Uncommon Goods, Exceptional Service

A cast iron figure of a woman sitting at a café-style table can be found in the center of The Commons.

In spite of a sluggish economy that is only slowly reviving, many shop owners around the Finger Lakes Region have weathered the financial storm through the relationships they have built with their customers, as well as the ever-changing and unique variety of products they offer.

One shop owner in particular, Maureen Mathewson from Tender Loving Care by Maureen in Owego, cites the strong relationships she has built with her customers as the most important ingredient in her recipe for maintaining a successful business.

“My customers travel from all over to come to my store because they like my products,” said Mathewson, adding, “We have a great relationship, and they keep coming back to see the new items brought in.”

Mathewson also thinks the ambience of her store and its attractive location helps. Tonya Stavana, who moved to the area several years ago and works for Mathewson, agrees. Stavana attributes some of the success of the merchants in the village to Owego being named the “Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel in 2009. But shoppers often arrive in Owego with a simple desire to find something unique, while avoiding the malls.

Alice Bucinell, who was there recently to do some shopping, said that the small villages in the area remind her of Decatur, located near her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. “We don’t have the small town quaintness there,” she said. “We like the variety offered in the unique shops we find on our shopping excursions.”

Following their shopping trip to Owego, Bucinell and her mother, Jean, were planning to travel 30 miles north to The Commons in Ithaca.

A Unique Experience
The small shops located in and around the villages of the Finger Lakes abound in unique items – things that simply can’t be found in chain stores.

At the Hand of Man, located near the Court Street Bridge in Owego in a three-story building that dates to the 1850s, owner Pat Hansen spends most of her time rotating products and stocking the shelves. The business, which she started as a flea market, now features an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, ornaments, gifts and gourmet foods.

Out back, overlooking the Susquehanna River, the charming River Rose Café serves the finest lunches and desserts named after historic landmarks within the village. Hansen said many of her customers arrive from out of town, enjoy the entire shopping experience of browsing through her store, and then dine out on the back deck.

On The Commons in nearby Ithaca, Chris Diamond offers a variety of unusual products manufactured from organic hemp, including handbags, shirts, dresses, skirts and a variety of paper products. In its brochures, the Ithaca Hemp Company talks of how for centuries it has been known that hemp is the strongest natural fiber on Earth (nearly 10 times as strong as cotton), and that it has only been legalized for manufacturing in the United States within the last two decades.

The brochures go on to note that the prohibition, which dates from the 1930s, stems from ignorance regarding the psychoactive chemical THC. According to their website, even the U.S. government acknowledges the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp, which does not contain THC.

Their literature states that because hemp cannot be legally grown in the United States today, fabric, twine and seed must be imported. It argues that this is due to regulations placed on the hemp industry by multinational enterprises (e.g. the paper products, cotton, chemical and petroleum industries), which have strong financial interests in restricting hemp production in the United States.

Because of its benefit to the environment, clothing and apparel made from hemp is popular, especially among area college students. Many customers also come from outside the region because hemp products can be hard to find.

The Ithaca Hemp Company is just one of the many specialty stores located on The Commons. Nearby, Shangri-La sells hand-woven products from India, while another shop down the road, called Jabberwock, carries products handcrafted by local artisans.

And, while some enjoy shopping for clothes, shoes or handcrafted items, others prefer to go antiquing. About 30 miles west of Ithaca, nestled next to the south end of Seneca Lake is Watkins Glen, home to the International Speedway and the walkable state park and gorge.

The village features rows of historic buildings housing a variety of shops, including several antique stores known for their ability to bring in items of value.

At O’Shaughnessy Antiques and Fine Arts Gallery located on North Franklin Street, co-owners Louise O’Shaughnessy and Deborah Pierce remain busy year-round. “We’re in a resort area, so we get visitors all year,” said O’Shaughnessy, adding, “Many people travel here to see the fall colors.” And, O’Shaughnessy explained, visitors come from all over the world, many of them from Canada.

With vintage clothing, antique jewelry and appraisal services available, O’Shaughnessy Antiques compliments the row of antique shops that graces the downtown Watkins Glen business district.

The shop also carries an array of artwork. “We actively search out good pieces,” said Pierce, noting that they have had artwork by artists ranging from Ansel Adams, to the regionally known Armand Varney and the late Lars Hofterup of Elmira. “They are no longer with us,” she said, “but their work is still sought after.”

JoAnn and Judy Davis visited the shops recently. Traveling from New Rochelle and Rochester, respectively, the sisters get together a couple days out of the year for what they call their “sister vacation.”

Browsing through antiques, the two were also getting ready to go sail boating on nearby Seneca Lake. “We thought the antique shops looked interesting,” said JoAnn.
“We wanted to try something a little different on the water,” she added.

Shopping for a cause
Just down the street from the Watkins Glen antique shops, Humane Society volunteers operating a thrift store called Wags to Riches celebrated their recent move to a larger facility near the intersection of 4th and Franklin streets. The inventory comes from donations that are sorted and resold.

One hundred percent of the profits benefit efforts to provide pet food assistance and affordable spay/neuter services for income-eligible families, as well as run the Schuyler County Animal Shelter. Since the spay/neuter clinics were introduced, more than 6,000 cats and dogs have benefited from the service. The clinics, said Sharon Axtell, began in 2003. She also said the thrift store business has been growing

“It’s a great fundraiser,” said Axtell. “It’s also a benefit to the community as well because they didn’t have a thrift store,” she added. But, she explained, because of the volume of donations received, they needed a larger facility.

“We needed a larger storage area,” Axtell said, adding, “We’re all volunteer, and all we have to pay for is the rent.”

Axtell also noted that the Humane Society is preparing to build a new facility that will house the county’s homeless animals. For more information or to volunteer, call the Humane Society at 607-594-2255 or visit www.schuylerhumane.org.

story and photos by Wendy Post

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