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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

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

Tasty but Healthy: Café Proves It’s Possible

September 20, 2010 9 comments
Author sitting with lap top

Writing my blog at Butterflies Café

When I venture out for a meal, I find comfort in going to a restaurant where I am known as a regular customer.  It seems the best of both worlds: the pleasure of venturing out combined with a safety net of familiar people and environment. These days, it is seems almost every week I take at least one meal at Butterflies Café, an intimate, casual restaurant with an accent on fresh, healthy food in Skippack. Now its lunchtime on a clear, beautiful day and I have ordered my favorite meal, a veggie burger.

My veggie burger arrives. For people who only know store-bought veggie burgers such as myself, the veggie burger at Butterflies is a treat. A store-bought veggie burger is flat as the earth was thought to be before Columbus set sail; the veggie burger at Butterflies is plump and rounded, like the world after Columbus or more precisely, like a real, homemade burger. Texture and taste satisfy. It’s made from fresh, locally grown natural vegetables, peanut butter, garbanzo beans and fresh herbs.

The veggie burger is the creation of proprietor and chef Jacquelyne Rennie.  At my request, she stops from her work to sit down and talk. Jackie has an authentic, no-nonsense personality; her earthy demeanor belies the tremendous pride she takes in her restaurant. To each customer who bothers to stop to take notice, she offers one-on-one service, seeking to meet as much as possible each individuals taste and dietary needs; an example of what I love best about Skippack; the revival of the interpersonal relationship between seller and consumer.

In the past year, as I have gotten to know Jackie, I have watched her venture, Butterflies Café, evolve. The restaurant’s interior is better organized and brighter, the menu keeps getting better. Jackie now offers programs on selected nights, such as cooking classes, ladies night, and live music. I feel personally invested in the welfare of this enterprise.

Jackie describes struggling through her first winter as a restaurant owner, learning which items sell and which don’t. She lists her mainstays: Veggie burgers, vegetable stir-fries, buffalo burgers, gazpachos, butternut squash soup, and more. Meals can be made complete with a delicious, unusual dessert such as dairy-free cheese cake, made from dates, avocado, cashews, agave, coconut oil and a few secret ingredients. (“This is the most delicious cheesecake I have ever had,” shouts my wife in delight, “and I am from New York.”)

Picture of Jackie Rennie

Jackie Rennie, owner and chef at Butterflies Café, soon to be called Jay Bee’s Café.

Before she owned a restaurant, Jackie worked for twenty years in the mortgage banking business. When the bottom fell out of the housing market, her employer closed its doors and she found herself looking for a job. She worked at a department store and a bank but neither were her calling. She is also a single mom, and needed an occupation that would accommodate her schedule when caring for her two sons ages 9 and 11.

During this time, Jackie discovered she had celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye. It was a turning point in her life. Jackie realized that there was nothing served in fast food restaurants she could eat; every type of fast food contains wheat.

As she became more conscious of her own diet, Jackie began to wonder why there wasn’t a healthier alternative to fast food. She thought of opening a restaurant that would offer a wholesome alternative to fast food. When an acquaintance warned against the idea, it gave her the final push she needed.

“When someone tells me I can’t succeed at something,” says Jackie, “Then I get motivated and go out and do it.”

No banks were willing to provide financing. Jackie found private funding on her own.

Today, Jackie is building her enterprise with a consciousness of sustainable living: She renovated an old building, the furniture is from local antique shops, and most of the food is locally grown and organic. She caters to people who have special dietary needs, such those with celiac disease, or nut allergies or who cannot tolerate lactose found in milk products. She is sensitive to the harmful effects dietary restrictions can have on a person’s social life. Many customers tell her that her restaurant offers them the first opportunity to dine out in years.

As I am talking to Jackie, two teenage girls come in and ask what items on the menu are gluten-free. Jackie points them to several selections.

Still, Jackie worries that her theme of healthy food may scare some people away. She is reconsidering her approach to promoting her café. She has already erased the word healthy from the sign outside her shop. She is going to make her establishment more like a friendly neighborhood joint, with stronger family appeal. She will continue to focus on serving locally grown and fresh foods. She hopes to educate people over time, but for now she wants customers to feel well fed and well entertained. She unveils the new name and new tag line to me and my blog readers. The new name is: Jay Bee’s Café. The tag line is ”Fresh Food, Healthy Vibe.”

My hope is that Jackie can find the commercial success she needs without changing her personal approach to serving food or undermining the connection between her life philosophy and personal experiences and her business. As I sit on her porch and watch people pass by, the delicious food, the warm and friendly environment, and the sense of individual identity reinforce the feeling that I live in paradise.

Note: Butterflies café is BYOB and offers free Wi-Fi. It is also a great place to hang out and read. Phone: 610-222-2111. Address: 4019 Skippack Pike. Open Wednesday thru Sunday.

Debby in front of chalkboard

My wife Debby in front of the menu board

Photo of a salad

Still life with salad

Categories: Dining, People

Coming of Age in a Housing Crisis

August 31, 2010 13 comments

I thought my Skippack adventure began in January 2008 when I put a considerable portion of my and my wife’s life savings down for a house in Biltmore Estates, right in the heart of the village. But the real adventure didn’t begin until about 13 months later, in April 2009, when the builder of my swanky new Skippack home, TH Properties, declared bankruptcy.

For my neighbors and myself, the housing crisis was no longer a matter of editorials in the Wall Street Journal. We looked outside our windows and saw economic reality in the form of unfinished construction, abandoned equipment, overgrown weeds, debris, a closed sales office and unleveled plots of land.

