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As longtime owners retire, a new wave of younger leaders are driving Northampton’s economy

  • Donna McNeight, who is the co-owner of Gazebo, works in her store Jan. 28. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Colette Katsikas, who is the owner of Essentials, talks about being a small business owner in Northampton, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donna McNeight, who is the co-owner of Gazebo, works in her store Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Colette Katsikas, who is the owner of Essentials, talks about being a small business owner in Northampton, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Colette Katsikas, who is the owner of Essentials, talks about being a small business owner in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@StephMurr_Jour
Sunday, February 05, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — As the internet tightens its crippling grip on retail sales, the future may seem grim for brick and mortar business owners across the country.

But if you ask Gazebo co-owner Donna McNeight, it’s a pretty good time to be a business owner in Northampton.

McNeight, who took over the downtown bra shop with co-owner Amy Dickinson last March, says the business is thriving. Gazebo is one of several downtown operations which changed hands in the past several years.

“The new owners are pumped up and ready to go, the timing is wonderful,” McNeight said. “It couldn’t be better.”

A new generation of downtown Northampton business owners has arrived. Other stores, including Essentials, A to Z, Faces, Don Muller Galleries, Gleason’s and the Baker’s Pin (formerly Different Drummer’s Kitchen) have all changed hands in the last few years.

That turnover is right on schedule, according to one University of Massachusetts Amherst business expert.

Georgianna Parkin, of Shutesbury, is the state director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network. The organization is based within the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and has offices throughout the state.

“Some of those [businesses] were open in the 60s and 70s … owners are getting older, they might be at retirement age,” Parkin said. “It is pretty similar to what we’ve seen across the state.”

Former Gazebo owner Judith Fine handed over the reins to McNeight and Dickinson after 38 years in the business. Fine is well-known for her work dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness and supporting women with breast prostheses and post-mastectomy bras.

“She put her life’s work into it,” McNeight said. “It is more than just a store. It provides great things for people. The need is really there.”

The key to surviving in the local economy, Parkin says, is finding a niche.

“Regardless of changing hands — everybody is encountering the same issues out there,” Parkin said.

Though the rise of internet sales and nearby big box stores provide a challenge, McNeight and Dickinson said they believe Gazebo remains a downtown destination because of the service it provides. They pride themselves on fitting services that keeps customers coming back for more.

“It is such a service,” Dickinson said. “Fitting bras is so intimate, and sometimes tricky … We provide an environment where customers can feel comfortable. We stand behind our bras.”

McNeight added that Gazebo staff will go the extra mile to make sure a bra looks and feels right. “We don’t ever want our bras to be in the back,” McNeight said, adding that it was a standard Fine instilled in her.

Since taking over the store, McNeight and Dickinson said they have added several new brands to their inventory. Following Fine’s example, they carefully test and evaluate samples before stocking them on the shelves. Gazebo has also expanded its transgender fitting services and began stocking a chest binder made in Holyoke.

After Pink Petal in South Hadley closed in November, Gazebo experienced an uptick in customers seeking post-mastectomy products. Over the past several months, about 8 to 10 percent of Gazebo customers have sought post-mastectomy services. Gazebo is looking to add more post-mastectomy products in the coming months, including bathing suits and scarves.

“It is a lot of trial and error. We try to meet as many needs as we can,” McNeight said.

According to Parkin, Northampton’s economy has remained colorful for a number of reasons, including arts outposts like Iron Horse, Calvin Theater and the Academy of Music. There are “a huge amount of restaurants right now” and businesses must compete for foot traffic coming through their doors.

“What’s your niche to keep that sustainable?” Parkin asked.

Essentials

An emphasis on customer experience is what keeps Essentials, according to owner Colette Katsikas. The 44-year-old Northampton resident acquired the business in 2012 after 15 years as an employee and manager. The transition from employee to owner has been a big adventure, Katsikas said.

“It is a kind of terrifying, invigorating experience,” Katsikas said. “It’s hard to explain. I had the safety net pulled out from underneath me.”

Katsikas works full-time, and employs two part-time staff members.

“The store has always changed and evolved based on what people wanted,” Katsikas said. If it didn’t change, I wouldn’t be here.”

Standing at the counter of her punchy, orange and blue-themed Main Street shop, Katsikas listed popular products her store has in stock. “Nasty woman” buttons, inspired by Hillary Clinton top the list, along with cat-themed items, kid’s clothes and baby gifts.

Competition from online sales and big box stores like Target in Hadley provides a challenge, Katiskas said, but she echoed Gazebo’s philosophy. Essentials provides a level of customer service that keeps customers coming back for more.

“If someone smiles and laughs, they’ll always remember they came here,” Katsikas said. “A website isn’t just going to make them happy.”

Parkin’s work focuses on helping business owners develop their ideas and determine a way to stay afloat in a competitive economy.

“We ask a potential existing client ‘What are you trying to do? Go into this business for a lifestyle because you like a particular skill? Is it to support your family? Do you want to make huge amount of money, or profit, and sell it and get out? Is it in combination with retirement?’ It depends on the business,” Parkin said.

For Katsikas, the business isn’t a money-making endeavor. It’s about doing her own thing and being creative.

“I’m still young and excited,” Katsikas said. “If you don’t love it, there’s no point.”

Stephanie Murray can be reached at stephaniemur@umass.edu