Easthampton’s sizzling scene: In the dead of winter, city nightlife has a varied and vital buzz

By MELISSA KAREN SANCES

For the Gazette

Published: 02-18-2023 9:00 AM

It’s the coldest night of the season, so cold that the wind stings, so cold that our photographer’s lenses need time to thaw, so cold that from the bar of the Marigold, you can’t see the street because the doors are coated in ice.

But inside. Inside is a window into Easthampton’s dynamic nightlife, wind chill be damned.

On stage is the 12-piece Salsa Train Orchestra, a band out of Springfield. They are so loud that when I ask for the owner, the bartender can’t hear me, the sound guy can’t hear me; everyone is lost in the music. The dance floor is packed, and I have to time my stride so I don’t collide with anyone as I make my way back to the bar. When Glenn Alper emerges from the crowd and joins me, we have to shout into each other’s ears to be heard.

It’s fantastic, the electric energy in the room, this storied theater come to life. Just a year earlier, Alper came across the building — “It’s not that often that you see a vaudeville theater for rent,” he says — and was overwhelmed by its potential.

Now elegant chandeliers twinkle over the expansive dance floor. Balconies overlook the built-in stage. The bar serves traditional spirits and spirited cocktails enhanced with fresh-squeezed juices.

“It’s like that scene in Star Wars in the cantina,” Alper says, and even though “A New Hope” came out before I was born, I know exactly what he means. “Like you’re on this other planet. It could be a hundred years in the future or the past. We want people to wonder not only where am I, but when am I?”

Under his watch, the Marigold (marigoldtheater.com) has shared time and space with visual artists and dancers, has hosted theater and drag shows, and has showcased frequent and wide-ranging local artists. Tomorrow’s metal band will attract a substantial crowd. And tonight’s event organizer McCoy Jamison, a fixture of the Latin dance community, says that if it weren’t for the bitter cold, he’d expect a minimum of 70 people.

But it’s not a numbers game to him. “I do this because it helps people enjoy the little bit of time we have on this Earth,” he says.

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Similarly, Alper, the new guy on the block, hopes to share the love with his fellow entrepreneurs. “People bounce around from place to place, and we [owners] like that,” he says. “There really is a sense that we’re in it together.”

He’s quiet for a moment before he taps me on the shoulder and leans in. “When I opened this up, I didn’t even know if people were going to come out again.”

Eclectic and united

The Marigold isn’t the only busy venue on Cottage Street tonight. Over at Gigantic, it’s standing-room-only during their well-timed “Escape from the Northeast” pop-up. Inside, the windows are covered completely and fog billows over the candlelit tiki bar. From his place on the wall among the temporary greenery, Burt Reynolds approves.

The painting, a truly unique antique, is one of many historical pieces in what can only be referred to as a glam museum, a punk-rock saloon, and a Tinder-date destination. That such a small space could embody such diversity and specificity at once … I’m intrigued.

“It’s a place people can come and feel a little bit special,” says bar owner Ned King, who admits that he’s “slightly obsessive” about Gigantic’s every detail, from the 45 minutes it takes to light all the candles and oil lamps before the bar opens, to the carefully curated playlist (featuring The Fireballs and Jorge Ben Jor), to the cocktails, both beautiful and educational.

King makes me a Zombie, a precarious balance of four types of rum and four freshly squeezed juices. It’s in everyone’s best interest that I get the virgin version, garnished with a pineapple leaf, of course. Along with a few non-alcoholic options, the menu features the colorful back story of 15 tropical-themed cocktails, in order of their year of origin (from 1937 to 2023, with a bonus from 1772).

I imagine a menu of Easthampton’s nightlife, each venue’s year of establishment in chronological order. (Maybe my Zombie has some rum in it, after all). There are so many options that the menu would have to be a book, and each business would merit its own chapter. The Mills, Main Street, Cottage Street … they would all need their own sections.

There’s even more to consider. “You could go out on Cottage Street three days in a row and not do the same thing,” King says. It’s true: In four hours tonight, I’ll visit only four venues, and at each one I’ll feel pressed for time.

There are reasons that Easthampton is thriving, why the 4-year-old Gigantic (giganticbar.com) and the 30-year-old Brass Cat can co-exist on the same street. No matter where you go in the city, everything is there: bars, restaurants, breweries, concert halls … No place has it all, but each space belongs to the same community. Easthampton is as eclectic as it is united.

