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  • Susan Dickenson

River: Living the beautiful life in Connecticut

Proprietors Joe Marini and John Simoudis celebrate the art of living at River, in the small historic village of Essex, Connecticut. They also celebrate beautiful objects and the way those objects are altered by the outside world. 
As the owners explained in a recent press release, “We like anything that has a useful function and only grows more attractive with age,” such as the store’s linen sheets that “grow softer and more supple with time” and the rustic finishes and aged patinas of the decorative and personal accessories that fill the shop and garden courtyard.
This past summer, River moved to a new location on Main Street, across from the town green and the Connecticut River. The building was built in 1852 and spent its earlier years as a post office. “It’s a charming little building — freestanding, nothing above or attached, very historic, original paneling,” Simoudis said. “We cleaned it up, did some renovating, painting, put in a new floor and a garden in back.”
The larger space has opened up room for more merchandise, including an expansion into garden decor, and provides a bigger canvas for the owners’ design and art work – Marini’s floral arrangements and Simoudis’ photography. Their early careers as stylists is evidenced by attractive displays incorporating florals, accents, containers, antiques and tabletop. Mixed in are soft goods by names such as John Robshaw, Etro Home and Libeco linen, and special pieces from antique stores and estate sales. 
“Closer to Christmas we do a lot of topiaries – myrtle and rosemary – that look really good inside the space. It’s a look that mixes simplicity with texture,” Simoudis said. “We’ve had customers walk in and tell us this looks like their ideal home.”
He described the local customer base as “old world, old money, conservative – they won’t go into a store and shop indiscriminately.” 

Many of River’s decorative accessories, including the garden planters and statuary, are made by artisans. Only about 10% come from shopping at markets or tradeshows. 
“We like that we carry things that can’t be found just anywhere. We travel quite a bit so wherever we are, we try to find certain points of view,” Simoudis said. “Our soaps are a good example. They’re made for us in Massachusetts and I wrap and stamp them myself. You won’t find these anywhere else and they literally sell out of the store.” 
The soaps are one of about a half dozen exclusives River offers in its online store, set up by Simoudis using an e-commerce site called Big Cartel. “Before we went to Big Cartel we did a big online store that was custom, and very expensive — not only the initial investment, but the time editorially,” he said. 
Big Cartel gives small shops (up to 100 products) a way to build and stock their own Internet store with e-commerce and inventory tracking capabilities for less than $20 per month. “For a store our size, it’s the perfect way to take advantage of online retailing… and easily searchable through Google,” Simoudis said. “I looked on their administration panel and saw where people have googled for ‘linen aprons’ and our store came up. With the bigger custom package we had to pay for that kind of search engine optimization.”
Marini, who has worked as an event planner, caterer, food and floral stylist, also runs an event design business out of the shop. “We both used to be stylists in New York, working for magazines doing set design and tabletop,” Simoudis said. “I used to do a lot for fashion and Joe did a lot for Martha Stewart and Gourmet, those types of publications.” 
Several years ago, a decision to buy a weekend home in the country morphed into “let’s start a business,” which they did in 2005. 
“We’ve never really thought of it as retail,” Simoudis said. “We don’t approach this as ‘we have a retail store what are we going to buy for it.’ We approach it as a story — what are we going to show this year? What is going to sell?  We agreed that since we didn’t have a lot of experience or money, let’s buy what we like so that if we fall flat on our face we’ll have it for home.” 
The store is open six days a week until Dec. 31 when it reduces to four days a week and by appointment.
“In the dead of winter we’ll close for 3-4 weeks to take a vacation… and go shopping,” he said.

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