The downtown Great Barrington I visited as a kid is hardly recognizable. Our weekly trips to town in the mid 1980s, 16 miles each way from Sandisfield, included stops at Melvin’s Drugstore for candy and Reid’s Coin-Op laundry where my mother skipped the clothes dryer and instead took baskets full of wet clothes home to hang on the line. Our groceries came from Aldo’s on Main Street, and we were rewarded with lollipops for tolerating a stop at Domaney’s for Schmidt beer in longneck, amber bottles with no labels. The trendiest place my sister and I could find to peruse new additions to our sticker books was the Peter Paula gift shop in the current Price Chopper Plaza, although our choice for Indian print t-shirts and Chinese slippers was Gatsby’s. If we ever ate out, and that was rare, we went to Captn’ Toss for seafood takeout to celebrate my mother’s August birthday. And coffee was consumed at home, first thing in the morning, poured straight from the stovetop Corningware percolator.
Fast-forward a few decades and 2017, dubbed by the Chinese as the Year of the Rooster, is shaping up to be the year of reinventions for several local businesses whose transformations are inevitably changing the face of downtown Great Barrington. In the few short months since Fuel moved their well-loved coffee and Papa Dogs to the opposite side of Main Street, they have begun slinging libations and their makeshift stage has slowly begun to resuscitate a largely absent nightlife in Great Barrington. In the narrow space vacated by Fuel, the owners of Xicohtencatl Mexican Restaurant have just unpapered their windows at Tangier Cafe, where the allure is organic Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine. Across town Haven has just emerged from an epic renovation — begun at summer’s end — to reveal Prana Bar where the attraction is global street food; most recently, the windows are newly papered at 20 Railroad Public House, where, after their inaugural season, Ben Downing has announced that portions of the brick alley wall that leads to the Triplex will give way to a new pizza restaurant that, while but a stone’s throw from the beloved Baba Louie’s, is a longtime dream in the making.
“It all started with the trees,” Robin Curletti says, half joking, of the veritable downtown shuffle that was heralded by the controversial removal of the 35-year-old Bradford pear trees lining Main Street. This seemingly simple act has become symbolic of the change that is both necessary, albeit feared, if Great Barrington is going to thrive. Curletti, who with her husband Will owns Fuel, says, “the move has been hard for some, inviting for others.” In many ways, their new space — with signage boasting coffee bar, bistro, spirits — has decidedly set a new tone and direction for Great Barrington. The new space — bigger, louder and more sleek than their original location — has a hipster quality to it that is reminiscent of Brooklyn, especially on weekend mornings when the tables are full and the line for lattés stretches the length of their new swirled marble bar. “If we didn’t have tourists, we wouldn’t be able to offer and sustain the types of food and amenities [currently available in Great Barrington],” Robin Curletti said, noting that population is trending down. “People are wanting funk,” she continued, the kind of vibe largely espoused in Northampton, Hudson, and North Adams. It is this “excitement, stemming from newness and change” the couple is hoping to harness in their new venture.
“This movement, this change, is absolutely essential to keeping the town alive and thriving,” said Betsy Andrus, Executive Director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce. “In the absence of change, things become stagnant, people get bored, and we lose the allure” that makes Great Barrington a destination, Andrus believes. As to the undercurrent of folks who are reacting in horror? Andrus points to that being symptomatic of people’s fear of change. She instead focused on the positive, noting “we are lucky that some core businesses, rather than dwindle or close, have evolved” citing Fuel as a palpable example. She pointed to the “great community-minded young people with vision” as what is driving this change.
Richard Drucker, whose family has owned Barrington Outfitters since 1994, was quick to point out “we always have to look forward in order to move forward” on both the retail and business end. He and his wife, Hilary Tzelis Drucker, expanded their horizons last year when they purchased The Well, a popular downtown bar and restaurant. Of their newest acquisition Drucker remarks, “it has been a great transition, and we’ve gotten good, positive reception to the changes we’ve made,” including major renovations and a new business model that focuses on the restaurant end of things.
“Growth is good for the community, necessary,” he said, adding that he is excited about Vijay Mahida’s hotel (proposed at the former Searles School) as well as the new Co-op market development.
For Robin Curletti, her attention has turned more intently toward the hard work of “creating allies, [and] supporting one another [as business owners],” a mindset that resulted in her recently joining the Chamber Board.
“[We must] help bolster one another’s pursuits while being mindful of the fact that we need diversified offerings if everyone is to survive,” she says. That said, I made note of the newly released March line-up of entertainment hanging behind the large glass windows at Fuel that quite literally reflect the changing face of Main Street. In addition to Wednesday’s open mic nights, the popular Story Slam, and live music Fridays, I noticed that David Grover will be playing most Thursdays — early in the evening for kids and later for adults — something he was doing several decades ago across town at Dos Amigos. So while the times are certainly changing, it is important to take pause and listen carefully to the familiar that lingers. It is in this space — while being ever mindful of Andrus’ belief that “evolution is the best thing possible” — that a harmonious balance ensues.