A local institution since 1946, the Darien Sport Shop is an iconic brand—and gathering spot—that keeps getting better with age.
“We’re not the preppy store we were 20 years ago,” says Gina Zangrillo, owner and president of “The Sport Shop,” as the store is commonly referred to by in-the-know regulars.
At 75 years old, the venerable retailer has proven it’s not the preppy mecca from the 1980s or the modest sporting goods shop from the 1940s. Today, it’s a full-service department store that caters to families, selling everything from soccer cleats and ski bibs to high-end apparel, gifts and housewares.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Stephen F. Zangrillo opened Darien Sport Shop on August 1, 1946. It was a modest 400-square foot room where shoppers could pick up sports gear and catch up on the latest game. Customers loved to visit “Mr. Z,” who followed a motto that remains the store’s guiding force: “Treat your customers like they are old friends, and they’ll keep coming back.”
Located across from the train station, the original shop was in the building that now houses Dunkin’ on Post Road. Within four years, Mr. Z was so successful that he moved into a new space twice the size a few doors down. Then in 1950, he bought land to build an even larger store at 1127 Post Road, where it stands today at an impressive 40,000 square feet.
Gina, who is Mr. Z’s daughter, didn’t start working with her father until 1994, but she’s always been connected to the shop. “My earliest memories of the store are just of the amount of time and energy my dad put into it,” says Zangrillo. “He was always trying to make this place bigger and better.”
Always the innovator, Mr. Z added a ski shop in 1963—which is still a hub for families who flock there to gear up for ski season. The next big addition came in 1978, when the women’s section was expanded by 12,000 square feet. That was the same year the store hosted its first Christmas tree lighting, which has become a town-wide tradition filled with hot cocoa, festive performances and a guest appearance by Santa Claus himself. After he kicks off the holidays at the tree lighting, Santa is a common fixture inside the store too. Excited children line up to see him and share their Christmas lists, while a photographer captures the magical moments all month long.
Greg Reilly, who is Gina’s son, recalls working at the store during the holidays as a young boy. “My first job was working as Santa’s helper when I was eight. I took Polaroids of the kids sitting on Santa’s lap,” says Reilly. “I grew up working here, whether it was doing gift wrap or helping out on the floor.”
Greg eventually followed in his family’s footsteps when he joined the business in November 2020, which was a critical time for the store.
“I wasn’t planning to leave my job at a start-up, but I decided to work here eight weeks before Christmas, right in the middle of the pandemic,” says Reilly. “I knew what challenges my mom faced throughout the pandemic, but she also had a hole in marketing and thought I would be the perfect person.”
Each generation has made a different contribution to the business, helping it evolve over time. Says Zangrillo: “My father laid the foundation in a different era. He started small, bought whatever he could find and provided great service and built a very large store with a great location. I came in when the business was 49 years old, and although it had a good infrastructure, it needed some updates from things like the POS system, accounting, the merchandise selection and marketing. I remember when my three kids were little, thinking how special it would be for them to come in one day and do for me what I did for my dad. My son Greg has started to do that with our digital marketing and online presence, things that weren’t even a factor when I came into the store 27 years ago.”
With Gina and Greg at the helm, the store continues to thrive as they cater to customers’ needs. According to Zangrillo, “We like to have some exciting surprises for them too. “We recently renovated our jewelry section and our Johnnie-O shop, and we always have new brands coming in like Ulla Johnson, Nili Lotan and Alex Mill,” she says. “Our women’s department has a new buyer and has a completely fresh look.”
Community involvement and sustainability are also an integral part of The Sport Shop’s mission. The store donates to local nonprofits like The Depot Youth Center and The Domestic Violence Crisis Center, along with hosting charity shopping events and sponsoring the Tokeneke Pumpkin Carnival. Taking its “environmental footprint seriously,” the store uses earth-friendly packaging and utilizes a Smart Car for deliveries.
No matter what the future holds for Darien Sport Shop, Zangrillo says that “family will continue to be involved.”
