Downtown Northampton community hub, clothing and shoe shop Unite to close Sunday

Last modified: Tuesday, April 01, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Unite, the downtown clothing and shoe shop that was a gathering spot and art gallery as much as it was a shoe store, is closing Sunday.

Unite has been in business for 11 years, although not all of it in the same location.

Most recently located at 202 Main St. at the top of Crafts Avenue, the shop specializes in street wear and urban fashion, carrying brands such as Nike SB, Onitsuka Tiger, Naked & Famous Denim, Herschel Supply Co. and Randolph Engineering.

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Owner Jovan James of Northampton said his formerly robust online business, which at one time accounted for 75 percent of his shop’s sales, had become increasingly less profitable as larger companies began carrying up-and-coming brands he said he started selling in their infancy.

While lagging sales may have forced James to shut his doors, he said the real mission of his business was never about clothing. “That was always my intention, to be more than just a place for people to come in and buy clothes,” he said.

So it seems appropriate that on his next-to-last day in business, James is throwing a party.

On Saturday, there will be an all-day “DJ Festival” at the store from noon to 9 p.m. featuring local artists such as Snack Attack, Rick Jams, I-Ganic Soundsystem and footeking. Refreshments will be served.

“You can stay for as long as you want, pop in and say hi or pop in and see some friends you haven’t seen in a while,” he said.

Store inventory will be on sale at 60 percent off until it closes its doors for good on Sunday.

Over the years in business, James made room for a number of creative endeavors inside its sleek white walls. A frequent participator in Northampton’s Arts Night Out, James has hosted DJs and young artist exhibitions.

“My main job here is to influence the community, and help the community grow, to help the younger generation to grow — give them opportunities for them to show their work,” he said.

Opened in 2002 on Pleasant Street (in space now occupied by Northampton Coffee) by former owner, Guy Luu, James took over in 2007. The shop later moved to North Pleasant Street in Amherst, followed by a stint in a basement location before settling in at its current and final home, a place where James said he is happy to lay it to rest.

“For me, it’s been a great experience but the chapter is already closed,” he said. “I’ve already made peace with it, and I’m totally comfortable with it. I’m happy to move on.”

He says his next chapter will be very much creative, building a restaurant and hospitality consulting firm, Esculent Solutions, offering menu consultation, maximizing efficiency through kitchen design and hosting team-building seminars. He said he acquired skills for the new endeavor at his previous job as the executive sous chef at the Blue Heron restaurant in Sunderland.

James said that next step is influenced by his number one motivator: happiness. Following the advice given to him by his father, James said he has always made it a point to pursue things that he truly enjoys.

“I love acquiring skills and learning about things that interest me,” he said. “I’m showing my kids what’s really important, and what’s really important is being happy.”

During a recent interview in the store, every customer who entered was familiar to James. Northampton resident Brandon Williams, who let out a huge sigh after taking a look at the emptying shelves, said he’s been patronizing the shop since James took over. He said Unite is exactly the community hub James sought to create.

“It was a really good release to just be here,” he said. “The music’s always good, the atmosphere’s always good, the vibe’s always good.”

Williams said he often would lose track of time playing video games, chatting about life, or seeking advice from James while in the shop, only to come out to his car and find a parking ticket on his windshield.

James said making connections was always the main point for him. “The clothes were cool but you can get clothes everywhere,” he said. “I think the aspect of community is going to be missed most.”

For more information and a full list of scheduled performers Saturday, visit Unite’s website at www.unitefootwear.com.