population density of these decorative figures is testimony to the success of the Wooden Duck. The Wooden Duck is the largest retailer for Byers’ Choice carolers which are handmade in nearby Chalfont Pennsylvania by one of the few manufacturers of holiday gifts remaining in America. There are Byers’ Choice figures with special designs handcrafted exclusively for the Wooden Duck and only available from this Skippack-based establishment. In addition, the Wooden Duck has an expanding showroom of women’s clothing, jewelry, accessories and many other gift items. The flow of customers is steady and my impression is that Art and Jane run a tight ship, if a cheerful and colorful one.

Before I steer too far off course, I am reminded that Art is a man with a mission. I am invited into his office for a purpose. Now that Art is full-time co-captain at the Wooden Duck, he has become much more involved in the Skippack Merchants Association and is one of the prime movers behind a new initiative ⎯First Fridays in Skippack. Better get to the point already. Art is eager to get the word out about first Fridays, and this blogger does not want a mutiny on his conscience.

Debby modeling at Wooden Duck

My wife Debby models an outfit available from the Wooden Duck

“Our goal for First Fridays is simple⎯to bring more people to Skippack Village,” says Art.

Beginning on Friday, April 1st 2011, participating merchants will stay open until 9:00 p.m. the first Friday of every month through October. For entertainment, street musicians will perform throughout town and artists will exhibit their work, with an emphasis on fine arts rather than crafts. There will be activities for children, discounts at selected merchants and dinner specials at selected restaurants. Special activities are set to start at 5 p.m. More details will be posted on this blog and the Skippack Village Online website as they become available.

“First Fridays will offer something for everyone: Singles, couples, families with children and parents who leave their children with a babysitter,” explains Art.

While filled with enthusiasm, he cautions people not to expect an event of the magnitude of our larger festivals, such as Skippack Days. He hopes to build First Fridays into a robust tradition over time.

Toward the end of our talk, Art and I return to an unavoidable topic here in Skippack; the impact of social trends and the economy on the Village. About seven years ago, some 54 retailers were listed in the Skippack Village walking guide. Now the number of retailers listed is about half that figure. The increase in for rent signs is troubling. The Wooden Duck is thriving thanks to a sound strategy that includes e-commerce, a pleasing shopping environment, an unusual product mix, and a well-established clientele built up over many years.

“I would be reluctant to open a new retail business in current economic circumstances,” admits Art.

I finish our discussion and walk past the colorful decorative gift items, trying to take a few photographs of the store without bothering customers. The Wooden Duck seems a solid vessel to navigate the rough waters of a changing economy. I am glad to see Art and Jane Berger at the helm, both dedicated to the success of the business and especially glad to see Art taking an active role in the Skippack merchant community. For the Skippack merchants’ new project, First Fridays in Skippack, I hope for the best of luck and smooth sailing.

Debby at jewelry case

Expect to work for a long time: My wife discovers a jewelry case at the Wooden Duck in Skippack

Categories: Festivals, People, Shopping

2010 in review

January 2, 2011 1 comment

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2010. That’s about 8 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 7 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 99 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 178mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was August 31st with 165 views. The most popular post that day was Coming of Age in a Housing Crisis.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were estatesofbiltmore.com, facebook.com, linkedin.com, thereporteronline.com, and bestofskippack.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for gabe schick, i love skippack, skippack blog, skippack wordpress, and michael shaw skippack.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Coming of Age in a Housing Crisis August 2010
13 comments

2

Tasty but Healthy: Café Proves It’s Possible September 2010
9 comments

3

A Special Skippack Holiday Adventure December 2010
1 comment

4

Why is Skippack Special? July 2010
6 comments

5

Festival Days: The Luckiest Town in the World October 2010
1 comment

Categories: Blog Stats

A Special Skippack Holiday Adventure

December 16, 2010 1 comment

The staff at Mal's Diner serves great food with a smile.

I start my Skippack holiday adventure by taking breakfast at one my favorite spots, Mal’s American Diner, a reasonably-priced restaurant with a youthful staff that always welcomes me and cheerful retro décor which lifts my spirits as much as the morning jolt of rich, delicious coffee.

Because of travel, I missed some of the Village’s more impressive holiday events, such as the Christmas tree lighting. I am left to discover the Skippack holiday experience on an ordinary rainy Sunday. Of course, no day here in Skippack Village is ever completely ordinary.

