The city of Waterbury claims many firsts. The first brass in America was rolled here. It’s where the first pewter buttons were made, and the first Mickey Mouse watch was produced. One historic store on Bank Street sells products that are still uniquely made right here in Connecticut.
“Here you have a bow tie, which is made out of wood,” said Hank Paine, owner of the Connecticut Store, as he knocks the wood on the counter top for dramatic effect. “The person who made that guarantees it will keep your head above water.”
That sounds like something from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Paine is just as enthusiastic as Mark Twain’s protagonist Hank Morgan about Yankee ingenuity. He’s like a walking and talking history book filled with deadpan humor, and customers seem to love that. Everything here is made in… well, Connecticut.
“Wiffle ball, Bovano of Cheshire, it’s Waterbury Button Company, Woodbury Pewter, it’s even the only real Christmas tree ornaments in the world! We go out and steal – I mean pick up Christmas trees in January when people throw them out on the curb,” Paine said. “We dry them. We cut them. Then, a man and his wife, Ken and Brenda Killer, create the most beautiful hand-cut ornaments out of the cross sections of a recycled Christmas tree.”
I had to buy an elf ornament for the ingenious marketing, just as much as for the craftsmanship. The place is filled with stories. This was once the Howland-Hughes department store, operational for more than 100 years.
In 1997, Paine had a huge “staying in business sale.” He sold off everything that wasn’t made in Connecticut. Today, a big map on the wall shows thumbtacks on 55 countries – places to where the store ships out products. Even though sales, mostly online, are up by ten percent, it’s challenging. As we walk around the store, Paine talks about manufacturers who have closed, or left the state.
“That was Allyn neckwear and unfortunately they have now moved to California and we are selling off the last of our inventory. We have lost producers,” Paine said. “Our furniture manufacturers, they unfortunately are no longer here. One of the best blanket manufacturers was in Unionville, and they are not here anymore. There is a reduction. Then again, we are finding new products and new producers as well.”
Still, it’s the demand for iconic brands like the Wiffle ball and bat, manufactured in Shelton, that continue to drive sales. Paine ships cases of it to customers at the McMurdo research base in Antartica and even to China, a leader in mass made, low-cost products.
The secret to his product's success, said David Mullany, CEO of the Wiffle Ball Inc., is its simplicity. The product hasn’t changed since his grandfather invented it in 1953, and Mullany intends to keep it that way.
“For some guys, it’s a lifestyle,” Mullany said. “There’s tournaments out there – guys [in their] 20s, 30s and 40s playing in very competitive events. Those are on the rise. It is more than just a product.”
It all began when Mullany’s dad, who was 12 at the time, and his friend were playing with a plastic golf ball and a broomstick handle. It was easier than having to round up two teams for baseball, and they had already broken too many windows.
Today, the Wiffle ball has such a loyal following that even the color of its bat -- a bright yellow -- is trademarked just as Coca-Cola’s vivid red is trademarked.
Bovano glass is another popular product at the Connecticut Store. The company’s history goes back to 1952 when Jim Bower, a local artist, began creating sculptures by fusing powdered glass to copper plates. I visited Bovano’s studio in Cheshire to find out how the process works.
“This is a place where each flower is assembled by hand out of copper,” Jim Flood, artist and president of Bovano explained, demonstrating the pressing machine just after he showed a group of customers the baking stage in the furnace. “Each individual component of a flower is dissected, and then it is put into a tool that cuts out each petal.”
At its peak, Bovano sold to 4,000 retail stores across America. After the 2008 recession, that number dropped to 400. Sales have picked up since by 10 percent each year. Flood attributes much of that to a better economy, Bovano’s online presence, and a renewed interest in locally made artisan work.
David Connolly from Florida grew up in Connecticut and his parents were collectors of Bovano glass. He too has purchased several pieces.
“Actually, I’ve been over in Venice, and been over looking at the best Murano glass. I have some,” Connolly said. “This is unique, and it is keeping it in Connecticut. It’s keeping it local. We absolutely support [products] being built here, being made here and the economy here.”
Not all of the demand is from customers with local ties. Hank Paine of the Connecticut Store said 90 percent of his business comes from outside Connecticut. He’s just expanded to two new markets: Peru and Slovenia.
Paine is also looking to add new manufacturers. The latest product to appear on his shelves is made by Brickenmore, LLC in East Windsor: Eco-friendly blocks of compressed horse manure sold as an alternative to wood pellets.