NORWALK, Conn. -- Sassafras, a store known for its Christmas and Halloween decoration sales in June, is scheduled to close at the end of the month after nearly 30 years in business in South Norwalk.
Owner John Deorio blames the changing face of SoNo -- especially the influx of restaurants -- over the past decade for the demise of the eclectic gift shop.
His “three major components” of SoNo -- culture, eateries and retail -- have been thrown out of balance, he said. Deorio believes the increase of restaurants decreased the number of shoppers around during the daytime, and he points to the lack of restaurants open for lunch on weekdays as proof. “This type of retail is just not drawing as much,” he said of his famous shop.
Additionally, Deorio points to the competitive shopping districts surrounding SoNo and the lack of free and available parking nearby as reasons for the store’s downfall. “Norwalk Parking Authority is run as a business as opposed to a city service,” Deorio said.
A new parking garage near Sassafras is slated to be complete in a year and a half, but Deorio believes that is too long to wait.
His strong roots in SoNo date to the opening of Sassafras in 1984. The store got its feet on the ground at about the same time South Norwalk did.
Deorio recalled choosing SoNo because of its potential -- the Maritime Aquarium was set to open and a new developer was talking about preserving the sea-faring town's architecture. Deorio was drawn to Sassafras’s central location and the rent, which he described as "very reasonable."
“From 1985 to 1986, the area thrived with art-related stores -- there was wearable art, not cookie cutter chain stores,” said Deorio. SoNo was in its prime in the late 90s, and Sassafras was “hopping.”
Deorio became famous for his holiday enthusiasm, the Christmas decorations he organized for the district and his role as chairman of the event “Twelve Weeks of SoNo,” which began in 1991. He worked with the SoNo Business Association to bring carolers, bag pipes, story tellers, pumpkin-carving contests and professional choral groups to SoNo’s restaurants and stores each week from October to Christmas Eve.
His store reflected that holiday charm, with shelves stocked with Christmas and Halloween decorations, as well as gift items of all sorts.
Although he plans to close up shop by the end of the month, Deorio is not sure that Sassafras will be gone for good. Customers call his store a “solid staple of SoNo” and tell him they are both “shocked and disappointed” by its closing.
Hearing his customers' pleas, Deorio plans to look into alternate locations but will take a year off to “regenerate.”
After 29 years, Deorio acknowledged that Sassafras has had a good run in the hub of SoMo. “I enjoyed every aspect, most important, seeing the happy faces that leave."