Brighter, sleeker, hipper: Great Barrington — reinvented as Brooklyn of the Berkshires

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By Tuesday, Mar 7 Trade and Commerce  21 Comments
Hannah Barrett
Writer Sheela Clary hosts Fuel Coffeeshop’s first Story Slam, à la the Moth Radio Hour, last Thursday (March 2). The Story Slam is one of an array of events now hosted by the enlarged, thoroughly modernized Fuel. On the wall behind Clary is a layered photo narrative, “Once in a Spring Snow,” by Meryl Joseph who notes that those are Berkshire cows.

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.

The Tangier Café, opened by the owners of the Xicohtencatl Mexican Restaurant, serves organic Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine in the former Fuel location on Main Street. Photo: Hannah Barrett

The Tangier Café, opened by the owners of the Xicohtencatl Mexican Restaurant, serves organic Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine in the former Fuel location on Main Street. Photo: Hannah Barrett

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.

Robin and Will Curletti, in their newly opened coffeeshop. Photo: Michael Thomas

Robin and Will Curletti, in their newly opened coffeeshop. Photo: Michael Thomas

“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.

Up Railroad Street, the newly reconfigured 20 Railroad Publyk House. Photo: Hannah Barrett

Up Railroad Street, the newly reconfigured 20 Railroad Publyk House. Photo: Hannah Barrett

“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.

The new Fuel facade.

The new Fuel facade.

“[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.

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21 Comments   Add Comment

  1. C. d'Alessandro says:

    I applaud the continuing evolution of the town, and appreciate the need for change and for development. But I do rue the trend toward evolution TOWARD a vibe that already exists in “Northampton, Hudson and Brooklyn.”

    “The Hamptons,” to which I have often heard the evolving GB compared, and Aspen evolved similarly into communities too expensive for their own children. The exodus of GB 20-somethings into more affordable towns has left finding summer and in-season waitstaff increasingly difficult for local eateries. And as taxes continue to rise, longtime residents find that they can no longer afford to live in homes that they bought or built decades before.

    GB was voted “The Best Small Town in America” before the big transitions toward these cities’ model. I hope that the town will not lose sight of, or will create or recreate its own, individual identity, one that will be as friendly to its native population as to the wealthy visitors which it hopes to court.

  2. Stephen L. Cohen says:

    C’s comments are absolutely correct. That said, I don’t know how “Brooklyn-like” Fuel is, but many of us just go there and to the other restaurants to eat. The pretentiousness of the yammering food crowd is a little silly, maybe Brooklyn and the Hamptons should change into Great Barrington, where the food is fine and most of the prices reasonable.

  3. Jean-Jacques says:

    While we’re praising GB, i do, and before those new trees leaf out, let’s look up from street level and admire the unique, period streetscape, handsomely refreshed by thoughtful owners and merchants into one of the finest small city scenes in America. Lament the Bradfords if you want, but look at the great evocation of GB’s first fine era that was hidden behind them. What a blessing that the town was (economically) slumbering in the Urban Renew Age!

  4. Susan Pettee, Great Barrington, MA says:

    I appreciate Jean-Jacques’s comment on the facades of the buildings of downtown Great Barrington. I confess that although I enjoyed the Bradford pear blossom season as much as anyone, I could see the short-lived trees were reaching the end of their life span, and I enjoyed the surprise of the buildings I could see when the trees were gone. There is interesting brick work, pretty cornices, and generally attractive fronts on Main Street and Railroad Street. A fine old-fashioned downtown whatever else interesting is going on here, and a lot is going on.

  5. Ted B. says:

    …….. and now it’s just a matter of time for the towns renaming ! Upper SoHo, Newer Brooklyn , New Queens and on and on and on !!!

  6. Patrick Fennell says:

    If people wanted a mini NY City why did they settle in Great Barrington and ruin it? Can’t find a decent affordable hamburger or breakfast anymore.

    1. David R. says:

      Gotta agree with ya here.

