Antique shops bring new life to small Connecticut town

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Jack Sauer, The Associated Press
The streets of downtown Putnam, Conn., are lined with trees and antique shops.More than a dozen antique shops and several restaurants are located in the downtown area.

By Shelley K. Wong, The Associated Press

PUTNAM, Conn. -- Until about 15 years ago, Putnam, Conn., was just another old industrial town with abandoned mills and a faded downtown. Parts of Putnam that had been destroyed by a flood in 1955 had never recovered.

   
If You Go ...

Putnam, Conn.: http://www.putnamct.us Located in northeastern Connecticut, about an hour's drive from Hartford, 90 minutes from Boston, 45 minutes from Providence, R.I., and three hours from New York City.
Antiques District: Nearly a dozen antiques shops are located in a four-block area along Main Street, including the marketplace with 200 dealers. Free municipal parking next to Union Station and also near the Putnam River Trail. Stores generally close around 5 p.m. on weekdays and weekends. Some businesses closed Mondays.
Other attractions: River Mills Heritage Trail, Putnam River Trail and the Gertrude Warner Museum, located in the red boxcar at Main Street and Union Square (open May 15-Oct 15, weekends only, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.). Warner wrote the "Boxcar Children" book series.

   

But today, Putnam's downtown is a haven for antiques shoppers. There are nearly a dozen antiques stores here in a four-block area, including a mall with 200 dealers. Enthusiasts say the district rivals more well-known antiques destinations in Connecticut like Woodbury and the Collinsville section of Canton.

The town's location -- in a rural and unspoiled part of the state where farmland is abundant -- also makes Putnam an attractive destination for day trips and weekend getaways. Visitors can arrive relaxed after cruising through small towns along scenic, winding roads.

Businessman Jerry Cohen, who bought a department store downtown in the late 1980s and converted it into the antiques mall, is credited with sparking the revival of Putnam's downtown.

"People were very, very skeptical when I bought the building," he said. "They said, 'You're crazy for doing this. You're throwing your money away. Nobody is going to come to Putnam to buy antiques.'"

They were wrong.

The success of his store prompted others to invest in storefronts and the antiques district was born.

Cohen started selling antiques in Oakland, Calif., in 1975. He moved to Woodstock, Conn., in the late 1980s. After buying the building in Putnam, Cohen says he bought advertising on a giant billboard across from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., to promote Putnam as a place to shop.

"People from this area would see this billboard and would come down to this store and be speechless that somebody was promoting Putnam," he said. "It really forced people to look at the town in a different way, to feel like this maybe wasn't such a bad place, maybe that it wasn't destined to failure, that its glory days weren't necessarily behind itself."

It took a few years but, Cohen said, his store, Antiques Marketplace, eventually became financially viable.

The shop covers some 22,000 square feet spanning four levels. Visitors can walk by dozens of glass showcases displaying items offered by more than 200 dealers, from a 1920 Victrola record player to a pair of ivory turtles. Customers will also find Mission-style oak furniture, the store specialty.

Beneath the store's pressed tin ceiling, Greg Sperry, 56, recently looked at a piece of Mission-style furniture, a Stickley lamp table. His companion, Rozalyn Murphy, 53, slid to his side after eyeing some sterling silver flatware she wanted to purchase. Their drive from Hebron to downtown Putnam has become a biannual ritual, with stops for wine or food in-between.

"We'll find a nice little restaurant and have lunch in a little while," Sperry said.

The throng of new stores has brought in new restaurants to the community. Visitors can enjoy a variety of food choices, from a restaurant offering cornmeal-dusted fried calamari to an establishment specializing in Coney Island hot dogs.

Down the road, a 19th century mill site just beyond the Quinebaug River offers a beautiful, nostalgic picture of the town's industrial past.

For children's book enthusiasts, a red boxcar sits about a block away from the downtown area, just across a set of railroad tracks, honoring Gertrude Chandler Warner, the author of "The Boxcar Children" book series and a native of Putnam.

Feehan, of the International Downtown Association, said towns like Putnam offer an alternative to suburban shopping malls and a unique history to go along with it.

"A lot of times, we're going to places and we're buying things but we're really there for the experience," Feehan said. "Places like Putnam just make you feel good."



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