R affael DiLauro is showing off a photo taken in 1968. It shows several dozen people sitting outside a New Haven storefront. Some are flashing peace signs. Some are wearing fascinating headgear. One couple has literally wrapped themselves in an American flag.
“I have alternate takes of that photo,” DiLauro recalls. “In one of them, we’re all laughing because somebody has just driven by and yelled “Get a job!” Which was all the more funny, because the photo is of a job which DiLauro had just landed for himself.
Forty-four years later, the store is still around. DiLauro is still there. Amazingly, so is the communal vibe from that old photo. The music that wafts around the scarves and postcard racks and hatstands—Hendrix, The Byrds, Beatles, Motown—are the owner’s personal mix tapes, piped through an old-school cassette player.
Group W Bench is a gentle-souled boutique jam-packed with exotic items. Jewelry. Handcrafted pottery. Hats. Posters. Candles. Incense. Shawls. Dresses. Postcards. Little wooden boxes. Walking sticks. Peace symbol bumper stickers. Henna powder. Soap. Picture frames. Flipbooks. Not to mention buckets and buckets of little toys and charms, from “Zombie Pets” to “five bells for a buck.”
Some have suggested that there’s a museum-like quality to Group W Bench. The store is plastered with the sorts of positive messages
Group W Bench
1171 Chapel St., New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10:30am-5:30pm, Sat 10am-5pm
(203) 624-0683 | Facebook
of peace and enlightenment that we associate with a more innocent time. But the store is fresh, its items real and now. It reminds that any summer can be another Summer of Love. Why not this one?
When Group W Bench opened, it was “a time when a renaissance was happening,” according to DiLauro. “There were a lot of local crafters. Some of them are still around.” Group W Bench has served three generations of customers, and is itself related to other multi-generational businesses. Raffael’s grandfather, whose photo hangs in the front window of the shop, started the Columbus Auto Body Shop on Columbus Avenue, which is still run by DiLauro family members, and Raffael’s uncle ran a pharmacy. DiLauro himself has a second store, Gallery Raffaello, which began a couple of doors down from Group W Bench, lasted there 13 years, then moved to its current location in Guilford.
Forty-four years after all those peace-loving grass-roots folk gathered for a photo shoot, you can still hang out in comfort and community. There’s an actual bench on the sidewalk outside Group W Bench, which the workers dutifully bring in and out of the store every day. It suggests that shopping doesn’t have to be a hustle-bustle big-box experience. It represents a calm respite, a
break from a busy day. If the array of toys inside the shop evoke a playground, then this is the park bench.
The bench resides next to the sale racks of clothing—light, loose, freeing garments which colorfully announce Group W Bench from outside as if they were flags of a liberated soul. Inside, the place is a swirl of cultural (and countercultural) expressions, social statements, mellowing influences and exhilirating inspirations. One of the store’s slogans is “Group W Bench: Pleasing the Senses in New Haven Since 1968.”
The Group W Bench vibe travels far and wide, but it emanates from a spiritual source within Raffael himself. He’s found that he’s not comfortable second-guessing what he thinks customers will like, so he goes on personal taste and instinct. That extends from the jokey gift items—coathooks that look like fingers, Gumby action figures—to the fine jewelry and gorgeous dresses. “It just comes through me fairly natural. It’s what I’m attracted to. Like, having all the toys here started with my own kids,” DiLauro says.
“My taste is pretty consistent,” he understates. That consistency has become Group W Bench’s hallmark. The store regularly orders in new products—the other day the phone ran, causing longtime employee Adrienne to call out to Raffael ,“You’re supposed to get a mermaid candle holder for someone?” There are occasional sales—an Anniversary Sale in May, and a Sidewalk Sale is coming up next week. The window displays, crowded with everything from multi-colored cloth caps to doll-sized tea sets to wind-up robots and a vintage copy of Mad Magazine, are rearranged regularly. The shop is both fresh and familiar, vintage and vital.
“A lot of the dresses seem like they came from the ’60s,” DiLauro admits. “But the ’60s keep coming back in fashion. They’re in fashion now. It’s a good place to start from.”
So where does the store’s name come from? We could tell you, but won’t, out of respect for Raffaello DiLauro and the Group W Bench vibe. “We don’t tell people. We just say, ‘It’s from a song. Ask someone. Don’t Google it.’ They’ll remember that. It keeps a good vibe.”
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.