A changing landscape: How the pandemic has altered the look of downtown Northampton

  • Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central, moves her inventory from her shop in Thornes Marketplace to the space on Main Street that used to hold the Artisan Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central, moves her inventory from her shop in Thornes Marketplace to the space on Main Street that used to hold the Artisan Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central, moves her inventory from her shop in Thornes Marketplace to the space on Main Street that used to hold the Artisan Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks Jewelry, right, is in the process of moving from Thornes Marketplace to here at 147 Main St. in Northampton. At left a new shop, The Cotton Gallery, is going in at 153 Main St. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The pop-up art market Liberal Arts has opened at 236 Pleasant St. in Northampton, formerly home to Brake King Automotive. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Carr talks about her pop-up art market, Liberal Arts, on Pleasant Street in Northampton, formerly home to Brake King Automotive, on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The block of shops on the south side of Main Street in Northampton between CVS, off left, and A.P.E. Gallery, off right. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Bruegger’s Bagels recently closed and last year Guild Art Supply moved to Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A metal sculpture outside the pop-up art market Liberal Arts at 236 Pleasant St. in Northampton on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cafe Balagan is moving into this space at 241 Main St. in Northampton, formerly home to Green Bean. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Carr talks about her pop-up art market, Liberal Arts, at 236 Pleasant St. in Northampton on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A cannabis dispensary is moving into the space of the former Sam’s Pizza at 235 Main St. in Northampton. Cafe Balagan is going in next door at 241 Main St., the former space of Green Bean. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • T. Roots, a Taiwanese restaurant, has moved into the former Viva Fresh Pasta space at 249 Main St. in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A new shop, The Cotton Gallery, is going in at 153 Main St. in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The building that houses Mama Iguana’s Mexican restaurant at 271 Main St. in Northampton is up for sale. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bruegger’s Bagels at 96 Main St. in Northampton recently closed. Next to it is the former space of Guild Art Supply which moved to Easthampton last year. Photographed on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising co-owner opened the vintage store at 5 Old South St. in Northampton in August. Photographed on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising, a shop of “estate furnishings and other curiosities,” opened at 5 Old South St. in Northampton in August. Photographed on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising co-owner Jason Martin stands in the doorway of his shop with a figure of “Bumble” created by Dan Manson who used to create the window displays at the former Faces on Main Street in Northampton. Photographed on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising co-owner Jason Martin works in his shop at 5 Old South St. in Northampton on Thursday, April 8, 2021. The vintage store opened last August. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising, a shop of “estate furnishings and other curiosities,” opened at 5 Old South St. in Northampton in August. Photographed on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Rising, a shop of “estate furnishings and other curiosities” in Northampton, opened last August at 5 Old South St., at lower left. Photographed on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vintage watches for sale at Phoenix Rising on Old South Street in Northampton on Thursday, April 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2021 2:56:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Longtime downtown business owner Bill Muller thought he had a plan — consolidate his Northampton businesses, Guild Art Supply and Pierce’s Frameshop, and his Easthampton printing business, Big Wheel Press, into one space in the old Serio’s Market storefront on State Street in Northampton.

The spot was ideal, complete with parking. “We were working on floor plans and everything,” he said. “Then COVID hit.”

Surrounded by so much economic uncertainty, Muller scrapped those plans entirely. Instead of staying in downtown Northampton, where he’s run Guild Art Supply for 37 years, he made the tough decision last year to move the store and framing shop to his press space in Easthampton.

“I realized that given the percentage of restaurants and entertainment businesses downtown, that Northampton was not going to bounce back for us to afford such a big financial decision,” he said.

Now he’s happy in Easthampton, and there are two large “For Lease” signs in the windows at 102 Main St. in Northampton, where Guild Art Supply used to be located.

Muller isn’t alone, as small businesses along Main Streets in communities nationwide have been forced to make tough decisions during a pandemic that’s now in its second year. The scene in downtown Northampton is no different. Over the last year, at least 14 businesses have closed, a smaller number have moved, and others faced decisions about whether to close for the winter.

