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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

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