Northampton, Mass.: Where the Alternative Goes Main Street

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page P06

Growing up in western Massachusetts, I frequently wondered why my parents hadn't stopped their wagon in a more interesting destination such as Boston or New York. To quiet my mutterings, they would throw me into the car and drive up Interstate 91 to Northampton. On the ride back, I would be a very content kid, and not just because of the ice cream cone from Herrell's.

Set in the Pioneer Valley on the banks of the Connecticut River, Northampton is by tradition a place of activists, artists, intellects and rainbows. The town's family tree includes Puritan Jonathan Edwards, an agitator of the Great Awakening; Sojourner Truth, the emancipated slave who fought for abolition and women's rights; Sylvester Graham, the dietary visionary who invented the graham cracker; and Calvin Coolidge, who as president signed a law granting full U.S. citizenship rights to Native Americans. "There are remarkable threads through history of socially active, liberal attitudes," said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce.

Those strands are still visible: The town of 30,000 residents, for example, has the highest proportion of lesbians in the country, according to Beck, and in 2000 elected its first lesbian mayor. In addition, the area is buttressed by five colleges and has been a stomping ground for artists and writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Augusten Burroughs ("Running With Scissors").

Downtown Northampton is easy to navigate on foot, especially if you stay on and around Main Street. Here are some starting points for a visit. (For information on travel to Northampton, contact the chamber of commerce at 413-584-1900, or go to


Smith College Museum of Art (Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, 413-585-2760,; $5), a teaching institution, offers a comprehensive lesson in art history, whether you are matriculating or not. "It is one of the best college collections after Yale and Harvard," said museum shop manager Nan Fleming. "We have some really good examples of every period." Those include Renaissance, 19th-century American, 20th-century European and, yes, modern bathroom art. (Two artists have transformed the lower-level men's and ladies' rooms into alluring gallery spaces. Viewing by both sexes is allowed: Just knock loudly before entering.) The museum also holds special exhibits, some of which -- no surprise, given the town it's in -- may spark controversy. On display through April 30: Lauren Greenberg's candid photos of women struggling with anorexia.

Post-viewing, hit the top-notch shop, which sells items that are made of recycled materials or assist struggling communities, such dolls made by Tibetan nuns living as refugees in India.

Headquartered in the 1813 Damon House, the Historic Northampton Museum & Education Center (46 Bridge St., 413-584-6011,; $3) walks guests through time, starting with a dinosaur footprint from the late Triassic period. The narrative also covers antique furniture and fashion, World War II and the town's first gay pride parade nearly 30 years ago. For a field trip, pick up the museum's guide of six walking tours, including Jonathan Edwards's Northampton. "If you are interested in theology," said docent Mary Laliberte, "it's a pilgrimage to come here."

The 30th president started his journey to the White House with baby steps: as mayor of Northampton. The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum (Forbes Library, 20 West St., 413-587-1014,; free) tracks his ascension with such memorabilia as photographs, a silver punch bowl commemorating the heavy cruiser USS Northampton, a Sioux headdress, the oak desk and chair from his Northampton law office and the front-page news of his death, which featured a Northampton dateline. On the way out, support the candidate and grab an "I Voted for Calvin Coolidge" sticker.


The town continually garners awards for being an esteemed arts destination; American Style magazine, for instance, has placed it in its top-25 arts destinations list eight years in a row. On one short stretch of Main Street, you can find Skera (No. 221, 413-586-4563), which carries works by small-studio and independent artists from the United States and Canada; Pinch (No. 179, 413-586-4509), where 40 percent of the pieces are made by local artists, including Jen Smith, who sets her original photographs in jewelry; and Happy Valley (No. 229, 413-586-1661), which focuses on young, up-and-coming artists and fair-trade groups. Across the street at Artisan Gallery (No. 162, 413-586-1942), local artist Mark Brown builds clock robots out of found items such as Altoids tins, cutlery and coffee cans. For more-traditional media, the shop sells pottery of various techniques and clothing that is kind to the Earth and fashion sense. Farther down Main Street, pop into R. Michelson Gallery (No. 132, 413-586-3964) for museum-caliber painters and into Don Muller Gallery (No. 40, 413-586-1119) for objects that add sparkle to fingers and foyers.


Despite its small size, Northampton has a big appetite and a sophisticated palate. Lhasa Cafe (159 Main St., 413-586-5427) is a Tibetan restaurant that prepares yak 10 ways (from $13). Joe's Cafe (33 Market St., 413-584-3168) has Mexican decor and an Italian menu; the two cuisines collide on the Mexican pizza (from $7.50). Find South of the Border cuisine for Tijuana prices at La Veracruzana (31 Main St., 413-586-7181): Grab a 99-cent ground beef or beef tongue taco, then make heavy use of the salsa bar, which features four temperatures of the condiment. Paul and Elizabeth's (150 Main St., 413-584-4832) confounded the community 30 years ago with its vegetarian meals. Now that the shock has worn off, diners happily fill up on chunky hummus served with a whole-wheat roll ($6.75), pan-fried seitan with veggies ($12) and noodles in broth (from $10.95). To quench your thirst, the Northampton Brewery (11 Brewster Ct., 413-584-9903) lays claim to being the oldest operating brew pub in the Northeast. See the machinery, then taste its results: Blue Boots India Pale Ale, Jess' Goodbye Rye IPA, Red Headed Stepchild, etc. The Dirty Truth (29 Main St., 413-585-5999) doesn't serve spirits (only wine and beer), but the brew names are so inviting -- Ten Fiddy, Ridgeway Seriously Bad Elf, Greenflash Hop Head Red -- you won't miss ordering a screwdriver.


Thornes Marketplace (150 Main St.,, a former department store, helped revitalize a flagging downtown when it opened in 1977. "If you mention Northampton, most people know Thornes Market," said Tara Tetreault, co-owner of Jackson & Connor, which moved into the multilevel building in March. "It has a reputation of having unique stores that are long-standing." Her men's clothing store caters to two types: hip, urbane guy and older, stylish man. Elsewhere in the building, you can find head-to-toe women's fashions at 25 Central; Himalayan clothing, art and jewelry at Glimpse of Tibet; books and espresso at Booklink; children's attire and distractions at Cedar Chest Kids and Impish; $9.99 hoodies and 75-cent screwdrivers at Acme Surplus; and decadent flavors such as chocolate pudding and tipsy cake batter at Herrell's, which cold-treat king Steve Herrell opened in 1980.

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