Photographed by Daria Bishop.
Gary Smith likes to talk about connections. As a prolific music producer who helped shape the rise of alternative rock in the ’80s, working with such artists as the Pixies, Throwing Muses and many others, Smith’s solid connections allowed him to uproot his business from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and move it in 2002 to Bellows Falls. The one-square-mile village of about 3,500 residents on the Connecticut River was not an obvious location for a commercial music studio, but it appealed to Smith. “Bellows Falls is a town of connections,” he said, “where river meets train and train meets road. I just fell in love with that.”
Bellows Falls also captivated Smith in other ways. “It has the most beautiful architectural collection,” he said, referring to the Italianate, Romanesque and Queen Anne buildings that radiate out from an extra-wide Main Street called “the square.” Dating back to the paper mill boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s, these buildings earned the downtown a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, but they also serve as time-worn symbols of yet another New England mill town struggling to reclaim economic vitality. Even that challenge proved a draw for Smith. “There is community zeal here, a core group of people who each in his or her way is bringing the arts and artisanal work to this community to give it new life,” Smith said. “It’s small enough where you can make a difference.” He set up a music venue and recording space in a roomy corner of the Georgian Revival–style former Windham Hotel and got down to work with artists like Natalie Merchant and Juliana Hatfield. Beyond his music space, much of the building “was shuttered, the ceilings collapsed,” he recalled.
Then, a couple of years ago, Smith reinvented himself. He became a founding partner of Popolo, a new restaurant on the square. The music industry veteran, who turns 57 this spring, wasn’t looking to get into another notoriously fickle business, but the Windham Hotel had been bought by a partnership of local owners: Tony Elliott, Jay Eshelman and Erik Leo, founders of Sovernet, the Internet and telecommunications company headquartered just down Main Street, and Alan and Pat Fowler, proprietors of an independent bookstore located at one end of the hotel building. The group undertook a major renovation and set its sights on a restaurant as anchor tenant next door to Smith’s music studio. A popular downtown restaurant had been destroyed by fire in 2006. “It left not only a hole in the street, it left a hole in the village,” Alan Fowler said. “We all really suffered. We knew we needed a restaurant again.”
Restaurants and cafés have a power to draw people and energy into the heart of embattled small towns. While a variety of innovative music and art initiatives over the last two decades had gradually eased Bellows Falls away from its reputation as “the armpit of Vermont,” in the words of pioneering local community activist Robert McBride, downtown had not quite become the village’s social center that McBride and others hoped it could be. “I don’t want Bellows Falls to be just an arts community, I want it to be a real community,” McBride said. On the retail side, storefronts had stabilized. Two generations of the Haskins family own and operate the hardware store, which has gradually expanded in the last few years and added more everyday items, so that basics like nails and warm socks do not require a highway trip. “We serve everyone, and the more foot traffic downtown, the better for us,” said Jeremy Haskins, 34. On the flip side, savvy travelers were coming to Bellows Falls to shop at Michael Bruno’s newly established Windham Antique Center, “and then they needed somewhere to eat lunch or dinner,” said Bruno, a 34-year-old originally from Long Island.
Combining with established businesses, new players were creating momentum. “Change doesn’t always come from within,” said Francis Walsh, development director for the town of Rockingham, which includes the village of Bellows Falls as its central business district. “It takes the next generation and it takes outsiders. They’ve moved here because they want to be here. We need young people in town. They bring the enthusiasm and the energy.”
Communities also need to provide good jobs, of course, and there has been progress. Walsh lists local companies like Sovernet; Chroma Technology Corp., a manufacturer of optical filters for biotech companies; Vermed, a medical device company; and Sonnax, which produces auto parts. These firms both need and feed a vibrant dining scene. When Chroma founder Paul Millman decided to move his company to Bellows Falls from Brattleboro several years ago, he recalled, “The very first question from an employee was, ‘But where will we eat?’ ” Millman, who had previously worked in the food business, knew the dynamic: “A town without quality food service is doomed. It’s a vital part of any community, but the community has to be able to support it.”
