Beloved Store Owner Prepares for Next Chapter
By ELIZABETH COOPER
If you’ve lived in Cooperstown a long time, you probably know Neil Weiller.
He’s the affable, gray-haired fellow with a giant golden retriever you might see lurking in the old entry drive of the former Cook’s Garage building. If you looked a little more closely, you would realize he was tending to the myriad displays of T-shirts and folksy decorative items there. He’s been doing that for more than three decades, but after Christmas this year Weiller is closing Muskrat Hill, the shop he has owned and operated, and heading off on a new adventure.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said on a recent afternoon. “It’s time, though.”
By the end of the year, Weiller, 70, hopes to have sold what’s left of the inventory of the store, so if you are looking for a deal on one of the trademark Life is Good T-shirts the store is known for, this is your chance.
As is common with endings, Weiller has been thinking about the beginning.
By the late 1980s, Weiller had built a successful career in New York City as a corporate accountant in finance, but the job didn’t fulfill him.
“So I did what you are not supposed to do and I quit,” he said.
Though he grew up mainly in California, Weiller comes from an old Cooperstown family. His father—an executive in the aeronautics industry—was a member of one of the earliest Cooperstown families, the Wyckoffs. Their roots here go all the way back to the mid-1700s. Like his dad, Weiller spent time here growing up and the place is in his blood.
So he left the city and headed to Cooperstown.
When he arrived here, his first thought was to become a landscaper.
“But I realized most landscape designers just end up mowing the lawn,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, for two years I will open a store. I have no experience, but I can do it.”
“It was going to be two years, but it’s been 32,” he said. “And I have had a great life.”
An Unlikely Location
As luck would have it, in 1991 when he was looking for a space, the old Cook’s Garage building was going through a transition and space was available. Down the garage’s old interior drive was a small space Weiller could imagine making into a store. It didn’t have a street-facing door or window, but the price was right and he decided to take a gamble.
The building is a co-op, so he owns his space and pays minimal monthly maintenance, so it didn’t take much to become profitable. He was able to use the driveway as an extension of the store, and decorated it with planters and chandeliers, then packed his store to the gills with a cornucopia of interesting goods.
“We were kind of a Cracker Barrel,” he said. “We were the kind of place people came, and they became friends and they visited, and then somebody else came and they visited.”
Around this time, Weiller’s father passed away and his mother, Virginia, moved to Cooperstown. Virginia Weiller fit into the community easily and soon she was as much a part of the business as he was.
“She worked here and she became a tremendous asset,” he said. She also made many friends through her involvement in numerous community organizations and by playing bridge at the gym.
The profitable business and the low cost of his space made it possible for Weiller and his mother to close the store during the cold winter months and travel.
“I have bungee jumped the Victoria Falls and ballooned over Burma,” he said with a chuckle. “I have been around the world.”
A Different Time
Weiller speaks wistfully about the era when he first opened Muskrat Hill. He said the 1990s were a time when Main Street still felt like a community. Gallery 53 was going strong and he got involved there. He also served on boards for the Leatherstocking Theater Company and the Opera Guild. And local people still shopped in the village. Christmas was big business back then, unlike now, with most of the Main Street stores catering to summer baseball tourists.
“It wasn’t always about business,” he said. “The business was there, but I look at the whole package. It was great.”
As times changed, Weiller shifted to catering more to baseball and the families it brought to town. Weiller started selling Crocs and also obtained exclusive rights for a Cooperstown-centered line of Life is Good merchandise. Life is Good is a popular national brand that many Cooperstown visitors gravitate toward, so his displays drew people down his little alley and into the store. As those goods sold well, he dedicated more and more of his floor space to them.
As the years went by, he got to know some of the visitors. Some came back year after year, whether for baseball or the opera or just to see the scenery. They would often stop in at Muskrat Hill, hoping to pick up a new T-shirt and to say hello to Weiller’s friendly dogs.
His first golden retriever, Ginger, was a big hit with his customers, especially children. When she died he got Henry, who is now 7. Henry was so popular Weiller made T-shirts featuring him and people loved them.
He still finds joy in doing business at Muskrat Hill, but after his mother passed away in 2018 at the age of 90 he began to feel it was time for something different.
“I love my store,” he said. “I love my life. I just woke up one day last March or April and said, you know, it’s time.”
Weiller isn’t sure what’s next for him and Henry. They may move to South Carolina, where Weiller’s brother and sister-in-law live. He may open a pop-up store. As long as he can play bridge and find other ways to meet new people, he will be fine, he said.
One thing is for sure. Wherever Weiller goes, Henry will accompany him. As will his feelings for Cooperstown.
“I hope it will always retain its founding character,” he said. “I hope I have contributed.”