New businesses create vibrancy downtown
BRATTLEBORO — Downtown is welcoming a new group of businesses and artists taking over storefronts as it says goodbye to others.
"It's an evolution," said Kate O'Connor, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
She said downtown is "so much different" from what it had been when she was growing up.
"There's just been this evolution, even in my short life," she said. "It's really been interesting."
O'Connor said she does not see how stores will not be affected by online shopping.
"You sort of have to change business practices," she said. "Maybe it is more of the galleries and the creative. You can't buy that stuff on Amazon. And it's too bad because I think you need retail to keep downtown vibrant. So I'm hoping that can still stay in the mix. That's the one thing I worry about. I really do believe that retail is a big part of downtown."
Alarms were sounded in August when it was learned that downtown will be losing five businesses.
A Candle in the Night has been a home furnishing store in Brattleboro for about 46 years and the owners decided to retire. The Ruggles & Hunt clothing store had a Brattleboro location since 2016 after it started 16 years ago in Walpole, N.H., until closing the original location in January. The two businesses are having clearance sales.
Vicki Gohl, owner of Ruggles & Hunt, described a dying retail environment in which people have less time to visit downtowns to go shopping. She also blamed a new 1 percent local option tax adopted this year in Brattleboro, panhandling on the streets downtown and how concerns about President Donald Trump's "guerilla mode of governing" kept people from spending money.
The other businesses were Twin Flames Taqueria, which shut down because of financial issues; Windham Movement Apparel, which became a mobile operation; and Walks With Wolves Creations, which moved.
In October, Delectable Mountain Cloth announced it would be "saying goodbye after 41 years" at the end of the year.
"Too many of my suppliers have disappeared, making it very difficult to find the fabrics that make this store special," owner Jan Norris wrote on Facebook. "I've searched abroad only to learn the cloth I love is harder and harder to find anywhere. Rather than lower my standards or shift to a different line of goods, I've decided it is time to bring this adventure to an end."
Norris said she never imagined the business would last four decades and grow "into a Main Street store full of diverse textiles, jewelry, buttons, scarves and treasures from around the world."
"Finding exquisite fabrics brought me great joy, and along the way it gathered a following of wonderful, creative customers who shared that joy with me," she wrote, encouraging people to come and see her before her last day on Dec. 31. "I would love to thank you for supporting me in my journey to bring special fabrics to this special town."
O'Connor and Downtown Brattleboro Alliance Executive Director Stephanie Bonin said it is sad to see those businesses leave despite the recent arrival of new establishments. Bonin noted there was fear that vacant storefronts would not be filled.
"Ignoring all of that, I mean, yes we are thrilled and excited to have all of this new energy and new businesses come into the community," she said. "And Elliot Street continues to have this vibrant theme going."
In September, Life Is Sweet Candy Store opened at 2 Elliot St., where Windham Movement Apparel had been.
"It's going to be interesting to learn the different rhythm of Brattleboro versus Keene," said Tracy Keating, who has owned the candy shop known as Life is Sweet in Keene, N.H., for about 14 years. "It's definitely a work in progress, but you put candy in there and you can't go wrong, I don't think."
O'Connor said it is nice to see a Keene business expand into Brattleboro.
In the middle of September, Mary Freihofner opened Advanced Skin Care Solutions on the second floor of 17 Elliot St. She had run a successful business with the same name in Philadelphia for 15 years. She said she loves Elliot Street and Vermont, and enjoys the architecture and character of businesses of the neighborhood as well as the fresh air, trees and hikes in the community.
The artist-run Harmony Collective opened at 49 Elliot St. in mid-October as the neighboring ArtRageUs is set to close by the end of the year.
"We sat around the table and we just kept making it happen," said Kay Curtis, coordinator of Harmony Collective.
Artists take turns running the front desk. They each pay a membership fee, contribute to rent and provide 10 percent of their proceeds to keeping the gallery going.
Gayle Weitz, owner and manager of ArtRageUs, is now helping at Harmony Collective.
"Our 60-plus members lead busy lives and find it difficult to find time to clerk the store, and I am weary of the clerking," she told the Reformer about the decision to close ArtRageUs on Dec. 29. "I too want to make art."
