Northampton Fights Back from the Pandemic
Northampton has always been the place to be when it comes to good eats, arts, and entertainment. The city boasts more than 100 shops, about 20 restaurants, and multiple music venues for locals and visitors to enjoy year-round.
And it is because its economy is based largely on tourism and hospitality that Northampton suffered as few area communities did during the pandemic, and also why it is still, in many ways, finding its way all the way back from that greatly disruptive time.
The good news, according to those we spoke with, and especially Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, is that the city is moving in the right direction, in part by providing things for people to do and reasons to venture out.
“We’re just trying to encourage people every way we can, and every time that we’ve created opportunities for people to come out and be together, like we brought back the Taste of Northampton … people really, really enjoy them,” she said. “And it’s just getting people to take that step, too, to come out.”
Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, agreed, noting that, historically, Northampton has attracted large numbers of visitors, and for a variety of reasons.
Jackson said the chamber has heard from several business owners that they have reached or exceeded their 2019, pre-pandemic, sales levels, and business activity continues to improve. Some people travel 75 miles or more just for the music entertainment the city has to offer; even with the Iron Horse Music Group venues largely shuttered in recent years, multiple smaller venues have filled the gap.
The city is a place for both adults and kids to have a good time; whether they love the art scene or an independent bookstore, there is something for everyone when they make the trip.
“With all the more serious, sad realities of today, it’s so important that we counter that with opportunities for joy and opportunities for celebration and opportunities for those lighter, happier emotions in life.”
One bookstore that survived and is thriving as it enters the post-pandemic years is High Five Books. It started in 2019 and worked through the pandemic with curbside pickup and individual shopping trips for families.
“I just really wanted a space for families like mine to go and hang out and connect around books and create a community around the reading experience and the book-loving experience; I wanted to have a place for families to connect around reading and stories,” owner Lexi Walters-Wright said. “I also recognized how many authors and illustrators we have living right here in the Valley, and I wanted to be able to showcase their incredible work and also have young people see how work is created and get excited about that for themselves.”
The Bloomery Art Gallery is another thriving local business. It was created by Luc Abbott, who realized how critical it is for people to come together and celebrate one another in a safe space.
“It’s about celebration,” they said. “With all the more serious, sad realities of today, it’s so important that we counter that with opportunities for joy and opportunities for celebration and opportunities for those lighter, happier emotions in life and really create a space that’s dedicated to those moments that feels really pivotal right now.”
Coming together — and the desire to see more of that — is the main goal of Northampton’s business owners and city leaders alike, who see continued progress in the weeks and months ahead as Northampton battles its way back from COVID.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Northampton and some of the businesses that contribute to its eclectic character.
Buy the Book
High Five Books is located right along a bike path and is accessible for kids to walk or bike from school. Parents bring in their younger children after dropping their older ones off at school, or just pass time there during the day, Walters-Wright said.
The space on North Main Street in Florence is shared with Art Always, owned and operated by Lindsey Fogg-Willits, who provides art classes and activities for families in the area that are usually filled after school hours with little creators.
The bookstore portion is filled with shelves of books for all ages. It succeeds because it provides reasons for people to visit — and stay.
“It was always clear from the very beginning that there had to be something very experiential to make it worthwhile for a family to leave the house and not just push ‘add to cart’ on Amazon, but actually put on clothing and drag your family to a space,” she told BusinessWest. “You have to have a reason to do that.”
To keep local kids and families interested, the store and art shop had to be creative, from design/build at-home art kits to events around the area.
At the end of January, High Five Books and Art collaborated with a hair salon and dance studio to host a Sparkle Party, giving families an option to celebrate the creative expression and “awesomeness” of families, Walters-Wright said.
Coming up, High Five Books is also sponsoring the release of Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s new graphic memoir at the Academy of Music in April. As a lover of graphic novels, Walters-Wright is excited to host the book event and even said it was a dream to be at the Academy of Music for it. Krosoczka will bring his new book to life with an unabridged performance for families to enjoy.
Many of the books sold at High Five Books center on social-justice and LGBTQIA+ themes “that just honor the incredible spirit of these young people,” she added. “We’re a community bookstore, and to us, what that means is we are listening directly to the families who come in through our doors and hear what it is they’re looking for so that their kid and their family can feel seen and valued.