“That was my dad’s wish,” says Zangrillo. “He always asked, ‘What about the kids?’ It was his dream to see this continue for another generation.”
Darien Sport Shop has come a long way since its humble beginning as a 400-square-foot sporting goods store. The Zangrillo family carefully expanded over a 75-year span, transforming the store into the three-story luxury retailer it is today.
Darien Sport Shop opens on August 1, 1946, by the train station on Post Road. Dunkin’ occupies the building today.
Mr. Z doubles the store’s size by occupying a new space a few doors down.
The store moves to its final location at 1127 Post Road, after Mr. Z purchases the property to expand the business.
Just in time for winter fun, the store opens a ski shop in November.
The women’s section increases by 12,000 square feet. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mr. Z hosts the first annual Christmas tree lighting.
Gina Zangrillo joins Mr. Z to work at Darien Sport Shop.
Store celebrates the 50-year milestone.
Men’s wing of the store expands by 12,000 square feet.
New atrium is created at store entrance.
Celebrating 60 years in business, the Sport Shop hosts a grand party as a tribute to Mr. Z.
Stephen Zangrillo passes away at age 91. A beloved fixture at the store until he was 90, he greeted customers for nearly 70 years.
Store closes temporarily during the pandemic in March, but starts offering virtual shopping, delivery and contactless curbside pick-up. Greg Reilly, Gina’s son, joins the team to run the store’s marketing department.
Darien Sport Shop turns 75! On September 22, the Darien Chamber of Commerce and town officials commemorated the occasion with a special ceremony.
my father laid the foundation in a different era. he started small, bought whatever he could find and provided great service and built a very large store with a great location.
—Gina Zangrillo, owner and president, Darien Sport Shop
SPORT SHOP SANTA
For Gina Zangrillo, her favorite tradition is the store’s Christmas tree lighting. “Our tree lighting, which we host every year the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is a very special event my dad started in 1978. He loved seeing the whole town come together to kick off the Christmas season around his tree, and we can’t wait to host that event again. That sense of community is an incredibly important part of our business.”
It’s also a town tradition for children to visit the store’s Santa, who is brought to life by Darien’s favorite white-bearded resident, Joe Warren. Warren, who owns Wild Birds Unlimited on Ledge Road, has been “playing Santa” at The Sport Shop for more than four decades. This season marks his 44th Christmas there, and he still finds it to be jolly good fun.
“I’m the biggest child in the room,” says Warren. “This is absolute fun, and it’s been quite an experience!”
His tradition of being the Sport Shop Santa began “by accident.” In a case of Santa serendipity, Warren’s hair turned white in his mid 30s and he was recruited to play St. Nick at his wife’s company Christmas party. He was a natural in his signature red suit, and they told him to keep it. Then he got a fortuitous call from Bobby Zangrillo.
“Mr. Z ran an ad in the paper inviting families to see Santa Claus, and the guy backed out,” says Warren. “His brother Bobby called and said, ‘Somebody told me you have a suit. I need a Santa Claus!’”
During Warren’s first year as Santa, 50 photos were taken on a Polaroid camera. In 2019, he posed with over 600 families for shots captured by a professional photographer. Warren, who drives a red car and wears a custom pinky ring that says “Santa,” prepared for the 2021 season by purchasing a new Santa suit. He typically buys one every four years and estimates that he’s owned about 10 throughout his career.
Because Warren grew up in Darien and still lives here, he often knows multiple generations of families who come to see him at Christmas. In one case, a five-year-old girl questioned her mother if Warren was “the real Santa Claus.” The mother, who used to go to The Sport Shop when she was young, replied that he was the real deal. And she had the perfect photo to prove it.
“The mom pulled out an old photo of her sitting on my lap at the Sport Shop when she was about five,” says Warren. “You’ll never convince this little girl that the real Santa Claus doesn’t live in Darien!”
Darien Sport Shop will host Santa visits in the children’s department throughout December. For the most current schedule, go to dariensport.com.