Gershom Moore of Brattleboro told Curtis he had been wondering who would occupy the space next. He said restaurants were not working out there.
"Thank you, guys," he said while complimenting the gallery's art and feel.
Bonin described the gallery as "beautiful," and "a new vision on what a collective can really look like and can be." She said about three or four restaurants had previously been housed in the location.
"I'm a strong believer in creating a blank space and starting anew," she said. "That opens the door for something really exciting to happen."
Her group does not have a direct role in recruiting new businesses but promotes the downtown through different initiatives. Bonin said the energy and vibe downtown are factors someone considers when deciding if they want to take the risk in opening something new. She described the story of Ellen Abraham's Burning Heart LLC taking over what had previously home to Bhava Yoga Center to offer her own brand of yoga, as "phenomenal."
"She's followed by many and she saw the opportunity of this space that was already a yoga studio," Bonin said of 21 Elliot St.
Abraham opened the studio in October and told the Reformer, "It just feels like the ultimate blessing to have stewardship of this space, to have clientele that I had 15 years ago. And we're completely ready and waiting for people who haven't been to this space."
Home Farm Family Medicine opened in September. Dr. Jeremy Morrison, who has been working for the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Medical Group's Putney Family Healthcare, called it "fun" having his own office downtown.
"I mean, it's hard for me not to get sucked into the bookstore or whatever," he said. "It's a nice town."
In early December, Dosa Kitchen is moving from a food truck operation at the Retreat Farm to a storefront at 34 Elliot St. The Indian restaurant will share space with Peter Havens Restaurant, replacing a deli that had been run by the restaurant called Peter Havens Fine Provisions.
Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts is moving its gallery to space purchased from the Simon family, who owns Candle in the Night. The artists previously occupied the downstairs area in the Main Street building.
The other half of the space, where Candle in the Night is running its going-out-of-business sale, was purchased by IDDS, an entity owned by state Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Windham-1, and David Snyder, who operates Guilford Sound, a recording studio.
"It's very exciting, what's happening with the creative pulse downtown," said Petria Mitchell, gallery co-owner. "That's one of the reasons we feel really confident about putting a lot of our resources into this."
In Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts' former gallery space in the basement, Daniel Chiaccio is setting up First Proof Press, a membership printmaking studio. In the back of the building is the In-Sight Photography Project, which offers photography courses at the introductory, intermediate and advanced levels for students ages 11 to 18.
"At First Proof Press, I hope to accommodate all artists, no matter their skill level and allow for many different membership levels to fit any budget," Chiaccio said.
Donna Simons said she and her husband had been talking about selling the space for years but did not want to sell to just anybody.
"We wanted something that would be good for downtown, not something that just occupied space and didn't contribute to the vibrancy of downtown," she said. "The trend right now for downtowns is art, entertainment, specialty retail and restaurants."
Brattleboro Center Stage, in the basement of the Brooks House on where the Mole's Eye Cafe used to be, is set to join a list of entertainment venues on Main Street such as The Stone Church and Epsilon Spires.
Pretty In Ink is now taking appointments at The Void at 109 Main St. Adrianne Vivenzio is trained for cosmetic tattooing, which she described as permanent makeup. She can help with eyebrows, eyeliner and lip tints/blush.
"I basically implant pigment into the skin to enhance your natural features," she explained.
Appointments can be made by calling or text messaging 802-579-9255 or emailing email@example.com. Vivenzio also is looking for a full-time body artist and will be having guest artists working out of the space.
"I already have one from Orlando coming at the end of January," she said.
Also new to Main Street is Patio Coffee, which Bonin called "a nicely done coffee cart" in the alleyway between Renaissance Jewelry and Gallery in the Woods.
O'Connor said there was a time when all the businesses closing were new.
"They were just starting out," she said. "Now, we have a whole bunch of businesses who will hopefully have the lifetime that Candle in the Night had, 40 something years. Delectable Mountain Cloth, she has been there forever."
O'Connor said it would be great if all the new businesses inspired others to take over empty storefronts.
"The more vibrant it is," she added, "the more business owners will take the risk."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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