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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Griffin—Great Barrington’s “shop around the corner”

“We feel that ‘griffin’ is more than a shop—it's a place where people come, even if just to talk and hang out or try on clothes for fun.”

“You’ve always wanted a store,” friends told Connie Griffin when she finally decided to set up her own shop. Looking back, it seems they were right. Whether you’re on the prowl for a vintage mohair sweater, one-of–a-kind brooch, organic cannabis body wash, or of-the-moment coffee table book, “griffin” offers it all.

“griffin” in its current location, looking out at Railroad Street. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Early training

One of seven children, Connie Griffin was always close to her mother, whose unrealized dream to open a shop ignited her own. “My love and appreciation for vintage was learned at my mom’s knee. She respected the quality and admired the craftsmanship. Plus, she had many kids to dress!” This resulted not only in Griffin’s vintage passion but also her deep belief that everything has a story.

Sister Anne Patrick threatened to hold her back in kindergarten if she missed one more day (after being absent 56!) when mother-daughter duo opted to visit shops instead. “What do you learn in kindergarten—coloring?” her mom would ask. “I love that she was like that,” Griffin smiles, reminiscing about their weekly visits to Mrs. Hamilton’s store in Caldwell, New Jersey.

Because of that early training, Griffin instinctively understood the value of vintage and “future vintage” items—from art to clothing to keepsakes—and developed a remarkable eye for the unusual. To illustrate, she tells the story of finding a muskrat fur coat in Mrs. Hamilton’s store when she was 14. “It came down to my ankles, and I wanted it desperately,” she recalls.

“My mom kept me hanging, but there it was on Christmas day.” Connie and her friend were standing on the corner when her mom and the friend’s dad passed by on the way to church. “Look at this kid,” the friend’s father marveled, “like something out of a Pink Panther movie.”

From English major to post-production company manager

“I was trying to figure out how to define myself. My older siblings seemed to stand out in one way or another, but I had a quiet sensibility,” Griffin notes. She majored in English at St. Michael’s College (in Colchester, Vermont), and through writing developed an eye for detail. As a result of growing up in a large, boisterous family, she also developed a love of “the chat”—and the ability to talk to anyone about almost anything. Both have served her well as a hands-on shop proprietor.

From 1994 to 1999, Griffin worked as executive producer at Manhattan Transfer, a post-production studio in New York City. Her next job, from 2000 to 2006, was managing director at RIOT, a visual effects and post-production company founded on the belief that (per its website) “All true creativity should derive inspiration from not just the latest trends, but also the timeless classics”—inspiration Griffin continues to honor curating her store. Two notable projects during her tenure included Sex and the City and The Sopranos.

Griffin views these former roles as her proving ground, adding, “It’s important I was able to experience that, to discover my weaknesses and strengths—and to realize that, at times, my perceived weaknesses turned out to be my greatest strengths.”

“Leap, and the net will appear” — naturalist John Burroughs

“I was running RIOT for its parent company, Ascent Media, was making a good living, and had complete autonomy running my shop, but there came a time when I needed to change my life trajectory,” Griffin states. Following two cancer-related deaths—her brother Peter at age 50 and sister Maria at age 44—she felt the desire to pursue something more in line with her personal interests.

“You never know you’re not living a meaningful life until something big comes along,” she says. So she quit, spent her 401K earnings (which would have largely been lost in the market crash of 2008-09—”yay for that!”), and took a break to travel. She spent short stints in Austin and Paris but spent most of her time “happily puttering” around NYC and her West Village neighborhood. “I wasn’t wildly searching; it was more about finding alternate meaningful ways to live,” she explains.

A new companion and a change of view

Traveling revealed to Griffin that she had a lot of friends but no partner to truly share her life with. After taking three years off, she met her husband, Paul Giroux, a federal agent for the U.S. Postal Service who was seconded by the UN to run an anti-terrorism training effort based out of Bern, Switzerland. “We met online,” she laughs, “which seemed unromantic at the time, but now everyone does it!”

How did they end up in the Berkshires? “Paul wanted to buy a place away from the city,” Griffin explains, “and Tim Lovett (my college friend) introduced him to the region.” After one day of house hunting, Giroux bought a house and Griffin’s visits to the Berkshires began.

On a serendipitous visit in the fall of 2009 she ran into Lisa Chamberlain, managing partner at The Chamberlain Group (creators of custom anatomical models for surgical training). Chamberlain, who had first hired Griffin as a visual effects producer back in the 90s, was thrilled to reconnect with someone with Griffin’s skills and experience and immediately invited her to “come work for me.” Griffin continued in that role through 2014. “That five-year job, and selling my apartment in the city, provided the stability for Paul and me to launch our own store,” she says.

