Alex Dakoulas could have set up his shop of carefully curated, indie accessories, retro finds and oddities in any remotely hipster-friendly neighborhood from Baltimore to Boston.
The former graphics and footwear designer for Puma and Converse decided to take a chance on New Haven, with hopes that the city would take a chance on him.
Dakoulas, 31, moved with his boyfriend from the Boston-area, where he lived for a decade, to New Haven last year with plans to open a physical outlet of the online business that he’d started called Strange Ways.
“A lot of people think it’s from the Smiths album, but I did not even know that album,” Dakoulas said of the store’s moniker. “I can’t lie; I was just looking for something. I wanted it to be broad enough that I could kind of play with it.”
With a nod to pop-culture at its most irreverent, the store, which now calls Westville home, lives up to its name in more ways than one. The store is in the heart of the commercial “village” at 910 Whalley Ave.
From its old-school arcade game at the back of the store, to its assortment of iron-on patches and pins designed by sometimes local, and almost always independent artists and craftmakers, Strange Ways is unlike anything that exists in New Haven, let alone Westville.
Dakoulas likes it that way.
“I don’t want to have to be stuck to this kind of product or this kind of image,” he said. “I figure Strange Ways works because strange means kind of unique and different. But it can be the type of product—the way it looks—but also, we work with a lot of artists. We’re not trying to rip them off. I think that that’s unique. We do try to support local artists. We try to support ‘Made in the USA’, and in that sense, it’s strange.”
In addition to patches and pins, Strange Ways carries jewelry, T-shirts, a small selection of vintage clothing, retro candy, Avery’s Soda from New Britain and cold brew coffee from New Haven’s own, The Coffee Peddler. He also has everyday merchandise such as handmade soap and beard oil. And though he specializes in unique items, they are priced to move in a New Haven market where merchandise is either quite expensive (think Broadway, or quite inexpensive (think the Dollar Tree). Strange Ways aims for the middle.
Just in time for Halloween, and the recent Magneticfest at Lyric Hall, the store’s gallery has a VHS-popup shop featuring classic horror films and other cult movies from the 1970s to the 1990s. Strange Ways also is working with Lyric Hall to host a meet and greet with Aaron Mahnke of the hit podcast Lore this Sunday.
Dakoulas said New Haven is on the cusp of something big with its commitment to economic development and the arts, and he wants to be a part of it.
“New Haven has this really cool potential,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on and I think it fits within my consumer base, but I also think that it’s just going to grow in the next couple of years. I just keep hearing about new creative things happening, and I feel like there is a new fresh energy coming in.
“There’s also no retail like this in New Haven,” Dakoulas pointed out. “There’s not really a lot of independent stuff, and usually it’s women-focused and high end. I thought that we could fill a void and I think that that’s been true because when people come in they’re like very excited and it’s really cool to see.”
After test-driving his store idea through popup shops downtown and in the East Rock neighborhood, he learned that the former home to Six Pence Pie Co. in Westville was available. He decided to take a chance, though he didn’t know much about the neighborhood.
He learned about the vacant store through Project Storefronts’ Elinor Slomba, and decided to do an extended popup at the Whalley Avenue shop to see if he could make the one-man show that is his operation fly.
“I got to know that there are a lot of art galleries around here, and there is a creative community, and there’s big brunch happening here,” Dakoulas said. “I did [the popup] for two months and it was well received, I think not only in the neighborhood, but by people ... [who] came from all around to this permanent spot [and] just wanted to come in and look in person .”
The store is open Thursday through Sunday, during peak foot traffic. When the neighborhood is at its quietest, Dakoulas works on getting out orders made through the online store, which is convenient since the post office is around the corner.
“I think Westville is kind of the best spot not only because of the community and the price, but because people really want things to work around here,” he said. “I like being able to know my neighbors and the kind of events they put on here. If I were downtown, I might have more people just walking by, but actually most people who come in to buy stuff are people who kind of know about it already and support it. Most sales actually happen from people who have heard about it already [through social media]. I think it’s been working out really well.”
Having participated in Westville events such as the most recent Art Walk, Dakoulas said he looks forward to becoming a part of the fabric of the community by remaining small and unique to New Haven. In addition to the arcade game, which people are welcome to stop in and play, he’s cleaning up a courtyard behind the store in hopes that it will become another way to draw people in.
“I kinda just want it to be a place where people want to come in,” he said. “I don’t want people to just walk by and be like, ‘What is this? Oh, do I like this?,’ but I want them to be like ‘This is a cool spot where you can find small gifts for your friends, you can get unique stuff, you can hang out.
“I made these T-shirts that say, ‘Support Your Local Strangery’ because I want to be like a neighborhood shop. I’m not trying to become this big Gucci, Gap—I don’t want to become this gigantic corporation. I want to become this cool little shop, that’s unique to New Haven and the area.”
Strange Ways is amassing a following on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which keep the online shop growing, but Dakoulas said he “wants to kind of keep the feel of ‘You’re buying from a small business. You’re buying from me, Alex, and you’re also supporting these local artists. If we ever started doing huge things, we’d kind of lose it.”
He said he hopes one day to collaborate with his old employer, Converse. But he has no intention to take his concept to Brooklyn, or back to Boston.
“I want to be a neighborhood shop that people know and care about,” he said. “If you want to go shop at the mall, go to the mall. We’re not the mall.”