  7. Lee says:

    Fuel is now a vital part of the downtown that is helping to keep it vibrant. As a local musician it is wonderful to have a venue in town that presents music , they have invested in a terrific sound system – if you have not yet done so, come by an open mike night on Wednesdays, or a performance on Fridays . Music matters – more now than ever! Plus they have a menu that is reasonable, and the food is really good. I dislike comparisons even though I know that is what everyone likes to do . Let’s be happy that GB has a distinctive look and style, and as a result, let’s just say that we are unique.

  8. Andrea Minoff says:

    I am not a “Brooklyn hipster” just a late middle aged second home owner who was told recently by a long time Great Barrington full-time resident (although originally they were from elsewhere, just like me) that the second home owners were ruining Great Barrington. Thank goodness the blame is being shifted from second home owners to affluent tourists who will patronize the downtown businesses more than me. I think it is terrific to see younger people and their children out on weekends year round, not just in the summer. Obviously, it affects home prices but the long time residents can sell their homes for 100 times more than what they paid and cry all the way to the bank!

    1. TH says:

      But they shouldn’t have to sell because they can’t afford to live here,and People shouldn’t have to grow up in a town they were BORN IN and have to move because Of rediculous prices ( Although Fuel is a good place)or drive to find a decent place to dine with reasonable price. This is not what the town was about,caring and sharing seems like a bygone day ……..

  9. Michael Cosby says:

    Some new great, some new terrible

  10. Public Market West Stockbridge says:

    Great job Fuel and and cheers to all the other small business owners in GB and surrounding towns…

  11. Pete says:

    A complex issue. Many of the new businesses are run by risk taking entrepreneurs taking advantage of the tourist business . The high employee industries like GE , paperr and textile mills packed up and left. This not the fault of tourists or second home owners. Have/did our elected officials do enough to keep these industries? How ironic that GE polluted the Housatonic for years, then left, thus damaging our natural resources and economy. Now our state turns around has given them millions in tax incentives to relocate their head quarters to Boston from Connecticut. These are the people we elected. Blaming tourists and second home owners for our economic problems misses the root of the problem. Like everyone else, I have no answers to solve this problem. We need leadership at the state and local levels to seriously look at these issues.

    1. Sage Radachowsky says:

      Yes, it is sickening that G.E. polluted the river with Monsanto’s PCBs and then left and are getting pats on the back by the state government now. It’s all run by money.

      The second homeowners and the cost of housing that’s out of reach of those who do the dishes. That is both a symptom and a driver of the increasing inequality. The rich get richer, they buy up land and homes, and the poor get poorer as the rents rise much faster than the wages. They dumpster for food and scavenge for firewood, evading the police. It’s a Tale of Two Berkshires.

  12. Richard Stanley says:

    Change is inevitable……..
    Hard to believe that Housatonic used to be the BIG town and GB the small town…now look !!!!

  13. Maia Conty says:

    Well, to be a bit hard-core on this very important issue of classism:

    Yes, it’s true, and I agree – change is inevitable….(I wonder if Marie Antoinette contemplated this precept while her head was being placed on the guillotine? She must have wondered how she had so mis-read the situation….). Poverty and economic inequality is one of the most destabilizing forces in a society. Gentrification and elite/exclusive establishments exacerbate the growing separation between the economic classes. This means separation between people who can afford all kinds of extra luxuries and indulgences, while there are others who bear with incredible stress while they juggle too many jobs and can barely get by month-to-month. That imbalance is unhealthy for everyone. And it’s ‘illnesses’ show up in all of the classes – like, for example, drug addiction. (And this said without getting into the history and current perpetrations upon which economic divides are built and sustained – like the slave trade, for example). A healthy, thriving, positive future world requires we do the work of evolving beyond our current paradigm of domination economics….

    A question for us to contemplate: How can you be free, yet at no one else’s expense? How can we each champion our personal freedom, while insisting that everyone is as free as you wish to be…?

    1. Sage Radachowsky says:

      Hear hear. We are seeing expanding Economic Apartheid.

      I’m not joking. I use that phrase deliberately.
      We have the Masters and we have the Wage Slaves and they’re getting more and more encamped.

  14. AJ says:


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