Downtown looking up: Easthampton getting its bustle back

  • Looking east Wednesday on Union Street in Easthampton, one of the city’s main drags. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking east on Union Street in Easthampton on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking east on Cottage Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking west on Cottage Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking east on Union Street in Easthampton on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Audra McGee, left, a sales assistant at Wedge Works on Cottage Street in Easthampton, helps Laura Johnson of Easthampton with a purchase on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking north on Main Street in Easthampton on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking west on Union Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juliette Mooers, owner of Valley Art Supplies in Easthampton, talks about the last year from the front door of her shop on Cottage Street on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juliette Mooers, owner of Valley Art Supplies in Easthampton, talks about the last year from the front door of her shop on Cottage Street on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The former Manchester Hardware on Union Street in Easthampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juliette Mooers, owner of Valley Art Supplies in Easthampton, talks about the last year from the front door of her shop on Cottage Street on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Emma Cowhey, a manager at Union Street Bistro & Bakery in Easthampton, says business on the bistro’s patio has blossomed with the recent nice weather. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Customer Jordan Sullivan, left, orders a slice of pizza from Jay Carreiro at Antonio's on Main Street in Easthampton on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2021 5:56:45 PM

EASTHAMPTON — More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the scene in downtown Easthampton has left some business owners optimistic for the area’s future, though others have been hit by industry-specific hardships or left behind empty storefronts.

While Easthampton has not experienced widespread business closures, the pandemic has taken a hard toll on many individuals, said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, particularly among those working in hospitality and working parents without access to child care.

The city has awarded small grants of up to $1,500 to help businesses, LaChapelle said, and Easthampton took the lead in a program that provided businesses with loans of up to $10,000. State and federal grants have also helped some businesses to stay afloat.

Local support

Several new businesses have recently opened downtown, including Olivia Pearl Interiors, TSVGA Perfvms and Breathing Space Yoga. Meanwhile, Sonnet & Sparrow curated thrift store and Water’s Fine goods and coffee expanded.

Cynthia West, co-owner of Sonnet & Sparrow and its newly opened sister store, The Flying Squirrel, credits an engaged local community with the shop’s success during the pandemic.

“People have been extremely conscientious about how and where they are spending their local money,” West said, “and realize the significance of keeping that money local.”

The Flying Squirrel, which sells lightly used furniture and homeware, opened April 9 at 82½ Cottage St. to “a huge outpouring of local support,” West said. Over the shop’s opening weekend, The Flying Squirrel sold triple its anticipated sales.

“People are thrilled to see Easthampton thriving,” West said. “Many people mentioned how delighted they were to see the storefront filled. Supporting these businesses directly supports the lifestyle they’ve chosen by living in Easthampton.”

Juliette Mooers, owner of Valley Art Supplies, also highlighted a focus on shopping local as a significant bolster to her store and downtown as a whole.

“Community support has been amazing through all these years,” said Mooers, who has owned the Cottage Street store for 17 years, “but especially during the pandemic.”

Throughout the pandemic, Mooers has been selling via curbside pickup and local delivery. The store area, which would previously host browsing shoppers and craft events, is now set aside as a remote learning space for her two kids.

Mooers said she has spoken with many people who made an effort to shop local, which she thinks has had a significant effect on downtown. The street remains lively with foot traffic, Mooers said, especially on Thursday through Saturday nights, and some people stop by Valley Art Supplies on their way to or from a neighboring business.

“I feel the love here,” Mooers said.

Cottage Street’s cultural district designation and the community’s prominent community of artists also helps, Mooers noted. Though many students are studying remotely, Valley Art Supplies has maintained strong ties with art students and instructors at Holyoke Community College.

Audra McGee, a sales associate at Wedge Works Art & Home on Cottage Street, has noticed similar support from the community.

“I feel that the local community still shops pretty consistently,” McGee said. “I think a lot of people who used to go to the malls are coming in to smaller shops” out of appreciation for less crowded spaces and the local businesses themselves, she said. About half of the shop’s inventory comes from artists and makers local to Easthampton or the surrounding area, which McGee believes has been a draw.