King puts it more succinctly, which is probably why he’s the one writing real-life menus. “Like if the ice machine wasn’t working, I could probably walk to any space and be like, ‘Can I have some ice?’ and they would say yes. It’s that kind of intimacy that I really love about this place.”

‘Just feels like America’

“Growing up in Northampton, Easthampton was not where we wanted to go hang out,” says Sam Dibble, owner of New City Brewery. It’s a more tolerably cold Thursday night, the venue’s Bachata Night, and at 6:30 p.m. the bar is hopping while eager dancers gather around the floor. Dibble gets to the good part: “Over the last 18 years that I’ve been working and living in Easthampton, I’ve seen it totally change.”

Once upon a time, Dibble had a carpentry shop in a dull mill-among-mills on Pleasant Street. But he also brewed hard ginger beer and kombucha whose commercial success inspired dreams of mass production. Next to his business was a former sheet metal shop and boiler room that, with a little TLC, would make an excellent brewery.

In 2013 he opened New City, and as the city around it evolved, so did Dibble’s space. A revitalization project brought hundreds of businesses and residents to the old mills, and the Manhan Rail Trail connected the new Mills to Union Street, which broadened the customer base of businesses on both sides. Meanwhile, New City expanded to include a taproom, a beer garden and a concert hall. In 2020 they tripled their patio space and became a licensed restaurant. While the most recent modifications were motivated by pandemic-related restrictions, they’ve each endured the test of time.

Through it all, Dibble has seen the city develop into “a kind of melting pot of people, everything from students, to teachers, to craftspeople, to artists to musicians.” And now? “Now that melting pot is simmering and it’s just a whole different blend we’re cooking up over here.”

It fits, that New City (newcitybrewery.com) is a microcosm of a renewed Easthampton. At a corner table, Hampshire College alum Ned Phillips-Jones enjoys a pint with a friend and their dog “Buddy.” (They suggest the pseudonym to protect the pup’s anonymity). “One of the things I particularly enjoy about Easthampton,” says Phillips-Jones, “is that it has a lot of the benefits of Northampton but it also just feels like America.”

At the next table, three 20-somethings trade Pokemon cards, while at the bar, Tech 180 regulars George Oquendo, Evan Ford and Mike Marcotte joke that they’ve always liked New City’s “rustic environment” and wonder aloud if I actually work for Joe Biden. Over in bachata territory, McCoy Jamison leads 14 people of various ages, backgrounds and experience levels through an hourlong lesson. During paired sequences, dancers take turns leading and following, and, without fail, every time they change partners, they pause and double high-five. It’s like every connection is a celebration, a tribute to being in this together.

A La Carte

Brass Cat — 1994 — The neighborhood bar that’s been in the neighborhood forever. “It’s a great casual spot for a beer with your buddies, and maybe to play some pool or darts,” says first-time patron Adam Gladstone. It’s gritty, steady, and always open past midnight; www.facebook.com/brass.cat.

Amy’s Place — 2002 — It’s won the Advocate’s “Best of the Valley” award every year for the past decade, probably because it’s a sports bar and restaurant with a diner-like vibe. (Meatloaf, anyone?) Elise Linscott agrees. “It’s a comfortable spot to hang out with food and a drink,” says the future returning customer; www.amysplace.biz.

Se7ens, aka Whiskerz — 2002 — In 2018 the local biker bar became The Eagle, which evolved into the sports bar now called Se7ens. More than one loyal patron referred to it as “Whiskerz,” despite having frequented Se7ens. To sum up, it has heart, history and promise; www.facebook.com/SE7ENSBarAndGrill.

Luthier’s — 2008 — In their own words, it’s “the World’s First Full-Service Guitar Bar!!!” With tune-ups on tap, local beers, live music and Lovebird Kitchen, it might deserve a few more exclamation points; www.luthiers-coop.com.

Abandoned Building Brewery — 2013 — A taproom, beer garden and music venue with an artsy vibe. “Buddy”-friendly; www.abandonedbuildingbrewery.com.

Melissa Karen Sances lives in Easthampton, where she’s working on a memoir and writing meaningful human interest stories. She can be reached at melissaksances@gmail.com.]]>