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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

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Categories: Festivals, People, Shopping

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