Everything is a learning experience. Or at least this is what I tell my friend Bob Biddle. Bob and I share an unusual connection: While I was absorbing the shock of the TH Properties bankruptcy as a new homeowner, Bob was reeling from the same crisis from the opposite side of the settlement table: He was a senior finance associate for TH Properties. He, along with his partners, negotiated the deals and financial arrangements that held the company together, at least until April 2009.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

Now Bob and I walk across the divide that separates company from consumer to share a beer at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack. Once we are settled and served, I ask Bob to tell me about his career at TH Properties. He explains that he had been hired immediately after graduating from Penn State in 2004. His job: To help obtain the financing needed to build new housing developments. Back then, the housing market was still booming.

With his career on a steady curve, Bob married the woman he had dated since high school and looked forward to starting a family. The career curve, however, did not hold its smooth trajectory. TH Properties was hit hard by the rapid decline in the housing market: On April 20 2009, TH Properties closed its doors to business. On April 30, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Prospective homeowners lost deposits; vendors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some people lashed out. The day after TH Properties announced they were closing their doors, a crowd of reporters and angry homebuyers gathered outside the company headquarters. Threats were made against the owners of the company, the remaining staff members and even their families. The windows of TH Properties office building had to be covered with paper to allow business, now in a crisis state, to continue. To avoid the mob, Bob had to enter and exit the office through the back door.

Rumors and accusations spread across the Internet like wildfire. Some got under Bob’s skin, especially claims that the company principals had engaged in criminal activity or stashed away money and other assets before declaring bankruptcy. He knew people had a right to be angry, but he was not prepared for the level of anger, even hatred, some people expressed. It was a bitter awakening; the end of his young executive innocence.

“What” I ask, “did you learn from the experience?”

Bob looks back at me directly, almost defiantly: “Other people’s opinions don’t matter. Only your own convictions matter,” he answers. For a moment, he seems like a different man, older and grimmer; but soon the familiar casual, cheerful attitude returns.

Bob tells me he did what most people do when an employer is in crisis; he prepared his resume. However, he continued to work for TH properties, putting in ten and twelve hour days taking the first steps to rebuild the company. One change in the terms of his employment: He was no longer getting paid. A month earlier, his wife had given birth to their first child. Daddy was now a volunteer finance associate.

Unlike many homebuilders who jump from a bankrupt project to the next opportunity, the owners of TH Properties wanted to return to business to make good on their commitments. They wanted to complete the housing development where I live, Biltmore Estates in Skippack Village.

For more than a year, TH Properties sought the legal permission and financing needed to return to complete Biltmore Estates as well as some other developments. For Bob, this meant an ongoing series of negotiations and court hearings involving banks, creditors, local governments and other parties affected by the bankruptcy. During this time, I became involved; I volunteered to do what is best described as public relations work on behalf of Biltmore Estates to counter the negative publicity our development had received in local newspapers as a result of the bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test outWriter standing on walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test out our long-awaited walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago Bob called me to tell me that TH Properties obtained the right to build again at Biltmore Estates and secured the needed financing. Now when I leave for work I see hopeful signs: trucks, workmen, equipment, gigantic metal drainage pipes, and freshly-leveled plots of ground, now clear of weeds and debris. A winding paved pathway behind my deck is the first indication of a walking trail promised long ago. I am looking forward to the full flowering of my community, Biltmore Estates.

As a homeowner here I never suffered the harsh effects of the past months felt by some people in my community. My wife and I had bought a beautiful, intact home. The homes that surrounded us were intact as well. Perhaps if I had lost my deposit or had to live in an unfinished house, I would be less eager to share a beer with Bob Biddle. A dark thought passes through me. If my circumstances or timing had been different, would I look at the engaging young man beside me at the bar with anger and bitterness?

I look up from my beer. Bob is telling me about how he had to go home and ask his wife for permission to work without pay. He says he will always be grateful for the support she gave him when he stayed with TH Properties. I think to myself, “at least let the harsh economic times we live in bring us together rather than tear us apart.”

Strange as it sounds, there is an aspect of living in an unfinished development that is pleasing to me. I walk outside and see unfinished buildings with Tyvek sheets rustling in the wind. It reminds me that we live in a world of risk: A person can do all the right things such as work hard, save for a down payment, and negotiate a good price, and the result is still not guaranteed. Nothing in our life is guaranteed. Likewise, things most precious to us, such as the people we love, are not promised to us forever and therefore should not be taken for granted. I thought it good to have a symbol reminding me of this truth each time I looked out my kitchen window,

What’s more, in our corporate, mass-marketed world rarely do we get to know the people who make the products we rely upon. I know nothing about the people who built the chair I sit in or the keyboard I type upon. Thanks however to the bankruptcy and subsequent events I got to know Bob and other men and women who built the house where I live. I saw them struggle with their circumstances and decisions, just as I have struggled with my own. My house now has a back-story. It has a soul: A soul in addition to all of the conveniences of a new construction property.

Bob asks me if I want another beer. Think about it: The housing market in the United States collapses and the country and much of the rest of the world goes into a deep recession. It reverberates here in Skippack; and it leads to me sharing a beer with Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille. Yes, Bob, one more beer.

Writer explores metal drainage pipe at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

Writer explores metal drainage cylinder at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

My wife Debby strikes pose in metal cylinder, which will be used to rebuild our community

My wife Debby strikes pose in large metal cylinder to be used to rebuild our community

Categories: Business, People