Joining me for breakfast is Michael Bavas whose acquaintance I owe to this very blog you are reading. Michael runs Best of Skippack, a website which promotes businesses in Skippack and the surrounding neighborhoods. His website is listed on a popular guide to our town, the Skippack Village Walking Guide. He is also a senior IT specialist  at Temple University and a part time student of bioengineering.

Michael Bavas who runs the Best of Skippack website

A resident of Skippack since 1999, Michael paid me the compliment of adding a link to my blog on his website, a signal of camaraderie in our digital age. This is our first meeting and the conversation flows. We start by exploring ways we can work together to promote our beloved town. Before long, we are making plans for launching a worldwide digital advertising agency. Suddenly our dreams of the hi-tech future are interrupted by a figure from our collective Victorian past – Santa Claus!

When he makes his rounds at Mal’s Diner, Santa does not act the blustery, over-bearing icon who poses for pictures with one cranky child after another at the local mega-mail. Here he projects a low key, gentle persona: A man whose friendship is a gift in and of itself. He speaks in a familiar and soft voice and gives as much time as requested for every child and family breakfasting at Mal’s. Take as many pictures as you want. Later, Santa sits down at the counter for a cup of coffee; not ashamed of his human side, not afraid to admit he too needs a rest from the task of spreading good cheer. Authentic Santa, authentic town.

Santa Claus with one of the great Mal's Diner waitresses

After breakfast, Michael Bavas and I go for a walk. Michael wants to pay visits to some Best of Skippack clients and I am seeking an answer to the ultimate question of this blog, “what makes the Village of Skippack special?”

Our first stop is Artisans Nest. Here holiday shoppers can find handmade jewelry, art for the wall or garden, pottery, glassware, women’s accessories, unique mirrors; glass art, metal art, natural lotions, greeting cards and more. The eclectic mix of goodies is housed in a cozy atmosphere bathed in rich, warm earth tones.

I ask Debbie DiPaolo, co-owner of the shop, her thoughts about Skippack. Debbie brings to our humble town an impressive retail background, having worked for Macy’s and Wannamaker’s, but she says these large-scale operations didn’t afford her the opportunities to build personal relationships like the ones she has cultivated at Artisan’s Nest.

Debbie’s love of fine items is evident in the merchandise that surrounds us but her eyes really light up when she speaks of the friendships she formed with customers and with local artists who supply many of the items she sells. “One has to weigh what is important,” says DiPaolo, “I want to make a good living, but I also want to enjoy myself while I am doing it.”

Next, the two Michaels walk over to Dovetail, a shop offering home furnishings, custom floral designs, custom window treatments, art, semi-custom bedding, custom upholstery, candles, jewelry, invitations and stationery, and more. How lucky! We are the first to partake of the Mimosa buffet being offered today by the shops co-owner, Elaine Annelli. I find that a Mimosa at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning is an excellent antidote to any form of writer’s block.

Elaine Annelli of Dovetail serves a Mimosa buffet

Lively and enthusiastic, Elaine makes me feel like I have been invited to her home for a party and am deserving of special attention from the hostess. I am enchanted. She tells me not only about the items in her shop but also stories of family and friends. I realize I have drunken not a Mimosa but a draught of holiday spirit. I ask Elaine what Skippack means to her.

“Skippack,” she replies, “is a touch of the past. A stroll through Skippack is like walking through town with my parents when I was child, a reminder of a time when things were simpler.  It’s a taste of the best part of childhood, being able to slow down and appreciate life.”

After saying farewell to Elaine and Dovetail, Michael Bavas departs for some afternoon study and I am on my own. I decide to stop by visit David and Susan Pavlow, owners of Skippack Goldsmiths and Gifts, who recently moved their sparkling inventory to a beautiful, spacious new store.

I wait to speak with David who is helping a customer. Something seems to be missing as I gaze out at the beautiful sculpted glassware, antiques, wooden keepsake boxes, gift items glistening with embedded gemstones and fine jewelry in gold, silver, and platinum. Aha! I realize what’s missing: My wife. It doesn’t feel right being in this environment without her. Time to call home.

