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‘Below the radar and above the shops’: Great Barrington’s upstairs economy

"We all love living here and want to be able to work downtown, go downstairs and get coffee and go across the street and get food. I like to go next door to buy my clothing." -- Asa Hardcastle, whose Tonic 5 software development company is on the floor above Tom’s Toys on Main Street

Great Barrington — Call it the second-story economy. Color them the hidden gems of Great Barrington’s bustling downtown hub of trade and commerce. But the town’s second- and third-floor businesses on Main and Railroad streets are some of the best kept secrets around.

Access to these places — which range from dimly-lit closet-sized cubbyholes to large, open loft-like spaces with generous windows and splendid views — is typically gained only through unobtrusive stairways that go easily unnoticed by pedestrians. Even town officials are not entirely sure who’s up there.

And if you want to know what kinds of organizations loom over Baba Louie’s or Botanica, you have to use old-fashioned shoe leather because, as The Edge has discovered, no one has a definitive list.

The lobby of the Tom’s Toys building showcases its upstairs occupants. Photo: Terry Cowgill

And there appears to be a high occupancy rate among those spaces. An Edge survey counted more than 50 upstairs office spaces on Railroad Street and on Main Street between Rosseter and Castle streets. Most lack elevators and are not handicapped accessible, which is a limiting factor in what landlords can charge and the kinds of tenants they can attract.

The only building with a bunch of empty space is the Berkshire Block, which houses the Subway sandwich shop at the intersection of Main and Bridge streets. But that’s only because the building is currently undergoing an extensive renovation and most of its upstairs occupants have temporarily relocated.

Asa Hardcastle stands in his spacious Tonic 5 office space. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We are below the radar but above the shops,” said Asa Steady Hardcastle, a partner in one of the largest second floor businesses in town. His Tonic 5 is a software development and project management company that operates out of a large and open space on the second floor of 297 Main Street, the building that houses Fuel and Tom’s Toys.

Of the buildings the Edge surveyed, it and 47 Railroad Street were the only ones with elevators. That’s probably because the Tom’s building underwent an elaborate renovation a few years ago and 47 Railroad is practically brand new.

Asked why he chooses to have his office in downtown Great Barrington, where parking is a known problem rather than on the outskirts of town, where there is plenty of space, Hardcastle cited the many amenities available in the central business district.

“We all love living here and want to be able to work downtown, go downstairs and get coffee and go across the street and get food,” Hardcastle explained. “I like to go next door to buy my clothing.”

Tonic 5 also hosts clients who visit the company to do business and they enjoy being able to go out for coffee or lunch without getting in a car or a cab.

“There are dozens of different choices for all different types of tastes and they’re mostly very appealing,” said Hardcastle.

Hardcastle also pointed to how invigorating it is to share the building with so many interesting people. Some of them, like filmmaker John Whalan of Black Ice Entertainment, Hardcastle actually collaborates with on projects.

Like many other denizens of Great Barrington, the only real downside Hardcastle sees of having his office downtown is the lack of high-speed broadband Internet service.

Most downtown businesses are stuck with whatever the cable company, Charter-Spectrum, offers Great Barrington. Charter, he says, “has been slowly increasing the amount of bandwidth that they are allowing people to use.”

The problem isn’t so much download speeds, which are in most cases are adequate, but the glacial pace of uploading content. Backing up data to the cloud is quite a challenge. Video-conferencing, which Tonic 5 deploys regularly, is particularly cumbersome.

Indeed, the frequent interruptions during teleconferencing with potential clients do not help his company’s image, Hardcastle said. And it would be prohibitively expensive — tens of thousands of dollars, he guesses — to pay an independent provider to bring fiber specifically to Tonic 5’s space.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Fiber Connect, a locally owned ISP, has already begun wiring portions of Egremont and Monterey, two very small South County towns that did not previously have any broadband options at all. And earlier this year the company agreed to wire downtown Great Barrington, though it’s not clear when that process will begin.

