If you’ve ever voted in one of our Best of Fairfield County polls you know how winning businesses are chosen in our annual contest. Unless you work here, you probably don’t know where the process goes after that. Well, I’ll tell you.
After votes are tallied and winners are decided, the Weekly contracts with two local businesses, each at a different end of the county, to host “interview days.” (This year, it was Two Boots, Best Restaurant with Live Music, and Butterfield 8, which won Best Dance Club, Happy Hour and Place to Eat at the Bar.) First-place victors come in and explain what they do all day to a member of the editorial staff or a freelancer. It’s sort of like Career Day in school.
Most of the people I interviewed provided me with some piece of trivia I hope comes up if I am ever on “Jeopardy!” Lindsay Lancaster of Unleashed Pet Boutique told me you can do CPR on a dog by breathing into its nose. Andrew Hoenig of The Ginger Man told me the unpasteurized kind of beer that was around before the advent of carbonization is called “cask ale.” Wei Huang from Arogya Holistic Healing told me tea came to Japan with the spread of Buddhism. The folks at Mo’s Wine and Spirits told me about their methods of sniffing out underagers trying to buy alcohol (which I would have found highly useful ten years ago).
Then come a few weeks of writing, editing, data entry and page designing until we finally produce what you hold in your hands (as well as a second volume that will come out next week.)
Among the 147 winners in 188 categories, 44 came from Fairfield, 22 from Bridgeport, 12 from Norwalk, 11 from Stamford, nine from Westport, three each from Stratford and Danbury, two each from Ridgefield, Bethel and Shelton and one apiece from Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Redding and Trumbull. And there were 40 winners with more than one location in Fairfield County, plus CT Bites, winner for Best Local Blog, which exists in the ether. There was a tie for the establishment with the most first-place wins this year; The Pantry, a Fairfield gourmet grocery store, and Lola’s Mexican Kitchen in Stamford each picked up four. Butterfield 8 won the most awards, period, with a thematically appropiate eight first-, second- or third-place plaques.
Associate Editor Mike Sembos and I could not have done this without help. Elizabeth Keyser, Brian LaRue, Wendy Logan and William Squier interviewed winners and wrote large chunks of what you are about to read. Robert Davey did some proofreading while Melanie Fanning snapped the stunning photographs that start each section and adorn the cover. (See more of her work at www.mfanningphotography.daportfolio.com.)
The reason we do this project, which occasionally gets lost in the countless miscellaneous tasks it entails, came through clearly to me while I was talking to Ellen Burns and Darwin Ellis, the husband-and-wife duo who run Books on the Common in Ridgefield (Best Independent Bookstore).
Founded in 1984, Books on the Common weathered the chain bookstore explosion and stood its ground against Amazon.com. At the time Burns and Ellis took over (after extensive careers in other fields) in 2004, the e-reader threatened to become the coyote that swallows the cat and moves in for the house mouse the cat was hunting.
Though Borders won Best Chain Bookstore in this poll, all four Fairfield County locations are closing due to the company’s bankruptcy (robbing us of a one-stop shopping destination in case we ever need a yoga ball, a Batman graphic novel, the new issue of Esquire, a muffin and the first Jackson Browne album on CD). Yet with a much smaller inventory (18,000 titles), Books on the Common survives, for two reasons: Burns and Ellis. They spruced up the business, moving it to a more visible location on Main Street. They cater diligently to customers, finding any specific title or kind of books one requests. (For example, a patron had them hunt down biographies of great composers written for children.) They know their base well enough to stock up on any title featured on NPR or in The New York Times.
For all this, Ellis makes the following plea to customers, “We tell them if they don’t buy here, we won’t be here — and to smash their Kindles.” By highlighting the best in local businesses, it’s that attitude, both humble and defiant, that the Best of Fairfield County celebrates.