Sept. 01--Think about the job market and the typical worker. It is, after all, Labor Day.
The image you might conjure depends on who you are -- whether you work, how you work and how much the workplace has rewarded or punished you. As big companies offer less security, the only thing typical is that there is no typical.
That's especially true for many people born after the economic tumult of the late 1970s who have had to -- or have chosen to -- make their own way by creating jobs, taking nontraditional jobs and turning their plans upside down.
Here are five such people I met while walking across the state this summer along Route 44 from Salisbury to Putnam as part of the "Explore 44" series of articles. All of these people are making their own way without benefit of corporate America or Big Labor. All of them seek community through their jobs.
Baking On The Blackberry
Audrey Leary was trained at the French Culinary Institute and spent years working on creative projects and enterprises including catering, baking, video production and making invitations. Her husband, Sam, worked on medical equipment for a large company.
Today, they own and operate the Blackberry River Baking Co. in North Canaan, where they employ five full-time and five part-time employees in a bakery and cafe.
"I'm definitely the creative person and Sam is the business person," said Audrey, 29. "Until I got married, I never thought of opening something of this size."
They met in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was the baker at a coffee shop. They moved to Connecticut two years ago -- Sam, 32, is from Suffield -- to take over the old Black Forest Bakery and Cafe in their current location, eventually changing the name. Set in a white building directly across Route 44 from a Stop & Shop, Blackberry River offers crafted sandwiches, including ham and Brie with sharp mustard.
Audrey's pastries, all handmade in small batches, seem destined to catapult her to foodie fame. There's a blackberry turnover with cheesecake filling along with the fruit, which was my choice when I stopped in; a gluten-free banana muffin made from almond flour; a lemon tea cake and much more. The French macarons are a specialty; they rarely stay on the shelves for a full day.
"We draw people from a fairly good radius," Sam said.
The Learys bring some hipsterism to a town that combines working class with old money. They bought a house a couple of minutes away.
"We're very busy -- we love it. We love having a job where we get to work together all the time," Audrey said.
But she added, "So far, making your own schedule doesn't work because we're at work all the time."
'I Want A Big Warehouse'
Natalie Morris worked for more than six years as a benefits consultant at Aetna, the last three of those years from her Hartford home, until she was laid off in the summer of 2013.
What to do? Morris, 34, had experience selling jewelry and perfume, and had wanted to own her own store since she attended a certificate program in enterprise from the Hartford College for Women at age 18. While working for Aetna, she attended Capital Community College and UConn, from which she graduated last year.
"I figured at this point and phase of my life, I wanted to do something for myself," she said.
At a street fair in New York, she saw a booth selling luxury sheets -- and that was it. "I was so excited about it I started bringing people to their booth ... I love soft sheets and stuff."
She found their supplier, "then I found a better supplier," with microfiber sheets of 1,800-thread count, one of the highest available, and she founded iLuxury as a brand.
So far it's gone well through door-to-door sales at businesses in Hartford and elsewhere. "It's actually making more money than I would at a regular job," she said. "I look at a street and I stop everywhere on two sides of the street."
I met Morris in the second-floor office of Upper Albany Main Street, a North End business group that was started by the University of Hartford in 2000 as an advocate for smart development and an incubator for start-ups. She had found the group through a friend from church who works there.
That was back in July, and she was working on a website with Justin Calabrese, a UHart graduate student in business. On Thursday, the site went live, http://www.iluxuryproducts.com. By late Friday, it still hadn't logged any sales but Morris was not worried. Bright-eyed, she's all smiles at each step along the way.
"I really see myself being as big as Ikea. I want a big warehouse where I can sell everything," said Morris, who has "a lot of friends that just do their own thing."
She vowed to continue on that path by working on Labor Day -- selling one person at a time.
The Story Is The Thing
Putnam is making itself into a gathering place, and Wonderland Comics is doing its part. The store on a prominent corner is a multitown gathering spot for gamers and collectors.
As the Friday evening Magic the Gathering game crowd filters into the side room, manager Kristy Bonoyer wears her preference on her gray hoodie with the famous bat logo in black across the chest. "I'm a DC fan," she said. "Batman."
Bonoyer shows me the Batman 66 series, based on the TV show of that year with Adam West, including "Batman 66 Meets The Green Hornet." She shows me the latest She-Hulk issue, a Marvel issue in which the heroine is a San Francisco lawyer.
"I don't love the art, but it's a good storyline," she said. "The storyline is what keeps people coming back."
That's true in more than just the world of comics. Here, the story is about a group of nonconformists with Bonoyer, 34, as one of the people holding it together for more than five years. It's a social setting as well as a job.
"It's known to be a male-dominated fandom, but there are a few girls," she said.
Cassie Simeone, her younger sister, who also works at Wonderland, muses at the fact that some male customers assume the women don't know their stuff. "When we throw it back at them that's when we get the 'Uh, uh, uh.' ... We don't want to alienate the guys and we don't want to show up the guys," Simeone said.
I ask Bonoyer, who lives in Gloucester, R.I., whether online competition has cut into sales of comic books -- many of which are covered in plastic to maintain their pristine form and to discourage reading and leaving.
"Comics are still collectible," Bonoyer said, "and most collectors still want the comics in hand."
A Writer Behind A Mic
John Mahon III worked on the student online newspaper at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and before that, was editor of his high school newspaper at Marianapolis Prep in Thompson. He had a summer internship at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
"When I was in college, I always saw myself in newspapers," he said.
But the opportunity that came up after he graduated from college in 2012 was not in print, but rather on the air. Mahon landed at WINY-AM 1350 in Putnam, first as a part-time reporter, now as afternoon news anchor and reporter.
"It's the best job I ever had," he said.
With music, news and talk covering the 10-town "Quiet Corner" of Connecticut, WINY is an old-fashioned family-owned station right down to the hand bells on the news desk, rung for special effects or callers' birthdays. Mahon, 23, seems to fit right in with his black ponytail and self-described passion for heavy metal, especially the indie sort.
Journalism training aside, his deep, resonant voice is perfect for radio.
We interview each other, me with handwritten notes and him with a voice recorder, of course. Then he delivers the 3:30 p.m. news featuring Putnam's selection as the No. 2 hot attraction in the state and the weather signoff: "Seventy-seven degrees at Cargill Falls." The building is right on the town's trademark waterway.
Mahon engages in the usual Friday banter with disc jockey Josh Sanchez, who's sitting on the other side of the glass wall. "We've got the end of the week in the books," he says. He's not sure what he's doing over the weekend but there's a car cruise, a duck race, an art show and much more.
"There's no excuse to be bored here in northeastern Connecticut this weekend, especially not in Putnam," he says.
He can't see the middle of Putnam a couple of blocks away, but he knows the Friday afternoon energy is building toward a packed summer evening. He was born in this town and born to be one of its chroniclers. "What a night," he says.
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