DEEP RIVER — “We love the town and I feel so fortunate that I can make a living doing this and being part of the fabric of my community, so when the opportunity presented itself to purchase the building, we were thrilled,” said Sage Novak, leaning against the wood and glass counter in her women’s clothing shop, Compass Rose, in downtown Deep River on Friday morning.
Novak opened a shop in Chester in 2015, but when the building at 4 River Street became available, she and her husband, Dan Kollmer, jumped at the opportunity to lease a space nearby to Anchor and Compass, her men’s store at 163 Main Street, Deep River, which she began renting in 2010.
“I always wanted to be here. I wanted the two stores to play off each other,” Novak said.
Then in December 2019, Novak and Kollmer purchased the 4 River Street location, a decision that she described as a sign of their commitment to their hometown, as well as surety for their business, because they don’t own the building on Main Street.
There are advantages to owning compared to renting, Novak said.
“In terms of longevity, you’re in charge of your own lease, you’re in charge of what happens with your space. Any improvements you make, you’re improving your property versus someone else’s property,” she said. “If anything would ever happen with the other building, then I’ll always have this, it’s security for the future.”
Far from alone, Novak was one of several women purchasing commercial shop spaces along the Main Street in Deep River.
Shopping and connecting
In a one-story grey building at 161 Main Street, with a vibrant purple door, Linda Oakes was ordering merchandise for her card shop, Celebrations. A framed collage of photos of her first space, which she first opened across the street in 1982, pictured her three daughters, her mother and her mother-in-law, who all helped build her enterprise.
“We were there for the first five years and then we bought this property — this building and the building next door and the garage in the back. It was 1988,” she said Friday afternoon, as she moved around the small space chock full of cards, gifts, clothing and housewares.
Oakes and her husband, Ray Oakes, purchased the buildings with Michele St. Marie and Patricia Hartman, the owners of what was then Pasta Unlimited, later Feast, and now Dough on Main at 159 Main Street.
“It seemed advantageous for the four of us to do it together. We’ve been a partnership for 32 years … I control my rent,” she laughed.
She said at the time she wasn’t focusing on buying the buildings because she was eager to fill up the new space and grow her business.
“I think my excitement was I was moving into a clean [space], newly carpeted, newly painted, bigger than what we had before,” said Oakes, who has lived in Deep River with her family for 42 years.
Oakes said she likes Main Street in Deep River because it has a small-town atmosphere where people can genuinely connect.
“I think being in the center of any small town is really something very special. It’s being part of the community, sharing with your neighbors,” she said. “People meet up with each other here on a Saturday morning. You see people you haven’t seen in a while and you meet lots of new people everyday. In many ways it’s a gathering place.”
Committing to the future
Farther down the block, salon owner Leah Kisselbrack checked a client’s highlight foils while the two chatted.
Kisselbrack, who owns Leah’s Bella Vita had rented her space at 153 Main Street since 2011, before purchasing the building in October 2019.
Like Novak and Oakes, Kisselbrack saw the opportunity, even with two small children at home.
“Commercial real estate was not on my bucket list to learn about, but here we are,” she said. “I talked to my husband and he said, ‘We have to do it.’”
Kisselbrack said that at first she was afraid of making the commitment, but that owning the building had changed her outlook.
“Before, of course, I knew I had a future here, but now I see a whole different, a more tangible ‘real deal’ future, like the way you think about your home in buying versus renting. When you buy a house you think about your future in that space more than you do when you’re renting,” she said.
Kisselbrack is now also the landlord of the barbershop next door, which she said, surprisingly, has not been a conflict for either business.
“They don’t wash hair, they don’t do coloring. Guys who come here want to go to a salon, guys who want to go to a barbershop go there,” she said.
Like her fellow building owners, she said the location on Main Street has been “fantastic.”
“Deep River has gotten much more awesome over the years. I’m here for the long term,” she said.
Novak said that the Compass Rose building was a dry goods store at one time and had served an important role in the town — a history that became important when she and her husband decided to renovate the space in 2016, before they knew they would own the location.
“It was the place where all the people in the area came for fabric, underwear, gym uniforms at the high school, shoes. We wanted to bring it back to its old roots of a general store-retail spot,” she said, adding that the display counter in her shop was original to the dry goods store.
Novak said that Milton Realty had been the occupant for more than 40 years and had built-out the space into offices.
“We took down the walls and refinished the floors. We did what we needed to do to bring it up to speed and to preserve and protect,” she said.
Even with the rise of internet shopping, the authenticity of the “general store” experience will likely keep shoppers returning to small-town shops like those in Deep River, Novak said.
“The internet and shopping online are totally here to stay, but I think the small main street brick and mortars [provide] that old-fashioned sense of connection and community, being able to try things on and touch and feel, that I think is stronger,” she said.
“People shop online but not for everything and then they enjoy going out to their towns, or when they’re on vacation, into the fun little shops and having that tactile experience,” she said. “We don’t need 100 percent of the business, it’s that we complement their shopping experience.”