Not a hard sell: David Pavlow of Skippack Goldsmiths and Gifts shows a necklace to my wife Debby

Debby is soon able to join me and I am amazed at how quickly she acclimates herself to this environment, carefully stating her likes and preferences and asking to look more closely at various items. Now she is looking at a one-of-a-kind drusy quartz necklace in an original David Pavlow design.

“Debby, you said you were going to help interview people for my blog, remember. Debby….Debby…” Hmmm she doesn’t appear to hear me.

Later I ask David to say a few words about Skippack. He talks about the friendliness of the town. People will stop in, he explains, just to see how I am doing. “Going to work in Skippack,” he says, “is not like going to work.”

Before the day ends, Debby and I visit Green Wolf’s Village Barn Shoppes, which features two art galleries, gift shops, winery, furniture and a museum.  First we stop in to say hi to Craig Wolf, resident cool dude and manager of Green Wolf’s – Elegant Junque, which sells affordable art, clothing, gifts and décor and features new local artists each month.

The love of my life considers a purchase at Green Wolf’s – Elegant Junque

Craig grew up here and he is passionate about Skippack, as evident by the elaborate outdoor holiday display he created. When I ask him to pinpoint what makes Skippack special, he speaks about the community of shopkeepers, “All the shops in the barn here, we all help each other. I love all my neighbors: Adornment, Floral & Hardy, Copper Partridge, Merle Norman. They are not just neighbors, they are good friends.”

Before calling it a day, Debby and I stop in to say hello to a friend, Beth Wade, who owns Crystal Persuasions, a new-age metaphysical store, which sells crystals, gems, angels, fairies, jewelry, candles, singing bowls, buddhas, incense, spheres, scarves, purses, t-shirts and other items, all arranged in lovely balance. Beth is a serene, calm and spiritual presence, and we always seem to return to Crystal Persuasions at the end of a day in town, to revive weary spirits and tap into positive cosmic energy (plus my wife will tell you the prices on jewelry are fantastic). When not working, Beth resides in a farmhouse that dates back to 1749 and, for her, the Barn in Skippack Village has become a second home. “I feel at home,” she says, “when I am at my store. The Village is a home setting.”

Beth Wade, proprietor of new age store Crystal Persuasions

Beth’s sentiments are echoed by Andrea Driscoll, an artist, art director and teacher who recently opened a gallery in the Barn called by Art by Heart. Asked why she chose to locate her gallery here, Andrea replies “Harry and Sylvia Wolf [owners of the Barn] and Craig made me feel immediately at home.”

Listening to Beth and Andrea and the new age music and the soft rumblings of a Buddha fountain in the background at Crystal Persuasions, I experience a revelation: When asked what makes Skippack special, the shopkeepers in my random sample all emphasized human relationships, each in their own way. Each one placed a priority on community and friendship: whether it be with other local shopkeepers, with customers, or with the artists and craftspeople who supply the goods they sell.

Angel courtesy of Crystal Persuasions

What is the lesson? Commerce can coexist with brotherhood. The beautiful, ornamental and unusual objects sold in Skippack that we buy as holiday gifts are manifestations of our love for family and friends. So let love and friendship be the guiding spirit on our shopping trips and within the shops where we browse and buy. Let us always remember that friends and family are the most precious gift. Should that not be the spirit of holiday shopping?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Happy Holidays to people who participate in other December celebrations, Hanukah and Kwanzaa. Thank you to everyone who read my blog during this first year and especially to people who provided support and encouragement. Peace on Earth. Good will towards all.

Note: This shops described in this article are a small sample of the many wonderful shops in Skippack. For a complete listing, go to Skippack Village Online.

Skippack Holiday Photo Gallery

 

Detail of purse with puppy from Skippack Goldsmiths and Gifts

Debbie DiPaolo of Artisans Nest holds up a eco-friendly throw made entirely of recycled threads

 

Tree ornament available at Dovetail

Santa at Mal's getting scoop on who has been naughty, nice, left good tips etc.

Categories: People, Shopping

New Friends, New Technology and an Imaginary Resort

November 21, 2010 3 comments
Terry Williams at Brasserie 73

Terry Williams, venture capitalist, at Brasserie 73 sharing insights into the new economy over a glass of wine.