McGee has also noticed “a decent amount of traffic on the streets” as people stop by businesses.

“We do have a town where people feel comfortable walking around during a pandemic,” she said.

Burns Maxey, president of CitySpace arts organization, said she has been “really, positively surprised at the downtown area of Easthampton and how it has retained its energy and retains its businesses.”

“The Cottage Street Cultural District looks like it’s thriving and ready to open,” she said.

While the arts as a whole have been “incredibly impacted by the pandemic,” Maxey is looking forward to the planned opening of 350-seat performing arts space in the second floor of old Town Hall, which she said will help bring customers to businesses in the downtown area.

Restaurants

At Union Street Bistro & Bakery, in-house delivery service and a preexisting outdoor patio space have helped staff weather the pandemic, according to front of house manager Emma Cowhey.

The patio behind the restaurant was popular with customers last spring, Cowhey said, and diners continued to use the space through November. The bistro recently reopened the patio for the season and has been off to a good start, especially on warm days.

Last Saturday, when weather crept into the high 70s, the patio “had a line all day,” Cowhey said. “I couldn’t get people in and out fast enough.”

Owner Kimmy Scribner said business seems to be picking up as the pandemic enters its second spring.

“I think the public is ready to get out and be done with this,” she said.

The restaurant has not offered indoor dining throughout the pandemic, but in-house delivery service helped to make up for that loss when the patio closed in the winter, according to Cowhey. This service also allowed the restaurant to retain its staffing. While some hours were cut, no employees were laid off, she said.

Antonio’s Pizza & Wings on Main Street has also operated on a takeout and delivery only model throughout the pandemic, as it did not have sufficient space available to comfortably maintain its typical small area for indoor dining.

The restaurant experienced a “subtle drop” in business when the pandemic first struck, said employee Jay Carreiro, but has since experienced “a nice plateau of normalcy.”

Antonio’s was already set up for takeout and delivery before the pandemic, Carreiro added, which helped to prepare for the pandemic.

The restaurant has slightly reduced its weekend hours but has not needed to cut staffing.

“We’re actually busy enough that we need more people,” Carreiro said, “and it’s been difficult to find people.”

Losses

While some businesses have thrived in spite of the past year’s hardships, downtown has not been completely spared of the pandemic’s impacts.

Late last year, Flywheel Arts Collective vacated its space at the old Town Hall on Main Street, citing a loss of income due to the inability to host live performances and other events. The venue had occupied the space since 2010. Though Flywheel does not currently have a physical location, the organization said that it will continue in some form, and last month launched a new digital zine, Flypaper.

A smattering of empty storefronts also occupy Main Street, though some of these vacancies are not direct results of the pandemic. Steps away from the bustling Union Street Bistro & Bakery, Manchester Hardware, which made its home in the city for over a century, shuttered in the fall, and its former Union Street storefront remains vacant.

Other businesses have managed to stay afloat, but not without significant losses. Due to state guidelines that prohibit businesses from serving alcohol without food, the Brass Cat bar has largely been unable to operate, with the exception of opening on a limited basis last summer with an outdoor patio area and food trucks.

“It’s been a long winter, knowing that I couldn’t do anything,” said owner Mike Lavalle. “I tried to make some small improvements inside of the bar, hoping we would be able to open. I’m hoping it’s soon.”

State and federal grants helped the business to stay afloat and help now unemployed staff members, Lavalle said, and owning the building has also spared the business of rent costs. But the overall impact of the pandemic on bars like the Brass Cat has been “debilitating,” Lavalle said.

Additionally, seeing the state allow large gatherings and permit restaurants to open in full capacity while bars without kitchens remain closed has been a frustrating experience, Lavalle added.

“You can have a private party or a wedding of up to 100 people, but I’m still not allowed to open,” he said. “It’s a little mind-boggling that there’s this reliance on the kitchen, (the idea) that the virus is afraid of the kitchen somehow.”

Lavalle would like to see more communication from the state so that bars can have an idea of when they can reopen, with adequate time to prepare.




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