But lack of high-speed Internet is one of the few complaints you will hear from those who are a part of Great Barrington’s above-ground economy. They mostly love the reasonable rents and the energy of being downtown.

At least eight businesses and nonprofits are on the second floor of Richard Stanley’s 40 Railroad Street building.

Downtown businessman Richard Stanley owns the Triplex Cinema, the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield and a variety of rental properties in downtown Great Barrington. One of those properties, the Barrington House, houses not only restaurants like Baba Louie’s and GB Eats, but has 27 apartments and about a dozen offices that have a low vacancy rate.

Another of Stanley’s properties is on Railroad Street, where the Gifted Child is and where the popular new coffee shop Botanica opened up last year. There are several businesses and nonprofits above the ground floor, including the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Community Access to the Arts and the headquarters of the Berkshire International Film Festival, which makes extensive use of the Triplex during the festival’s annual run in late spring. Stanley sees the second-floor businesses as an important part of the town’s economy.

“They contribute to the downtown economy, if not in absolute dollars, they add to the diversity of the community,” Stanley said.

It’s not difficult to keep those offices filled. Stanley says he often receives phone calls or emails from people who have a business in a small office in their house “and they really want to get out of their home.”

“I think part of it is they don’t want to feel like they’re working all the time. They want to establish some boundaries,” Stanley explained. “Also, they like to be where there’s activity. Instead of getting in their car, they can get coffee or lunch by just going downstairs.”

Stanley, who himself has been a downtown fixture since building the Triplex in the early 1990s, described the downtown vibe as “a sense of cross pollination and activity.”

“When I get into downtown, it’s how I feel going into Manhattan,” said Stanley, who grew up on Long Island. “The minute I get into Manhattan, there’s some electricity in the air. It’s sort of like a wave that gets you involved, and I think there’s that sense [in downtown Great Barrington] where there are lots of people.”

Betsy Andrus, who heads the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and also rents office space in Stanley’s Railroad Street property, echoed Stanley’s sentiments. She termed the second-floor businesses as “extremely important” to the downtown economy.

“They also contribute to the rental income of the owners to keep those buildings alive and thriving,” Andrus said.

The Barrington, an upscale bed and breakfast, occupies portions of the Lee bank building. The B&B installed an elevator on the back of the building to comply with zoning requirements. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Andrus pointed to an array of little-noticed businesses and independent contractors such as acupuncturists, massage therapists, accountants, lawyers and even Pilates instructors. Though non-retail, those organizations bring in a steady stream of people who undoubtedly patronize other businesses when they are in town.

Some, like Extra Special Teas and the Boho consignment shop, are hybrids with a cafe or shop on the sidewalk level and a related office or additional retail space upstairs. Another, an upscale bed and breakfast called The Barrington, occupies much of the building above the Lee Bank office and has a small ground floor lobby with an elevator that takes guests to their rooms.

But Andrus agreed with Stanley and Hardcastle that those organizations want to be where they are because of the vibe: “I think they like being in the center of what’s going on. They like that movement.”

Michael Cohen, a marketing and investment consultant, works from a large office condominium space above Rubiner’s, complete with a tastefully decorated living room, a modern kitchen and a view of the Congregational Church and East Mountain that most people would kill for.

The view from the Michael Cohen office condominiums above Rubiner’s.

Cohen moved with his wife and three children to Great Barrington from Sag Harbor, Long Island, in 2013. They bought a home near downtown. He was introduced to Erik Bruun, who runs the SoCo ice cream company and with whom Cohen now shares the office space above Rubiner’s. For Cohen, downtown Great Barrington is now the center of his universe.

“I love it,” Cohen said of life in town and of his scenic perch high above Main Street. “I can walk to work and I go to Rubi’s every day.”