Between the money spent on our house in Skippack, the ravages of the current economy and news about full body scans and pat downs at airports, I do not anticipate any vacations to exotic destinations in the foreseeable future. Fortunately the immediate surroundings here in Skippack provide variety.

For example, one of my favorite places to enjoy a drink in our quaint hood is Brasserie 73, a restaurant inspired by a building on the French Riviera. With dark wood paneling, a fireplace, high ceilings, candelabra-style lighting and large French doors, this stylish room creates an atmosphere of elegance and cozy luxury. The fine meals served here I reserve for special occasions but if I need a change of scene, I can get a glass of wine in the bar and soak in the lush atmosphere.

Another way to experience the world without leaving town is getting to know new people, especially people whose orbit is a bit out of my reach. Or so I think sipping wine at Brasserie 73 with a new friend, Terry Williams, a local resident who I have gotten to know during the months I have lived in Skippack. Terry is a venture capitalist who invests in new companies. For twenty-three years, he has helped build companies in the technology and service sectors. In addition, he describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor, meaning he not only starts new companies but also invests his own time and money in other businesses.

Right now, Terry is drawing his concept for a new start up company for me on a cocktail napkin and I am nodding my head hoping he thinks I understand. Shooting the breeze with Terry in the surroundings of Brasserie 73 I feel like I am traveling beyond the dingy office cubicles where I have eked out salary, and entering a world where the making a living is an adventure. In this world, technology is slick, a false move is costly, and a profitable deal sends adrenaline flowing through your body like an electric current.

Terry is soft-spoken and modest, and if he perceives I am a step or two behind his conceptual thinking as he starts labeling his diagram of a new company, he does not show any impatience. Terry’s ideas are big but they are rooted in the reality of experience. He has learned how to cross that great divide between entrepreneurial dream and financial reality. I wonder if he will reveal to me any secrets of his success.

Terry tells me that people like him who become risk-taking entrepreneurs are rarely A students; they are B students, who commonly participate in sports or other organized social activities. Terry himself ran track and cross country and played basketball in high school. It makes sense. To get an A in class one has to be a bit too obedient to authority, a bit too much of a conventional thinker, and a bit too eager to please others to grow up to become an entrepreneur. Oh, young people, strive for Bs, not As.

After college, Terry began his career as an executive recruiter and worked his way to become co-founder and managing partner at Next Stage Capital; You can find a brief history of Terry’s career here.

Terry tells me about a new company called Movitas he helped to develop and finance and now oversees as a member of the board of directors. His fellow co-founders, partners and board members are Pat Croce, former President of the Philadelphia 76ers, entrepreneur and author and Mike McNulty, former co-founder of the high-flying Internet company, VerticalNet.

Movitas is a mobile marketing software company that serves the travel and tourism business sector. It provides hotels and resorts with ways to make additional revenue through mobile commerce, messaging and social media. One way Movitas software benefits hotels and resorts as well as tourists: It enables delivery of marketing messages and announcements to prospective visitors and guests who use PDAs or smartphones, mobile devices that can connect to the Internet. Popular examples of such devices include the BlackBerry, Droid and iPhone.

Since my wife Debby and I put our travel plans on hold and I have yet to buy a smartphone, I must use my imagination to understand Movitas: I imagine Debby and I are planning a vacation to a luxury resort:

• Before we arrive, using technology supplied by Movitas, the resort sends us enticing email messages, connects us to local tour operators, informs us of special offers, and enables us to easily make reservations and plan activities by pushing buttons on our imaginary smartphone.

My wife Debby after makeover

My wife Debby shows off the results of the makeover she got at the imaginary resort we visited.

• Once we arrive, my wife Debby decides she wants a makeover at the salon, but the salon is booked up. At the last minute, another guest cancels her reservation and creates an opening. Movitas technology provides a way for the resort to let my wife know about the sudden opening at the salon, and believe me, she will take it.

• Once we go back home to Skippack, thanks to Movitas, the resort has an electronic record of our likes and preferences. Armed with this information, they can sell marketing services to other restaurants and entertainment venues in their local area. The next time we make a reservation at the same imaginary resort (we had such a good time the first imaginary visit), we receive information about additional restaurants, activities, and services, precisely matched to our taste and preferences.