“Try to find something authentic”

The first iteration of “griffin” was a tiny storefront in Great Barrington next to The Library skateshop across from the Prairie Whale (it, too, had a disco ball). It was only open on weekends but quickly gained a steady following. While most customers and other business owners see Griffin’s extraordinary taste for the rarity that it is, she sees the rarity in the items themselves. “If you find something special, it’s such a pleasure to help others discover its beauty.”

How does she curate her beautiful collections? “I go everywhere,” she replies. “I’m never not looking out of the corner of my eye.” Whether scouring estate sales, ordering books, or discovering new lines of clothing, pillows, or children’s toys, her mantra is simple: “Look for something unusual. Something well made. Something with a sense of whimsy.”

She recalls a customer recently picking up an embroidered hand towel and then setting it down because she didn’t have an occasion for it. “Use the beautiful towel yourself,” Griffin urged. “Life is short, and we all deserve to elevate our lives in tiny ways.”

A difficult time and a silver lining

Like most other Great Barrington businesses, Griffin felt the impact of COVID most heavily during the three months when she was required by state mandate to be closed. Following that crisis, she faced another unforeseen challenge. After three locations farther north on Main Street, she had moved the store in the spring of 2018 to the top of Railroad Street but her landlords there threatened to evict her. “I was the only business in their row of spaces for two years…the only occupied store keeping a light on at the top of Railroad Street, which was otherwise dark.” Fortunately for Griffin, both the attorney and the sheriff refused to serve her the eviction notice, citing laws prohibiting pandemic-related evictions during that time.

What happened next was, for Griffin, a bit of providence. Hillary Rush, who owned Church Street Trading Co. with her parents for 30 years, was ready to move on, and offered her the lease. Thus “griffin” moved in spring 2021 to its fifth and current  location on Railroad Street near Main, in one of the most prime retail spaces she could imagine. “Sometimes there’s a reason you can’t understand at the time. Things work out,” she says.

There’s always something unexpected to grab your attention when you enter the store. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Also by a bit of luck, Izak Zenou—widely known for his more than 20-year career as designer/illustrator for Henri Bendel (Fifth Ave) and high-end brands like Chanel, Lancôme, Sephora, and Estee Lauder—is now working as a consultant at the store. His infectious love of fashion and exuberance for engaging clients mesh perfectly with Griffin’s. You can find his designer pillows, men’s fashion corner, sunglass collection, and other collectibles throughout the store.

Illustrations by Izak Zenou. Courtesy of Izak Zenou

Always evolving, with a deeper community focus

What does Griffin envision next? “I really like being a part of the community. I could imagine more opportunities to offer this space to different people,” she smiles. Then she adds, “We feel that ‘griffin’ is more than a shop—it’s a place where people come, even if just to talk and hang out or try on clothes for fun.”

As a natural extension of that, they have had several community events in recent years, including Halloween Dance Parties with fashion photographer portraiture, book readings (including Janine di Giovanni’s first-hand account of the war in Syria, The Morning They Came for Us), a live dance performance by Sayer Mansfield of Pilobolus Dance Theater, and a book/dance party for world-renown artist Mickalene Thomas.

A recent book discussion hosted at “griffin” with Rebecca Soffer, author of The Modern Loss Handbook, interviewed by Jane Larkworthy. Photo by Heather McHatton

“When I was considering the best place for a book event, ‘griffin’ was the most obvious choice,” said Rebecca Soffer. “I’ve followed Connie through three different locations in town throughout the years and to me, she embodies the spirit of Great Barrington. Wherever she is, I’m comfortable.”

Although she has only lived in the Berkshires since 2010, if you listen to Griffin talk to customers or eavesdrop on anyone in the community talking about her, you would swear she’s lived here all her life. Those are the kinds of relationships she forms—caring and intimate because she is genuinely interested in what’s going on in your life, whether you are her most loyal customer or a perpetual browser.

“They honor me by visiting,” she says, after three generations of a family she’s come to know well over the years stop by to say hello. “People tell me really personal things when they come into the store—there’s a connection there.”

Whether you pop in out of friendship, to lift your spirits, to find the rare and memorable gift, or ‘to elevate your life in tiny ways,’ the next time you peer into her store window, you’re bound to ask yourself, How can I exist without that?

Photo by Robbi Hart

 

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