The comfortable workspace above Rubiner’s shared by Erik Bruun and marketing and investment consultant Michael Cohen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

And of course, there are plenty of writers and artists who toil away as part of the upstairs economy. The Edge has its office on the second floor of 292 Main, known as the Ware Block, at the intersection with Railroad Street.

Artists Joan Griswold, Ken Otsuka and Morgan Bulkeley have studios in that building. Down the hall from Bulkeley and Griswold, philosopher, humorist and writer Danny Klein had an office on the third floor of 292 Main Street as well. Until 2012, he worked out of a third-floor office space now occupied by David Scribner, the founding editor of The Edge. But Klein took a path different from what Richard Stanley describes: he moved out of downtown and now works out of his home, thanks to an office addition he and his wife, Freke Vuijst, built onto their home on Division Street. But Klein looks back fondly on his days downtown.

The tenant for the ground floor retail space below his office is now Jane Iredale. Before that it was Tune Street. And even before that it was a Sears department store. Accordingly, many of the upstairs tenants called their collective office spaces the Sears Tower.

“Someone told me about it,” Klein said of the idea of moving into 292 Main. “I wanted to organize my time and not have to answer a lot of phone calls.”

Klein says he thinks writing isn’t as special as most people think, which is one of the reasons he rented an office away from home: “Writing is very much like any other job. You put in your hours. I don’t wait to get inspired. The bank is my muse.”

At one point, Klein said the legendary author Norman Mailer had an office in his building. Mailer could often be seen in a cafe across the street. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was easily recognizable, Klein said, because of his diminutive stature.

David Scribner’s writing studio in the third floor of the Ware Block at 292 Main St. that was Danny Klein’s for many years. Photo: David Scribner

Like many others in the building, Klein enjoyed the company of painters, graphic artists and writers including Griswold’s husband, the writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr.

Artist Roberta Gardner worked just down the hall from Klein. Gardner holds an annual reunion of former tenants of 292 Main at her home in Salisbury, Conn. For Klein, it’s a must-attend event.

“It’s much more important than my Harvard reunion,” Klein joked.

Another business that functions as a second-floor business but is actually on the ground floor is Warrior Trading. It’s more of an above-ground business because it has no retail component. It’s one of the new business tenants of the 47 Railroad development.

Warrior teaches people how to trade the markets. Owner Ross Cameron was looking to move his business from Vermont and settled on Great Barrington after looking at various locations in New England.

“What was important for us is we wanted to feel like we were centrally located — more for our staff than anything else — for the benefit of their lifestyle,” Cameron said.

By the Edge’s estimation, the sidewalk-level Warrior Trading counts as a second-floor business because of its non-retail, nontraditional nature. Photo: Terry Cowgill

That desire to be centrally located and in a walk-able downtown is one reason Cameron settled on Great Barrington rather than, say, Egremont or Monterey, which both have high-speed broadband. 47 Railroad Street developers, Sam Nickerson and Ian Rasch went to the expense of contracting with Crocker Communications, which recently wired the tiny town of Mount Washington with fiber.

“Obviously fiber was important for us,” Cameron added. “But we have a lot of younger folks working for us and they’re more likely to want to walk to a bar or somewhere else after work. That’s probably a factor. If our workforce were middle-aged, they might be content to be in a smaller town.”

So what does the town think of all this activity? Town Clerk Marie Ryan told The Edge that, by law, all entities doing business in Great Barrington, unless doing business strictly in their own names, must obtain a business certificate from her office. Some do; some do not. But she really has no way of knowing for sure.

One safeguard is that many individuals operating tiny businesses out of small offices go to a bank to get a checking account and the bank will often tell them they need a DBA (doing business as).

“They come into my office and tell me. Banks are starting to require it,” Ryan said, referring to the business certificate. “For me, it’s really helpful. It’s only $40 for four years. What else can you get for that price?”

Ryan also gets referrals from other town offices, such as the health department and the assessor’s office, about businesses that have popped up.

