Site of the Week
Cleve Horton led the Internet on a mighty chase. Like the last stray maverick
in a great herd, he managed to elude the hard driving webmasters, spurning even
those who promised to build him a web site for free.
Worse, he taunted them, daring to advertise his famous Barrington country store
as a "no-dot-com" retreat from the ubiquitous tendrils of technology. And when
the Internet finally caught up with him last year, Cleve Horton went down kicking
and screaming. In the end, it was his own loyal customers at Calef’s Country Store
who turned him in. They were unrelenting.
"Why can’t I find you on the Web?" they asked again and again. Tourists, searching
out the legendary 135-year-old store complained that they could not find online
Photographer Jack Bingham, who works from a super high-tech digital studio in
the nearby woods by Scruton Pond, was among the regulars who hounded Cleve into
"I’d see Cleve and his wife Lindy around town and at parties," Jack says. We’d
say – Oh, come on! Lindy and I just kept pushing."
"My problem," Cleve says, "was how do you translate 135 years of history onto
a digital format? That’s the creative challenge that the webmasters had to take
to heart. How do you get across the friendliness of a country store?
Calef’s. at the corner of Route 4 and Route 125, is the ultimate down-home New
England neighborhood shop. It still looks, inside and out, like the store your
grandparents’ grandparents visited. They’ve got the pickle barrel, the cheese
and meat counter, the penny candy, maple syrup, home-made cinnamon donuts and
local produce like corn and apples spread out on the long wooden front porch.
But there are also trendy gifts and upscale specialty foods with the Calef’s brand
labels. More than anything Calef’s "feels" friendly in a way that no mall store
can possibly manage. It feels like shopping in your best friend’s house, which
if you live around Barrington – it is.
THE WEB SITE MAKERS
Even while being assimilated, Cleve Horton continues to be an iconoclast. The
store, founded in 1869, now offers the tongue-in-cheek slogan, "Calefs.com – Since
The way Calefs came online too is unique. Calefs.com is produced by the Barrington
Online Partnership (BOP). Currently it is the only site produced by this loose
association of people, each with a special set of skills. Jack Bingham (www.jackbingham.com) takes the photos, and superb shots they are. His digital images are like still-life
paintings by a great Dutch master. There are scenes of chutney, cheese, jams,
candies, salad dressings and sauces.
Patrick Rowan and Tim Sullivan of The Secret Agency (www.secretagencygroup.com ) provide the marketing, design and back end. Jack’s wife Pam is in charge of
processing the orders.
"Cleve wanted an online store with character that appeals to people," Jack told
me over the phone this week while shooting a project in Roanoke, Virginia. "If
we can broaden his reach, we can reach find a whole new audience for these products."
"We really wanted to make sure," webmaster Patrick Rowan says, "that when John
Public from East Plainsfield, Ohio visits the site, it is the same Calef's that
he remembers from his family vacation to New Hampshire back in 1959 -- or at least
as close as the Internet can make it. We tried to give the site some Northeast
humor as well; one part tongue-in-cheek, one part blatant sarcasm, and two parts
Always, Rowan adds, the goal is to make the online shopping experience easy for
visitors new and old. That is very important in the specialty food industry where
there are so many choices. "Building brand" is critical in gaining repeat business.
THE UP SHOT
So far the Web has been a slow build, Cleve says. The pattern of purchasing online
is different from that of buying in the real store. Web customers seem fascinated,
for example, by souvenir items, like coffee cups and memorabilia.
Getting the word out, both locally and nationally, is the focus now, especially
since Calef’s had practically become an antonym for "technology". But Cleve Howard
is eating crow with relish. His latest radio advertising campaign features Joel,
the store’s "somewhat famous behind the deli magician". In a classic Yankee twang,
Joel both hypes and makes fun of the store’s new web site, and technology in general.
"A lot of people believe it’s a put-on, but he’s not," Cleve says. "We made him
the voice of Calef’s because he has been working here for 45 years. He’s recognized
the minute he opens his mouth."
The web site features an "Ask Joel" section in which the "Deli Lama" of Barrington
answers questions. Joel waxes wise and witty on the origins of "Snappy Old Cheese"
and offers advice.
Cleve and Lindy, who purchased the business from the Calef family almost a decade
ago, plan to bring back earlier owners as part of the marketing brand. Austin
Calef , the son of the founder and a former NH state senator, will offer his line
of Yankee value products. His mother, Mary Chesely Calef, who founded the store
just after the Civil War, will appear on handmade soaps and other women’s products.
These are "brands within brands" the new owner explains.
"It is a lot of work," Cleve Horton says of his new web country store. "You have
to stay on top of it every day."
So far he is pleased with the work of his new joint venture partners. They represent
a lot of creative talent, he says. The group meets monthly to talk over the ideas,
tweak the design, offers suggestions and generally chew the fat. If the online
store takes off, the partners share the profits. Cleve wants to put more of the
history of the country store online. He wants the friendly, down-home service
to seep through the Internet lines like maple syrup and trickle out the other
It’s not your average corporate meeting. What other entrepreneurs can sit around
the wood stove and sip sarsaparilla while nibbling on sharp cheese and penny candy?
It’s not about price. Cleve says, but about life and the quality of products
people choose to buy. It’s also about hanging on to one of the last authentic
country stores in a business that, once lost, will never come again.