Small business thrives in Darien

Photo of Justin Papp

DARIEN — Driving Northeast along the Post Road through downtown Darien, both sides of the street feature rows of boutiques, independently owned shops and restaurants.

There are some exceptions. Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera, Subway and Starbucks each have a storefront along the same stretch of road.

But it is the stores like Olivette, Darien Toy Box, Grieb’s Pharmacy, Darien Butcher Shop that stick out and, according to Susan Cator of the Darien Chamber of Commerce, make Darien the vibrant shopping center that it is.

By Cator’s estimation, nearly 95 percent of commercial and retail space in downtown Darien is occupied by small, independently owned businesses.

If one were to include commercial space on Tokeneke Road, in Noroton Heights and the Goodwives Shopping Plaza, Cator said the number might get up as high as 98 percent independently owned.

“It’s about the experience,” Cator explained. “Shoppers are enjoying a local retail experience where they not only get unique finds — whether it’s home decor or fashion, or shoes, or athletic wear— but they get personal customer service and the good feeling of investing in our community.”

The benefits to the community may be palpable. According to the Andersonville Study of Economics, which compared 10 independently-owned businesses in a neighborhood of Chicago, Ill., with their chain competitors, $68 of every $100 spent at the independently owned shops went back into the city’s economy. On the other hand, only $43 of every $100 spent at big-box stores cycled back into the city.

According to Kevin Maloney, director of communications at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, small businesses collectively employ a large part of the state’s workforce. Especially for a town of Darien’s size, Maloney said, small businesses are an important aspect of the local economy.

“In towns like Darien, and other small communities with vibrant town centers, small businesses are where you can see significant employment and job growth,” Maloney said.

“These locally owned businesses support our nonprofits, schools and community year round. When we shop locally, we are supporting our entire Darien community and we all benefit,” Cator said. “Does Amazon have a vested interest in our community? Absolutely not. Do our local businesses have a vested interest in our community? Absolutely yes. And that’s why we should shop locally.”

Vested interest in the community or not, Amazon and other online shopping options have caused headaches for local business owners.

For Sheila Daley, owner of Barrett Bookstore in Noroton Heights, the advent of online shopping signaled a new era in the book industry.

“For a while the tendency was toward online shopping. That was our biggest competitor, not the other big-box stores like Barnes and Noble,” Daley said.

In a recent press release announcing his store’s move from Post Road to the Goodwives Shopping Center, Steve Norris, of Runner’s Roost, noted the challenges his store faced with rising internet sales. But Runner’s Roost has apparently fought back thanks to a show of community support.

“Now, our business is more local than it used to be. A higher percentage of our customers are from Darien than before,” Norris wrote.

In the case of shopping for books, as well, the trend toward e-commerce appears to have plateaued, Daley said.

“I think there’s been a huge push to shop local and to support the small businesses that has kind of taken hold. I think there are a lot of people now that prefer to have a real book,” Daley said.

David Genovese, the man behind a proposed redevelopment Downtown that would see an increase of available commercial and retail space, said he plans on continuing the longstanding Darien preference for locally owned businesses. According to Genovese, unlike Greenwich, New Canaan and Westport, where rents tend to be higher and national and international retailers tend to occupy commercial spaces, landlords in Darien have been cooperative in keeping rents low.

“In Darien we’ve had a long tradition of locally owned stores dominate our retail landscape. The idea is to continue that tradition and create more locally owned business,” Genovese said. “it’s primarily based on what we think Darien wants. But it also happens to be a good business decision. The local stores have color and flavor. They’re unique and cool,” Genovese said.

In the opinion of Tom Geary, who has owned the Geary Gallery on Post Road for more than 30 years, small businesses have succeeded in Darien because of the shopping experience they offer.

“People in Darien would prefer to shop at a store down the street from them, as opposed to driving to another town to shop at a big box store and save $5. At a big-box you’re not dealing with individuals, you’re dealing with just an employee,” he said.

“I couldn’t imagine Darien without its unique shops, which make our town vibrant and appealing to current residents and future residents,” Cator said.;