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The subtle genius of the small-town business

A walk through picturesque Madison leaves pedestrians, no matter where they hail from, with a sense of such belonging that they could swear they’ve lived there all their lives.  But how does a town create this feeling, especially one so frequently visited by tourists from all corners of Connecticut? The answer, in short, is small business.

Madison’s impressive list of local businesses feel so naturally a part of the community’s landscape, you’d think they sprouted up out of the very soil they’re built upon.  While that’s a nice way of imagining it, the owners and managers will tell you that the recipe behind their consumer cocktail includes grit, sacrifice, consistency, and an incredible sense for business.

Take, for example, RJ Julia’s.  Arguably one of the most successful small businesses in Connecticut, its red-brick-green-trim presence is as integral to the community as the roads themselves, but Chief Operating Officer Lori Fazio says it took years to create the brand, and it takes work every day to maintain that level of consumer connection.

The book store, which just celebrated its 28th birthday, is a balancing act where employees are constantly “trying to make sure [we’ve] got one foot on the ground and one foot in the next ethos, anticipating what could be coming,” according to Fazio.

The anticipation game is the biggest takeaway from a conversation with Fazio about what makes RJ’s special and how it’s withstood not only the challenge of paying rent in downtown Madison, but a digital influx that has rendered many bookstores obsolete.

“Some of it is science, some of it is luck,” she said.  For her, one of the most important undertakings for her employees is always knowing what the consumer is looking for.  It’s the very thing about the store that allows consumers to feel so deeply connected to the business. When you walk into RJ Julia’s, you may not know what you came there for, but somehow they’ve already found it for you.

A short walk around the corner will take shoppers to another Madison staple at the corner of Bradley Road and Wall Street.  Bradley and Wall, a deli in operation since 2002, has maintained its spot in the hearts and stomachs of local families and tourists for over 15 years.

Manager Rob Napoli says they’ve stayed a part of the local ethos for so long because of their consistency and willingness to put in the hard work.  Napoli is the son-in-law of the owner, Joe Conigliaro.

The restaurant is consistently jam-packed, but Napoli says consumers are willing to wait because they know the product and service will always be high quality.

“We’re well established, but you never know,”  he said in regard to business turnover around town.  “You want to make sure that you always give 100 percent.”

And from downtown to down on Garnet Park Road, Domestic Possessions, a boutique selling home decor, accessories, and more, combines the gritty work ethic with consumer connection to create a picture-perfect storefront.

Owner Deanna Blake has been at the helm of the boutique for close to five years, and says that owning such a beautiful store is less glamorous than it looks.

“It’s a grind,” she said.  “It’s like having a colicky baby.  It’s never quiet, and it never sleeps.  You have to love what you do.”

Blake said owning a business is not for someone who wants to work a 40-hour week.  Ebbing and flowing with trends and customers simply cannot be done within regular business hours.  Being complacent, she said, will make you a victim of failure.

It’s this grit masquerading as grace that produces that local je ne sais quoi.  Without small business warriors like Blake, Napoli, and Fazio- this coastal oasis would be nothing but sand.

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