Brattleboro's Cotton Mill: The stories behind the doors

Thursday November 29, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- About four years ago, Sherilee Backman set up a laboratory in her kitchen in Brattleboro and began testing raw materials for cosmetics and skin and hair products.

Backman had more than two decades of experience doing lab work for some of the largest cosmetic companies in the world.

She was newly married to a Brattleboro resident, and with no cosmetic laboratory work available in southern Vermont, Backman decided to start her own company, Venus of Vermont, Inc.

The business grew and when it was time to find a commercial space she found her way to The Cotton Mill, where she has been slowly growing since arriving there in 2009.

Today she has three employees and the company continues to test raw material and is releasing its own brand of body care products.

"This space has given us credibility and an identity," she said while giving a tour this week of her second-floor lab. "For a little rinky dink lab in Vermont we are doing a lot of forefront technology work for companies."

Once a year, just before the holidays, some of the business owners at The Cotton Mill open their doors to allow visitors to see their studios and kitchens, and maybe pick up a few unique hand-crafted gifts.

The 11th annual event is part craft tour, part shopping excursion and part circus show. The once-a-year event lets shoppers cross names off their holiday lists, while keeping money in the local economy and supporting small business owners, artisans and artists.

But the Cotton Mill Open Studio and Holiday Sale is also a celebration of the historic building, and of the people who go to work there every day.

When Backman is asked about why The Cotton Mill has become such an important part of her success she looks out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and says, "It's all about the natural light."

Customers want to know how a hair color or a lip gloss will perform and when she and her staff are running tests she says the light that pours through her windows is as good as she can get anywhere.

And she is glad she is in Brattleboro at The Cotton Mill.

Ellen Pratt, the business manager for Natalie Blake Studios, which manufactures and sells ceramic tiles and vessels, says the Cotton Mill has become like a large college dorm with business owners and employees knocking on doors to borrow tools, bouncing ideas off one another and relaxing together when the work is done.

Pratt even says she occasionally plays a game of ping pong down the hall.

The connections include the practical, like sharing packing peanuts and purchasing propane cooperatively, to getting input on a new website.

"People talk about creating a closed-loop system, and The Cotton Mill is like that," Pratt said. "I like the energy in here. There is a lot of cross pollination going on."

During the open studio this weekend, visitors will be able to watch a glass blower in action. There will be music and circus arts performances, food to taste and to purchase, and gifts that range from metal work to jewelry to ceramics and woodwork.

Greg Goodman has been making his high-end furniture inside his Cotton Mill studio for 10 years.

For Goodman the studio became a kind of insurance policy when the recession took a bite out of his business.

The low overhead allowed him to weather the economic downturn and he watched as other independent cabinet makers had to close down their studios and workshops because they could not pay the mortgage or rent.

"It has been ideal for us here. All of our investment is in our machinery," said Goodman. "Everyone here understands what it means to be in business. It is nice not to be so isolated."

Goodman moved into The Cotton Mill when he was looking to relocate from his shop in eastern Long Island, and the large, airy studio has provided him with all of the space he needs.

The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation opened the 145,000-square-foot historic mill building as a business incubator, to provide entrepreneurs with a reasonably priced space to grow their business.

BDCC Director of Operations Robin Sweetapple says The Cotton Mill is an important resource for companies like Goodman's, which has found a long term home there, and others like Big Picture Farm, a goat milk candy company which is just getting off the ground and is receiving national recognition for its product.

There are currently about 60 businesses in the complex and Sweetapple says there is a waiting list for other who want to get in.

"We are here to support the economy of Windham County and we do anything we can to make that happen," Sweetapple said. "It's never easy to start a small business and take it to the next step. You can't help but get excited when you talk to the business owners about their ideas."

Michael Poster is still settling into his new photography studio at The Cotton Mill.

Poster left western Pennsylvania to escape from the environmental and community impacts that gas companies brought when they started "fracking" for natural gas in the region.

He and his wife fell in love with Brattleboro and he says the large walls at The Cotton Mill give him the space to work on the projects that include multiple photographs.

"This is not just an event to sell stuff for Christmas," he said. "This is a cultural event. There are a lot of people here doing a lot of different things."

The Cotton Mill Open Studio and Holiday Sale will be held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday beginning at 10 a.m.

On Friday it runs until 7 p.m., on Saturday, until 6 p.m. and on Sunday the doors close at 5 p.m.


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