Specifically General

Specifically General

Just a few short months after deciding that Westville could really use a general store, Alex Dakoulas opened one: The Westville General Store, or Westville General. “I feel like the village has that charming historic vibe and it’s something that’s very New England to me,” Dakoulas says. “And I always wondered why there wasn’t a general-type store here.” He grew up in New Hampshire and still returns there to camp and hike. This is in the White Mountain region, where small towns and villages are reliably propped up by general stores, themselves tiny but multi-stratified, with eggs and canned stew for locals, local craft and gift items for tourists, a seemingly random piece of hardware on a pegboard waiting for the day when somebody suddenly, desperately needs it.

Dakoulas could be describing such a place when he takes a quick pass at his own inventory. “If you need some essentials for your house, we have toilet paper. We have soap and things like that. We also have food. We have pasta. We have pasta sauce.” He has things that double as other things. “I got these scoops that double as bag clips for coffee beans. I got this hammer that doubles as a screwdriver. But if you also want a good gift, we have New Haven-themed items like those hats.”

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Before opening Westville General in December, Dakoulas had first challenged himself to transform an inherently urban shop space into something he could be credibly seen patrolling in Gore-Tex boots. He first chose an interior color scheme of forest green and freshwater blue. The wood plank floor, he thought, spoke for itself, but he added jute rugs. “I wanted it to feel like the general store is a cabin. There’s a mural of West Rock and the village. And there’s kitschy buffalo plaid wallpaper.” He hired local artist Sara Zunda to paint the mural, which runs the breadth of the wall behind the counter, filling the familiar landscape with statelier trees and none of the busy Whalley Avenue traffic. The wallpaper is likewise a comforting take on the outdoors, like Paul Bunyan’s pajamas.

It was a feat of visual reimagination given that the space had been previously occupied by Dakoulas’s first business, Strange Ways, an emporium of dark, edgy, often hilarious wearables and displayables. That shop’s color motif had been black and white with skulls in the carpeting. There were more skulls in a collage that had been mounted where the Zunda hangs now. Dakoulas enumerates other visual elements. “There was an ice cream cone. There was a banner that says, ’Nobody cares.’ There was a clock that was laughing at you. It was very sort of like sketchbook surreal in a way.”

Strange Ways has gone away, in the happy sense that it’s moved downtown to a much larger space at the back of Pitkin Plaza. (T-shirts gleefully declaring “Satan Is A Woman” now hang in the former home of The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop, now located around the corner.) Dakoulas had grown up within yodeling distance of the mountains, but his educational, professional and social background had been in the art and design scene in Boston. “I went to MassArt… I designed graphics. I designed shoes. I had friends who were creating silkscreen prints or T-shirts. A lot of other things.” As a designer with a playfully dark artistic sensibility, he could imagine many like-minded people would want to wear designs like his but weren’t finding them in shopping malls. “That was really the kickstart of Strange Ways,” Dakoulas says. “‘Damn, well, I can’t get myself into stores. My friends can’t get themselves into stores, so maybe I’ll just have to be the store one day.’”

After looking at different cities, Dakoulas set up shop in Westville in 2014. “I thought independent retail was kind of a hole in the market especially when it came to, like, fashion and style.” That his take on fashion eventually outgrew its retail space—even as he developed a fondness for the neighborhood—bore out his thinking. “I just loved the area so much that I kept kind of moving stuff around, moving storage around, adding more fixtures, really packing it in until eventually I was like, ‘I really need to move Strange Ways.’” Reluctant to leave even the vacated space, he wondered what a Westville resident might want to see in it.

As a Westville resident browsing Westville General for the first time, I was drawn to a log pillow. It looks like firewood, feels like beanbag. “Aren’t they great?” Dakoulas enthuses. He likes them, he says, for how they’re one thing while representing the opposite, but also for how perfectly they fit in a space that’s designed to evoke a log cabin. It’s his curatorial instinct as such—the relationship between merchandise and message—that binds Westville General and Strange Ways together. “I’ve been telling people, ‘Strange Ways is art and style, this is home and gifts.’ … Sometimes I want to go out and be downtown. And sometimes I just want to stay home… And you know metaphorically I’m a Gemini… so this helps me play with both sides of my brain.”

Later, Dakoulas draws my attention to a package of dill pickle-flavored peanuts. He’s been noticing that his customers are drawn to such ordinary but “elevated” things. The barbecue sauce is a big seller because it’s Japanese-style, the pasta because it’s got a novel aesthetic. He searches high and low for product but prioritizes regionality. “I try to source from New England… We have stuff from Maine. We have stuff from Vermont. These mixers are from New Hampshire… And there is a jam company I’m thinking of. I think they’re made in Bridgewater?”

Dakoulas finds items through their makers’ social media accounts or even in person, as he likes to keep his eyes open during frequent road trips. And this is also how Westville General is not so different from Strange Ways. “I can’t necessarily source from artists like Strange Ways does,” he explains, “but I can source from independent makers and small makers and people that have really honed in on their craft.” Almost a decade after he started in retail, he’s finding himself again in the role of impresario, offering business to fledgling businesses. “But there is some stuff where you just need who just has a screwdriver. And artists aren’t making screwdrivers.”

A screwdriver is only purchased once in a long while, whereas customers will keep coming back for something they had polished off the day before. So Dakoulas has also stocked a refrigerated display case with cheese and charcuterie. The display case would have been a good investment for the shop, but its presence predates even Strange Ways. When Dakoulas first moved in, he used it, just without the climate control. “We called it the Flair Case. It held all of our pins and patches.” An iron-on patch could then be brought out like a diamond ring for a customer’s inspection. The Flair Case was the only thing left once Strange Ways had been cleared out, so Dakoulas, still mulling Westville General, told himself, “If this turns on, this is my sign that I should do this.” He found a plug, plugged it in, and listened as it hummed to life.

The Westville General Store
910 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm

Strange Ways
151 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Tues 10am-6pm, Wed-Sat 10am-7pm

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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