Businesses downtown have seen their income slashed, in some cases as much as 70%, said Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association.

“It’s been a really challenging year both for restaurant and retail downtown,” she said. But, she added, “it feels like we made it through with not as much loss as I first feared.”

Among the downtown staple businesses that are now gone are The Sierra Grille, which closed after 14 years, Bistro Les Gras (12 years) and New Century Theatre (28 years). Artisan Gallery closed after 36 years, and the Green Bean after 13 years. Bars like Ye Ol’ Watering Hole on Pleasant Street have not opened their doors in months, while some businesses closed for the winter, such as GoBerry and Packard’s. Recently, a sign went up on Bruegger’s Bagels announcing it was closing.

If there is a silver lining to downtown’s resiliency, it’s this: At least 11 businesses have opened downtown or are set to soon open, something Cahillane says was unexpected given the significant losses Main Street experienced during the pandemic.

The newcomers include Taiwanese restaurant T. Roots on upper Main Street; Patria in Thornes Marketplace; Instincts and Friends, an apparel and gift shop, near the intersection of Main Street and Crafts Avenue; and Liberal Arts, a pop-up market on Pleasant Street next to the Lumber Yard apartments.

In the former Green Bean space, Cafe Balagan is set to open in the coming days, said Rachael Workman, a partner in the business. Brown paper and a new sign that says “Cotton Gallery” are in one Main Street storefront’s window. Dispensaries Resinate and Jack’s Cannabis opened their doors, and Balagan Cannabis plans to open in the former Sam’s Pizzeria space.

As vaccination rates rise, “Things are looking up,” Cahillane said. “But this isn’t a recovery that ... we’re going to flip a switch and everything is going to be dandy. It’s going to be a financial slog for our businesses for a while.”

Support is essential, she said: “Our business community needs support financially, whether that’s federal government grants ... or just humans in our town being intentional about how they spent their dollars — even though it’s a tired phrase, trying to shop local as much as possible.”

Northampton Olive Oil is one business that closed downtown. To attract customers, the shop relied on foot traffic through Thornes Marketplace and product samples, owner Jay Martin said. But amid the pandemic, foot traffic slowed, samples became a thing of the past, and the store closed this year.

“The business plan didn’t quite work out for us. We didn’t make enough money, frankly,” Martin said. “I was probably down 50 to 60 percent.”

At the same time, Martin and a business partner opened Phoenix Rising, a home decor store that sells second-hand and vintage items, on Old South Street and has found more success there.

Overall, the pandemic has been “rough,” he said. “Everybody I know is down 40 to 60 percent from last year … Some places left, but I think there’s a lot of new blood in town.”

Moving to Main Street

Artisan Gallery, which sold local artists’ work, announced last summerit was planning to close. “There is just not enough business for us to go forward,” owner Patty Arbour said at the time.

When that shop closed, Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central in Thornes, decided to move into the former Artisan Gallery space.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring our vibrancy to Main Street,” Rennie said on a recent afternoon in the store. She plans to open 25 Central in the new space over the weekend.

The last year was hard for Rennie’s business, and Paycheck Protection Program funds were “a lifeline,” she said.

“It was a really rough year. But we’re playing the long game.” She added, “I want to be here for the next 30 years … or more.”

The new space is larger than the storefront in Thornes and her rent is less, she said.

Though some businesses have closed, Rennie is hearing about new ones opening. “I’m not worried,” she said of downtown. “I’m very hopeful.”

Liberal Arts is one of those new businesses. A garage-like building on Pleasant Street has been turned into an art market.

“Everyone here is a local artist,” Jennifer Carr, a social worker who started the project, said of the two dozen artists’ work in the space.

On a recent day, metal sculptures were displayed outside and through an open garage door, the indoor space featured paintings, masks and other art and string lights hung from the ceiling.

Nayana LaFond, one of the lead artists who helps run the space, and Carr originally intended to have the market open just for the holidays, but decided to continue. “It’s a pop up,” Carr said.

The building’s owner planned to turn the building into new space, but amid the pandemic has held off and allowed the pop-up to operate, Carr said. They plan to stay open until the landlord wants to do construction, and Carr and LaFond are planning a community mural project where anyone can come paint.