Movitas uses mobile technology to add a new dimension to travel for the tourist and new opportunities for revenue the hotel and resort industry. And someday, Debby and I will be taking to the road again and what I imagine here will become real.

But for now, I am still at the Brasserie 73 in Skippack. A couple thoughts cross my mind: Terry and I both passed the mid-century mark: It is cool to see a man about my age at ease with cutting-edge technology, confidently making deals on the frontier of a new economy. However, I can’t help but wonder what is my own place is this brave new hi tech world. I am an aging would-be poet, most comfortable in my library reading Charles Dickens. I eye my computer warily even as I use it to keep my skill set relevant. Somehow, Terry’s soft-spoken demeanor reassures me that the next economic wave is nothing to fear.

But what about my town Skippack, a town which stubbornly holds on to its identity as a quaint collection of locally-owned shops and restaurants: It is no secret that many stores here struggle to survive. How should our village navigate the new economy?

Photo of Terry Williams

Terry Williams believes business is now all about building community, a valuable lesson for our beloved but sometimes struggling town.

Terry explains his perspective on the Skippack economy: Small business owners with shared interests are learning they are better off joining together and marketing their goods and services jointly to a much larger group of potential customers. He advises the business owners in Skippack to work together to get the word out about this quaint, historic Pennsylvania town.

Business today is all about identifying the characteristics of potential customers and using social media to build communities where potential customers can interact with service providers and each other. Social communities provide the foundation for sharing information and creating greater awareness of products and services.

Start low-tech and then go hi-tech: Put an easily-recognizable bowl in every shop and restaurant in Skippack to collect business cards, email addresses and cell phone numbers of visitors. Then combine all the email addresses and cell phone numbers into a single electronic list that will serve the entire Skippack business community. Using this list as a foundation, leverage the opportunities offered by text messaging and social media. Use technology to create a much larger community out of the people who come to this town to shop and dine and who appreciate its wonderful uniqueness.

Talking about social media with venture capitalist Terry Williams at the lush but cozy Brasserie 73 in Skippack, my friendly mom-and-pop town: It seems like the best of the old economy combined with the best of the new economy. There’s a mixed drink for you. Cheers.

Categories: Business, People

Music: Echoes of Tropical Paradise Reach Pennsylvania Suburbs

October 24, 2010 2 comments
Gabe Schick, The Tune Dude, with guitar and steel drum

Gabe Schick, The Tune Dude, a one-man-band who sings and plays guitar and steel drum, has been entertaining in Skippack for three years.

Ask me to name the most important ingredient that goes into making Skippack Village a magical town, I will answer it is the musicians who entertain at our pubs and restaurants. A good musician, a moving song, and a beat: These elements can transform an ordinary evening into a night of adventure or self-discovery. My favorite memories here in Skippack and other places on this planet are of musical afternoons and evenings.

I prefer listening to local musicians at one of our local establishments to watching a major headliner in a stadium or concert hall.  When the audience numbers many hundreds or thousands, I am part of a mob, an unnoticeable, undistinguished element. In contrast, at an intimate venue in my neighborhood, I am a distinguished part of a select company. Each person attending a local performance contributes to the outcome of the evening, hopefully for the better.

I take my role as a member of the audience seriously. Because I have not a microfiber of musical talent, it is the only role I can play. I sit and listen intently to each performer who takes time to entertain in Skippack. And I especially enjoy playing my part when my friend Gabe Schick AKA The Tune Dude comes to town to play at the Cabana Bar or Justin’s Carriage House.

The Tune Dude’s music is an upbeat, mellow mix of folk, reggae, and rock flavored occasionally by stealthily snuck-in jazz chords. He plays many familiar songs: For example, Brown Eyed Girl; Me and Julio; Take the Money and Run; and Jimmy Buffet tunes. I enjoy his relaxed, silver-tongued vocals and his laid-back, likeable stage persona. But The Tune Dude takes a step beyond the likeable ordinary: He is the one-man band reinvented: In addition to strumming a folk guitar, he accompanies himself on an instrument most magical, the steel drum, adapting its exotic sound to all kinds of songs.

Sometimes called a steel pan, this percussion instrument is made from a 55-gallon drum and was first used by traditional Carnival bands in Trinidad and Tobago. When The Tune Dude taps on his steel drum, out pop joyful, metallic calypso notes: I hear echoes of a tropical paradise right here in our suburban Pennsylvania town.