“I’ll follow through and send them a letter and tell them they need to get a DBA,” Ryan said.

Town assessor Chris Lamarre said he, too, keeps an eye on new businesses, including the non-retail offices upstairs, but with just himself and an assistant, there is only so much he can do.

The reason Lamarre needs to know about those organizations is that for-profit business are subject to the personal property tax on items such as business equipment and other equipment on the premises.

“My office does not track the occupancy,” Lamarre said. “My interest in any business in the community comes from a personal-property-tax billing perspective.”

Lamarre does hire a personal property evaluator every five years or so who canvasses the town. He calls the personal property tax “the bane of an assessor’s existence.”

As an example, he cited a small office with one person operating a for-profit business who might have a $1,000 worth of equipment in the form of a computer and printer. At the town’s current tax rate, the business owner would pay $14.95 per year.

It’s not clear whether tracking down a tax liability that small and sending out a bill would even be worth the time of the assessor’s office. And it is worth noting that the personal property tax currently only accounts for 3.6 percent of the town’s total annual tax levy.

“Data quality is important on the personal property tax,” Lamarre explained. “We rely on businesses that register with the town clerk and cross-reference our database with those businesses. Sometimes stuff falls between the cracks. This is a small office. It’s a matter of having the resources to thoroughly investigate.”

Have the second and third floors of these buildings always been used for offices? Yes and no.

“My belief — from casual observation over the years, as well as old newspaper stories and word of mouth — is that the upper floors of downtown have always been a combination of residential and business,” said local historian and Edge contributor Gary Leveille. “Everything from photo studios to eye doctors.”

Both Leveille and fellow Berkshire County historian Bernie Drew, also an Edge contributor, pointed to the fact that some of those buildings started out as hotels, including not only the aforementioned Barrington House but the Berkshire Block as well.

As for Stanley, the owner of the Barrington House, he thinks the real subterranean economy could be even more hidden than the second and third floor.

“There is a real underground economy and that’s the number of people working at home: day traders, stock brokers, small one- and two-person operations. Now that’s the mystery.”

Now that sounds like a story. Stay tune …

List of downtown above-ground businesses. Let us know in the comment section of any errors.

 

Ware Block – 292 Main

Ken Otsuka

Short List

Green Berkshires

The Berkshire Edge

Joan Griswold

Johnson & Dawson CPAs

Designs by Jennifer

JB Brodeur

Hannon & Lerner

David Scribner

Connie Cameron – restoration

Barrington House

Stephen Gerard architecture and art

Berkshire Center for Justice

Ed Bevan psychologist

Michael Lipson, Ph.D.

Clinton Church Restoration

Church Street Trading

B. Rush

S. Dieteman

L. Augusta

Hillary Deely

Above Rubiners

Michael Cohen

Erik Bruun

Above Salisbury Bank

Neonet Technologies

312 Main (over the Well)

Attorneys:

Louis Oggiani

Courtney S Lane

Stefan Grotz

Kelly Granger & Parsons, civil engineers and surveyors

Mahaiwe Block

John Pollart / Claire Naylor-Pollart

Mary C Stephen, Nancy Kahn, counselors

Julie Michaels, educational consultant

Ira Kaplan, attorney

Arista Advisory Group – Melissa Lydon

Berkshire Grown

Jane Laning, MSW

Berkshire Agricultural Ventures

Joanne Boelke, LICSW

Your Soul Path

Counseling of the Berkshires

Matthew Myers

Teresa Gentile

Berkshire Hills Financial

Julie Michaels

11 Railroad

Vault Studio

31/33 RR above Chef’s Shop

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy

39 RR above Crystal Essence

Crystal Wellness Center

Above Botanica

CATA

BIFF

Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce

Nonprofit Center for the Berkshires

Geoffrey Young Gallery

Keira Ritter design company

Alander / Framework

Apis energy group – NorthRenew Energy

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