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Grace White The Sun
Store manager Cindy Haskett Cobb has been the face of the Emporium in Mystic for 27 years. The landmark shop is closing at the end of the summer.

Life at the Emporium: ‘We always went against the tide’

MYSTIC — When The Emporium closes later this summer, store manager Cindy Haskett Cobb, a resident of Mystic, will find herself in an unusual position.

She’s worked at the Water Street store, a community landmark, from 1982 to 1986, and again from 1990 to the present — 27 years in total. “It’s been more than half my life,” she said.

“I need some time to figure out who I am when I’m not Cindy at The Emporium,” Cobb said. “I’ve been that for half my life, I’ve been totally immersed in it.”

She plans on staying in town through the winter, spending the time with family and friends, simply being Cindy in Mystic. After that she might hit the road and see what’s out there.

In April, owners Evan John Nickles and Robert Palmer Bankel announced that the store would close and said they had put the 1859 building on the market last year. An agreement to sell it to the Mystic Art Association was reported in May, made possible in part by contributions to the association from the owners and a member of the community.

“It is our ‘thank-you’ back to Mystic,” Nickles said at the time.

News of the store’s closing, however, was a shock to its longtime manager.

“I was totally unprepared,” Cobb said. “I was a mess and it took me a few days to get over it. People were devastated.”

Most people found the store familiar and comforting, while others used it for “shopping therapy.” Cobb always took an interest in her customers. Now, most of her conversations with them are about the days when the store was one of the cultural centers in town. They are fond memories and the stories sometimes end in tears.

When Cobb first started, the store and the job were a perfect fit.

“I think it worked for me and my life. It allowed for my son to go to schools just up the street. It allowed me to be home and at work. It also allowed me to be creative,” she said, standing amid some of the store’s antiques and unique items.

Before joining The Emporium, Cobb, a native of Haddam Neck, gained experience in retail and was also a sales representative who racked up many miles of travel. She was hired to be the store manager, freeing Nickles to search for inventory.

“For the first 10 to 15 years I was the one who was here, so the store was my baby,” she said. “Evan would sometimes come in and shake things up, change things in some way, but most of the time I handled things,” Cobb said.

Almost all of the antiques were chosen by Nickles and Bankel, or were their possessions. The remaining inventory is simply the result of the store’s having been in business since 1965 and of the owners’ connections to virtually everyone in the industry.

“They’ve known many suppliers for years, large suppliers, and they’ve built great relationships with them,” Cobb said. “They went to a lot of stores, especially in New York, looking for something new and different.

“We always went against the tide and that’s what people expect from us; something different,” Cobb said.

Under the direction of Cobb, the Emporium Gallery also produced monthly shows featuring the works of local students and artists who might not have had the opportunity for a showing in a more formal setting.

The gallery opened on June 17, 1994. With the help of Dawn Estabrooks Salerno and Rich Freitas, and Nickles’ blessing, it was born as a place where non-mainstream artists could show their work.

“How are you supposed to get established without cutting your teeth on something?” Cobb asked. “We opened it to be an alternative for folks who had no opportunity otherwise. It’s also been a place where established artists could break out of their routine and do something completely different.”

She said the generation of artists in the 1990s was a strong group, very talented and very tight. But nowadays things are different, Cobb said, adding that in some ways, society caught up to the store and then blew right by.

“Right now you can walk into CVS and almost get everything you need. It won’t be as cool as what we have, but it will do,” she said.

Parking at the location has always been a problem and the addition of several more restaurants and private lots have made it even more difficult.

Surrounded by new restaurants and office buildings, The Emporium is a dinosaur of a building; large and old, and out of place. Its surroundings have entirely changed over the last 50 years.

“Its time has come; it’s time to go,” Cobb said.

The store and gallery is holding one last, summer-long exhibition, “So Long Peter Pan,” in honor of the theater lobby prop of the 1950s Broadway musical that dominates the shop’s central area.

The exhibition opened Thursday and runs through Aug. 12.

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