Close up of a steel drum

Sometimes called a steel pan, the steel drum is a percussion instrument first used by traditional Carnival bands in Trinidad and Tobago.

A native son of Pennsylvania, Gabe grew up in the Poconos. He started playing guitar at age 12, jamming to Pat Benatar, Kiss, Van Halen and other 1980s acts. He later took up drumming. He had a short stint in college during which he enjoyed life too much. Next, he enlisted in the Marines, following in the steps of his father, uncles, and grandfather (with regard to joining the military, not necessarily with regard to partying).

As a marine, Gabe travelled the world. He worked days as a mechanic on the F18 fighter aircraft, afterwards jamming at a club on his base for enlisted personnel or, in Australia and Thailand, with local bands in hotel lobbies. Music became a way of reaching out and connecting to people with different professions and from different cultures.

Toward the end of his enlistment, he joined musicians he met at a San Diego beach bar to form a rock band and would later leave to join another band. He stayed in California until he met his wife, Erin, and moved back to the East Coast in 2002.

The year before, his wife had given him a steel drum. For a long time, it sat in its case untouched. Over time, Gabe grew weary of rock band politics. In 2006, he decided to strike out as a solo act. It was then he rediscovered the beautiful gift from his wife. It became the key to breaking away from the standard mold of the guitar-strumming folk rock singer.

Since returning East, Gabe has finished his degree, built a family and entered a more steady-paying career as an independent insurance agent, but he continues playing in Skippack and other towns and also for private parties and weddings. As he progresses through the stages of his life, The Tune Dude maintains and develops his musical voice; the beautiful steel drum notes that punctuate his songs underscore his individuality and creativity.

The Tune Dude is one of many wonderful musicians who play in Skippack. A few others: Dean Garofolo comes here to sing the songs of Elvis Presley (my favorite are his renditions of gospel songs that were interpreted by Elvis). Two of my wife’s favorite dance bands are Anna Marie and Kenny B and Plus 3 & Company. There is a wonderful rock and soul band called Cellar Ratz. Last night at Hotel Fiesole, I enjoyed a wonderful swing band called the The Wanamaker Lewis Band. My apologies to all the musicians and bands I neglect to mention: this blog is just beginning and there are many more entries to come.

Gabe Schick AKA The Tune Dude is available for gigs and private parties. Contact him at (609) 240-1767 or tunedude@thetunedude.net.

Categories: Music, People

Festival Days: The Luckiest Town in the World

October 10, 2010 1 comment

The first weekend of October, we enjoyed one of Skippack’s many festivals, this time a craft and gift show called Skippack Days. What happens during Skippack Days? Mostly a celebration of that great American pastime, buying and selling. Feeling down about economic hard times? Come to Skippack Days to see Pennsylvania’s middle class open wallets and pocketbooks in exchange for crafts and objects bright, shiny, adorable, unique, imaginative and not always terribly useful.

During evening and early dawn hours before Skippack Days, crafters, food vendors, and hawkers of assorted wares set up tent-like structures along the sidewalks and in the parking lots − modern day nomads traveling across the suburban desert and creating a temporary encampment along Skippack Pike. And following the rise of these temporary structures come people, wonderful people, actual crowds: children, families, couples, young, old, middle aged. For a day or two at least the town acquires the human horde needed to give a much-needed boost to the local economy. To paraphrase a popular song, towns that need people are the luckiest towns in the world.

Booths displaying crafts and gift items

One of many booths displaying crafts and gift items during Skippack Days, a local festival.

My lovely wife Debby is my guide and off we go. At the entrance to a booth-filled parking lot, a young man with close-cropped hair hands out flyers proclaiming that the end of days is near. So it may be, but right now the day, however fleeting, is beautiful and life beckons to be enjoyed like grapes ripened on the vine. Here God and man unite to create a world of motley abundance: Handbags and jewelry flourish like neon-colored wildflowers. Debby is not displeased. Knick knacks for the house are not scarce, nor are outfits of all kinds. Something for everyone.