“We think that books can be windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors for kids to experience the world that they see and the world that they want to see,” she continued. “And that is something that we don’t take for granted. Being able to provide young readers with books that help them feel seen is a way of encouraging them to be their very best selves in this world and to shape the world in the way that I think we all want to see it, which is wholeheartedly.”
“We think that books can be windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors for kids to experience the world that they see and the world that they want to see.”
Abbott, meanwhile, is looking to accomplish much the same things through the arts.
Besides owning and curating the Bloomery Art Gallery and meeting space, they also run a communications-consulting and marketing-support business called Bloom Local, which helps small businesses and organizations that are mission-driven. It exists as a digital and in-person platform in order to breed connections.
The gallery is open to the public during the Arts Night Out event that Northampton holds the second Friday of each month. Local art lovers are encouraged to walk around the city and see the different art galleries that Northampton has to offer. Abbott said it was a “great discovery channel” for the gallery since it is so new and small. People who don’t know about the Bloomery have the chance to see local art from local artists in the LGBTQIA+ community.
They recalled one show in October that drove the point home. “I was standing in a group of folks in this room, and we all looked around, and somebody said, ‘I’ve never seen so many trans and non-binary people in one room together.’ And my heart just exploded with happiness because that was what I had been craving for a long time,” he explained.
“I just didn’t feel like I had kind of hit that point or found that right community space that felt comfy for me,” they added. “What’s also really beautiful is having folks who aren’t necessarily part of the queer community come in and see the smiles on their faces because they are experiencing something that’s new to them, something that reminds them, maybe, of someone they love.”
Northampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1883
Area: 35.8 square miles
Residential tax rate: $15.84
Commercial tax rate: $15.84
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available
Abbott told BusinessWest that the community was craving more connections after the pandemic, and Arts Night Out allows people to congregate and do the things they loved again.
“We’re coming into a new place here and kind of coming into a new time where we want different things for ourselves as artists,” they said. “We want to thrive more as small-business owners; we want our communities and the thriving of our businesses to ripple out into our communities.”
Smith Botanical Garden is like the Bloomery — it allows students the feedback and community needed to expand on their artwork.
“It’s a really magical thing to see the interactions with students and the general public,” said Tim Johnson, director of the garden, noting that the institution has been around for 130 years, and its purpose has changed dramatically over time from its initial use as a potting room for the college.
“In a lot of ways, I see the botanical garden and the programming we get to do as a love letter to the community,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to provide a lens into an institution that — unless you’re a student at the college or you’re a staff member — it’s really hard to see.
“We’re one of the places on the campus that is quite oriented toward the public,” he went on, “and we can provide a corridor where our students, our faculty, our scholars, and our researchers get to interact with the public and see how their work is received, what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
The Botanical Garden features rotating exhibits throughout the year that guests can enjoy. The garden is ever-changing because of the cycles of the plants stored in the greenhouses. Currently, it is showcasing “Into the Glass House,” and students have work on display in the Lyman Plant House that was inspired by some of the plants at the gardens.
One anticipated event coming back is the Spring Bulb Show, slated for March 4-19. “It’s like a piece of spring when we’re still in the middle of winter,” said Julie Thompson, Communications coordinator for Smith Botanical Gardens. More than 8,000 bulbs are set to bloom this year. Another highly anticipated event, a 100-year-old Smith tradition, is the Fall Mum Show set for November.
Johnson told BusinessWest that the Botanical Gardens allows humans to reconnect with nature. “It’s pretty easy to forget that — we have cell phones; we have airplanes and space travel,” he said. “But everything that we do is utterly dependent on plants, and our relationship and realization of that really has a lot to do with how we approach our world, our natural resources, and each other.”
Clearly, community is important to the city of Northampton as a whole. It allows locals and tourists to reconnect and enjoy the things they love in spaces that were inaccessible for the past few years.
As COVID evolves into a seasonal sickness, Northampton is planning many events in the coming year, from the Back Porch Festival on March 3-5 to the Northampton Jazz Festival in the fall. Overall, there will be many opportunities for people to come into the city and enjoy all it is has to offer.
“I feel like, when people do kind of take that step out of their living room and away from their TVs, they remember just what it’s like to be in an experience and how you can’t get that anywhere else,” Sciarra said. “That’s such a unique experience that can’t be recreated.”