Uncertain future

The future of some downtown businesses is unclear. Mexican restaurant Mama Iguana’s has long been closed and chairs are on top of tables.

Owner Claudio Guerra said his lease expired last month and his landlord is trying to sell the building. “We’re in limbo,” he said. “I’m hoping that the new landlord will want me as a tenant.”

Guerra also owns Spoleto Restaurant, which he decided to close temporarily for winter. “I just felt like I saw a lot of restaurants open and then every couple weeks close because somebody got sick … I just didn’t want to deal with that.” Support like PPP, “that’s enabled us to stay in business.”

As the weather warmed up, he recently opened up the restaurant. Business owners are trying their best amid COVID, he said. “Hats off to everybody for trying to reinvent themselves.”

Downtown has fared better than Muller expected in the pandemic. “On some level, I think it’s weathered it better than I thought it was going to,” he said. “People who decided that they were going to stay really have been working hard to make it work. The problem with Northampton surviving the pandemic has a lot of do with the problems Northampton has to deal with anyway.”

He thinks that with many restaurants and entertainment spaces, foot traffic in the morning is too slow, for example.

“Basically mornings are dead. When you’re paying really high rents, you need foot traffic all day long,” Muller said.

He hoped to see landlords drop rents amid the pandemic. “The only businesses we are going to attract downtown are dispensaries,” he said.

At its peak, his rent was $6,500 a month. “We ultimately negotiated down a little bit to stay longer.”

He also took issue with an encampment of homeless people that was on the City Hall steps and felt the city should have acted more quickly. “I can’t believe we didn’t do something … You find them someplace to live, period,” he said. Late last year, Mayor David Narkewicz told the Gazette that his office was regularly in touch with Eliot Homeless Services to try to help those on the steps.

Empty storefronts continue

Pandemic or no pandemic, Northampton continues to have empty storefronts, and more than half a dozen commercial downtown properties are currently looking for buyers.

Though many had ideas about what the building that housed Faces could become — colorful sticky notes with ideas plastered the window in the fall of 2019 — the storefront is empty.

The property at 50 Main St., home to the restaurant Spoleto before it moved down the block, has been empty for nearly a decade.

That property’s owner, Eric Suher, announced in 2017 he was working with Patrick Goggins of Goggins Real Estate, who would be marketing 15 of Suher’s vacant properties along Pleasant and Main streets.

“I think we both would like it to go better. It’s been spotty,” Goggins said of filling the vacancies.

When asked how many were still empty, Goggins said, “I have an increased inventory of commercial options up and down Main Street. Not just Eric’s, everyone.” He added, “There seems to be a lot of vacancies. Yes, there are.”

Some spaces are being pre-leased by dispensary businesses as they await a state license, Goggins said, but he said he couldn’t specify which ones. Non-residential spaces in Live 155 and the Lumber Yard on Pleasant Street that have been empty for at least a year will be filled with offices soon, he said.

More changes are in the offing, based on the number of buildings for sale downtown. Some of those include: 84 Main St. which houses CVS, 244 Main St., 1 King St. which was home to Silverscape Designs, 43 King St. which houses People’s United Bank, 175 Main St., which used to house Faces, and 269-271 Main St., which was home to Mama Iguana’s. The large brick building that used to house St. Mary’s church at the intersection of State, Main and Elm streets is also still listed for sale.

Goggins said he thinks the number of buildings for sale in downtown is “fairly normal.” There is interest in Silverscape’s large art deco granite and limestone building at the corner of Main and King streets, according to Goggins. “We are dealing with two parties as we speak,” he said.

Owners of vacant storefronts should try to work with business owners, Martin said. “These people who want full rent during a pandemic are out of their minds,” Martin said.

His landlord in his new store, Phoenix Rising, has charged reasonable rent, he said.

After closing one business and opening another, Martin is hopeful about the future of downtown. Some people talk about the city and say, “It died. It used to be cool,” he said. “I don’t agree. I think we need to reinvent it a little bit.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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