My wife scouts out a delicate, gauzy shawl with silver threading sold by an Asian vendor who speaks little English but is able to close the sale using the twinkle in his eye and personal charm. Most likely, the fine shawl we purchased was manufactured in Hong Kong. My observation: From the dawn of trade until the Skippack festival, commerce has built the strongest bridges between continents and cultures. If you want to find the secret of bringing harmony to the world (as much as seems to be possible), stop singing Kumbaya and go shopping.

Joe Pennypacker, craftsman, holding up cutting board

Joe Pennypacker holds up one of his handcrafted cutting boards. For information, call 610-506-7322.

But a voice inside tells that while it is good to think globally, we must act locally, so we continue on in search of our next purchase, hoping for an object more native to our local area. What could such an object be? We soon discover the answer: A cutting board in the shape of a cat! So we learn when we arrive at the booth of Pottstown craftsman Joe Pennypacker who uses Corian, a solid surface material created by DuPont and often used for kitchen countertops, to make cutting boards and trivets in whimsical shapes: cats, dog bones, mice, pigs, fishes, milk bottles, hearts, apples, flowers, ovals, circles, rectangles, and crosses. All styles are available in array of colors and patterns.

The cat-shaped cutting board charms my wife and Joe charms us both with his sense of humor, and tells us that he himself cuts the board into its feline shape and explains how to care for it. I want to ask more questions, such as where did he get the idea for his product, but there is much more to see and I must follow my guide who is eager to stimulate the economy during the recession, and am swept along.

I promise myself to be disciplined in my spending and walk like a steadfast soldier past booths of beaded jewels, Halloween-themed statuettes, glimmering glassware, wooden toys, adorable kitty cats in cages (real ones), soothing quilts, tie-dyed t-shirts that recall Woodstock-era freedom, handmade soaps, household items of all sorts, an infinity of temptations. I am growing proud of my ability to hold fast. But then I see a table of beautifully-crafted wood pens. What creature of flesh and blood who ever sought to express themselves in writing can resist a fine, lathe-turned pen?

Tim Swanson Displays Crafts

Tim Swanson of Doylestown displays handcrafted gifts made out of exotic and domestic woods.

The pens are the creation of Tim Swanson, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania who handcrafts gifts out of exotic and domestic woods. The pen I set my sights on is made of a box elder burl, so Tim tells me: Box elder is a species of wood; burl describes a condition of wood whereby it becomes knotted and contorted within the tree, so Google tells me (as I type this).

The wood has been dyed blue; the pen evokes both forest and sky. I look longingly but hesitate. My wife Debby reads my mind, reaches for the wallet inside her handbag, and the beautiful pen is mine. I think of a line from the Book of Proverbs that says a good wife is worth more than jewels.

Worth more than jewels but right now wants a leather handbag: Next we seek out one of the little known secrets of Skippack Days: a small modest booth manned by Charlie Brous, president of Budd Leather Company, and his wife Rose. Each year we come to this booth to buy fine leather handbags, wallets, cosmetic bags, jewelry boxes, desk accessories, and other items at a fraction of their retail cost. Budd Leather Company is a wholesaler headquartered in nearby Souderton, Pennsylvania that mostly serves retail stores, but each year Charlie and Rose offer leftover sales samples at amazing prices to the attendees of Skippack days.

Charlie Brous, president of Budd Leather Company, and his wife Rose

Charlie Brous, president of Budd Leather Company, and his wife Rose at Skippack Days. Budd Leather items are available at two Skippack Shops: Sharp Unique Gifts for men and the Copper Partridge.

Charlie and his wife tell me that Skippack Days is the only fair of its kind where they sell their leather-goods samples: Simply because they find the atmosphere delightful and people nice. It makes me feel proud to live here. My wife Debby walks away with a pink leather handbag and a green leather wallet; I walk away with a beautiful black leather writing pad cover and a long reach shoe horn with a sculpted profile of horse at the head, making a mental note to return to Charlie’s treasure trove next Skippack Days. Year-round Budd Leather items are available at two Skippack Shops: Sharp Unique Gifts for Men and the Copper Partridge.

At this point, I begin thinking that a life dedicated to acquiring material goods is empty and meaningless. A single afternoon dedicated to acquiring material goods is exhausting and leads to much rearranging of items in plastic bags.

