By Gail Spector
The N2 Innovation District is gaining recognition as the home of well-known companies like TripAdvisor, CyberArk, PTC and Big Belly Solar.
But innovation in the area is not limited to technology-oriented companies. N2 is also dotted with hidden gems employing unusual business models, offering hard-to-beat prices, and catering to devoted customer bases.
Overlooking I-95 in Needham is You-Do-It, an electronics store that is a do-it-yourselfer’s idea of paradise. Helpful staff guide customers through two floors of audio, visual and electronic equipment. Launched in Boston in 1949 as a radio and television repair business, You-Do-It opened in its current location in 1965. Teaming with electronics components, You-Do-It also sells TVs, surveillance equipment, 3D printers and IT-related products. Techies gush over the product selection and the knowledgeable staff who have saved many projects from premature demise.
You-Do-It is a family business going on the third generation, said General Manager John Ahigian. “Nobody else has everything like we do,” said Ahigian. “We’re a one-stop shop for all your electronic needs. There’s not a day that goes by without somebody walking in the door and saying they can’t believe what they see."
Ahigian said he’s excited about TripAdvisor and the other innovative companies in the area. “I guess they’re trying to make it a mini-Silicon Valley. The more tech people, the better for us,” he said.
On the opposite side of I-95 is Bin Ends, an off-price dealer of fine wines located on Crawford Street in Needham.
First launched in Braintree in 2008, Bin Ends opened a second location in Needham in 2013. Specializing in fine wines, the store is named for the British trade term referring to the last remnants from a bin of wine that are usually sold for lower-than-standard prices.
At Bin Ends, “consumers have the opportunity to purchase and try refined wines without spending top dollars on them,” Hafferty said. “We work with small family-owned distributors to offer products that are truly exceptional.”
Customers praise the knowledgeable staff, variety of wines and the prices. One Yelp reviewer wrote, “Great place to find out about new wines and not your everyday wines. Kind of an out-of-the-way location, but definitely worth a visit. Everyone who works here is passionate about wine and happy to give samples and make recommendations. The prices for the ‘bin’ wines can't be beat!”
Bin Ends also sells spirits and craft beers, although the stock typically doesn’t include the standard brands that can be found at most liquor stores.
Employing a “destination location” business model allows Hafferty to keep operating costs very modest. “The typical package store customer profile is someone who drives 5-10 minutes and spends $20-$25. Ours is three times that,” he said, adding that Bin Ends’ circle draws pulls from 15-20 miles out.
The store offers daily wine tastings and a large-scale theme-oriented tastings on the first Sunday of the month.
A favorite Newton hidden gem is China Fair, a retailer and wholesaler of kitchen and tableware. It’s located in an easy-to-miss warehouse on Needham Street adjacent to its appropriately named Paper Annex.
“We’re a family business,” said Will Beck, who manages the store that his parents opened in 1971. “We try to give everybody a great selection at great
The store retains the unpretentious atmosphere that Beck’s father introduced 45 years ago.
“We don’t bend to trends. We’ve stayed the same business basically forever by offering the best value and best selection,” Beck said.
Shelves are lined with cookware, dishes, glasses and kitchen gadgets. Items like red oak bowls, three-egg poachers and place card holders share space with imported knives from Germany and France that can’t be found elsewhere, according to Beck.
Next door, the Paper Annex offers an array of paper goods including high-end disposable plates that look like real dishes and hundreds of different patterns of napkins. Beck’s mother Sandra still works the register.
Just down Needham Street are two more jewels. The first retail business on Needham Street, New England Mobile Book Fair is an icon among local businesses. Opened in 1957, the store occupies a one-story 32,000 square foot warehouse in which customers can roam from room to room browsing through paperbacks and hardcovers, picture books, remainders, and books they never knew they wanted. Local businessman Tom Lyons bought the store from the Strymish family in 2011.
Also on Needham Street is the women’s clothing store W.O.W. Opened in 1997, W.O.W. offers a gamut of sizes from 4 to 24. Shoppers won’t find W.O.W.’s products in department stores or chains. Rather, clothes are made by American or European designers who only sell to boutiques. Some lines are designed by artists who make the fabrics and items by hand.
Heading back towards Needham is The Carpet Workroom and Reclamation Center, a dream come true for owner and master craftsman Peter Lovetere. The environmentally-conscious retail carpet and rug store showcases Lovetere’s goal to achieve sustainability through carpet recycling.
Matt Lovetere, manager, said, “What makes us unique is that we are the only carpet workroom that is open to the public. To my knowledge we are the only carpet workroom in the country that offers customization and full services to the public and to trade. I believe most of our competitors are trade only.”
The Carpet Workroom specializes in converting broadloom carpet materials into custom area rugs and stair runners. The large binding table allows staff to sew edgings onto rugs, often while customers wait.
And in a special category of its own is Charles River Canoe and Kayak, one of N2’s best assets for recreation.
One of four locations, General Manager Mark Jacobson said that the most special thing about the Nahantan Park site is how green it is.
“You just start paddling upstream and you don’t see houses,” Jacobson said. People are really surprised at how you don’t see boat traffic.”
Customers can rent canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboats and stand-up paddleboards at an hourly rate. Frequent paddlers can purchase a season pass. Guided tours are available as are shuttled tours in which paddlers are driven to one of two drop-off points where they launch their boats and paddle downstream back to the Nahanton Park location.
“The shuttle is a great way to paddle,” Jacobson said. “The van ride [to the Charles River Park location in Needham] is only three miles, but the river is 10 miles back to Nahanton Park. You can take as much time as you want. You can have a very leisurely paddle. It’s a great trip for families.”
Where the gems are:
Bin Ends Great Wines
65 Crawford St., Needham
39 Highland Circle, Needham
Charles River Paddle and Kayak
Nahantan Street at Nahantan Park, Newton
70 Needham St., Newton
New England Mobile Book Fair
82 Needham St., Newton
14 Needham St., Newton
You Do It Electronics
40 Franklin St., Needham