It seems fitting that next we arrive at a booth that is dedicated not to selling to decorative objects but to spreading an idea. The booth is manned by Matt and Sylvia Schelly of Norristown, Pennsylvania and eight student volunteers from Ursinus College. The idea available for penetration into open minds is: Fair trade. Advocates of this concept encourage people like you and me to buy products labeled “fair trade.” This ensures that farmers and artisans from developing nations get a fair price for the goods they sell, so they may support their families and pull themselves out of poverty. Matt and Sylvia show me coffee, chocolate and other items with a fair trade label.

Booth Promoting fair trade

Booth promoting fair trade: Buying products labeled “fair trade” ensures that farmers and artisans from developing nations get a fair price for the goods they sell

Now, I have long since left the days of picket signs and political causes. Utopian ideas are stored somewhere in a closet along with my old Lego sets and 8-track cassettes. However, many years ago, I spent time in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, making friends with indigenous people who lived on small farms and sold handmade items to tourists, and fair trade sounds like a practical way to help out these fondly-remembered friends. I begin expressing my views and soon am deep in conversation with Matt and Sylvia.

I continue talking. My wife’s current favorite possession is a fair trade handbag made in Nepal and purchased from Crystal Persuasions LLC, a new age and jewelry store in Skippack. I am eager to hear what Debby has to say on the topic. But I look around and, alas, rather than listen to me pontificate, Debby has wandered off to do more shopping. I take my leave of Matt and Sylvia, thinking not only of farmers in Ecuador but of the opportunity to meet good people and have thoughtful conversation right here in Skippack.

All good things must end, and when I find Debby I tell her that I can no longer look at gift items, we must call it a day. We are sad for the vendors we didn’t get to see and for the close of a beautiful festival. Time for a late afternoon lunch at local restaurant Basta Pasta. The excitement for the day however is not over.

Lenny Gordon: Band leader, vocals, drums & percussion for Lenny G & the Soulsenders.

Lenny Gordon: Band leader, vocals, drums & percussion for Lenny G & the Soulsenders.

While savoring our delicious pizza, entertainment is provided by Lenny G and the Soulsenders, a versatile reggae, R&B, blues, pop, rock and soul band. When Lenny and his musicians arrive in Skippack, the hipness factor in our Pennsylvania semi-tourist town goes up a sizzling one thousand percent. The music is authentic but easy-to-enjoy as I am gathering the melted cheese that has fallen off my pizza slice. As if they are reading my mind, the band plays some personal favorites; Sitting On The Dock of the Bay, No Woman No Cry, The Wind Cries Mary, as well as some original tunes. As the tight rhythms and beautiful wailing guitar notes float from the parking lot to our ears, my wife and I have a collective thought: We live in Paradise.

The festival is ending, but before we go home, my wife and I will visit one store. While it is great to have crafts people and vendors for a festival, we must never forget the shop owners who are here year round, working hard to make Skippack a special place. My wife Debby has refrained from buying any jewelry so she can purchase a couple reasonably-priced pieces from Beth Wade, owner of Crystal Persuasions (note: Crystal Persuasions recently moved to Green Wolf’s Village Barn Shoppes at 4010 Skippack Pike). We go not only for the baubles, but to enjoy Beth’s relaxing, easy-going personality. I would like to tell you more about Beth and her wonderful shop but that is another blog entry for another time.

Skippack’s next festival, the International Car Show & Oktoberfest, is Sunday October 17th. More information on Skippack festivals and events is available from the Skippack Village website.

More Photos from Skippack Days

Debby Enjoys Loot

My wife Debby enjoys loot obtained at Skippack Days: A shawl from Hong Kong, a leather handbag courtesy of Budd Leather and jewelry from Crystal Persuasions, a store in Skippack.

Don Butler playing Guitar

Musician Don Butler on Lead Guitar rocks out with the band Lenny G and the Soulsenders.

Hanging out with Lenny G and the Soulsenders

Blog writer hanging out with members of the band Lenny G and the Soulsenders. Lenny G stands at front left. To his right is Don Butler, lead guitarist. Standing to my right is bass player Ron Ward. Behind Lenny to his left is an anonymous friend of the band.

Still Life: Decorated Scrabble Tiles

Still Life: Scrabble tiles decorated and transformed into necklaces by Jillery of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Email jillpsu@aol.com for information.

Lemonade Stand

Girls learn principles of free enterprise during Skippack Days.

Categories: Festivals