Smith was fully aware of the challenges and many roles a successful small-town restaurant needs to play. Popolo means “people,” he’s quick to explain, saying that the goal was to provide a draw for both locals and visitors, “a community hub,” a place where everyone feels comfortable and can find something to enjoy: from a Vermont beer with a simple red sauce pizza or Green Mountain “wonder” burger to a creative cocktail followed by a monkfish special with roasted cauliflower, lentils and saffron cream. Two-plus years in, Smith has concluded that the restaurant business isn’t all that different from the music business. “This is still about sharing the arts. Culinary arts are key,” he said, sitting at one of Popolo’s window tables with one of his partners, chef John-Michael Maciejewski, who had previously worked for the highly regarded Burdick’s group in nearby Walpole, New Hampshire. “I work talent. I connect people to talent. He’s talent,” Smith said, nodding over to the chef.
Popolo’s big windows glow warmly out onto the square on a damp, grey day, and a brick-walled bar anchors the high-ceilinged dining room full of friendly, knotty pine booths with one long “community table” down the center of the room. Carefully crafted replicas of 1939 WPA murals depicting Vermont country scenes hang on the walls, a historic example, Smith explained, of another project that “brought art to the people.” Smith’s original music studio was converted into expanded dining and event space for the restaurant, but he still stages concerts there occasionally. The refurbished Bellows Falls Opera House is right across the street, which also creates synergy between the restaurant, the arts and the community. “It’s all about connections,” Smith said with a smile. “We have farmers coming in one door. Musicians in another door. Diners in another. We connected with about 25 investors to make this happen. Connections are what we do.”
After the launch of Popolo in late spring 2012, two more food and drink establishments — Valley Café and the Flat Iron Exchange — opened on the square in Bellows Falls. “The food scene is really beginning to pick up,” said Walsh. “If I were mayor, I’d say, ‘Let’s focus on the really good eateries.’ They will bring people here.”
At the Valley Café, located in the heart of Bellows Falls in the Rockingham Town Hall building, natural wood counters are paired with crayon-toned walls and whimsically mismatched furniture to provide a warm and wholesome atmosphere. A mix of artists, parents with toddlers and local businesspeople stop by for such menu items as meatloaf sandwiches made with local beef, grilled sweet potato burritos, Green Mountain salad, and PB&J smoothies.
The café is run by husband and wife Krissie, 27, and Drew Pelletier, 24, (with some assistance behind the counter by their 3-year-old, Ella). Drew grew up nearby in Chester, where he met Krissie, a Long Island native, when the pair were employed at neighboring restaurants. Eventually the couple purchased a natural foods market in Bellows Falls, called Valley Provisions, and gradually shaped a new identity for the enterprise as a café. Though the work is hard, Krissie says, “it’s really rewarding. We want to be here.”
Drew says the couple is also looking at the bigger picture, “and it seems like now is a good time to be down here. We’re in it to grow sustainable communities.”at the other end of the square sits the Flat Iron Exchange coffeehouse, operating in a unique wedge of a building that has long drawn attention. Community arts activist McBride sold the building in 2013 to Jana Bryan, 43, who lives upstairs with her partner, Mark Kenney, 51, and their blended family of teenagers. The couple, who met while living and working in Chester, did not plan to open a coffeehouse — he is a retired funeral director; she is a landscape architect — but Bryan said, “As soon as I moved here, people kept telling me they loved this building. I said I should sell tickets. It felt like a community space already.”
Their plan to make the first floor into a coffeehouse — serving locally roasted espresso, hot chocolate, and baked goods from area home bakers — was met with skepticism by even the most diehard Bellows Falls fans like McBride. “I said, ‘That ain’t gonna work,’ ” he recalled, shaking his head. But the couple plowed ahead and opened the doors of the Exchange in April of last year, installing a long counter under the original pressed-tin ceiling, carving out a small stage with burnished cappuccino-colored velvet curtains and arranging lots of comfy seating on the wide wood plank floors. Rotating local art graces the walls, and the whole space feels both urban-hip and as comfortable as your grandmother’s house. “You might see the same kind of place in Jamaica Plain,” observed Walsh, referring to the trendy but still slightly gritty neighborhood in Boston.
The coffeehouse opens at 6 a.m. and there are sometimes people waiting outside, Bryan said. Throughout the day, a variety of people come through to sit with a coffee and pastry and their laptop, plink out a tune on the upright piano, do homework or meet friends or business associates. In the evenings, community groups hold meetings and there are weekly poetry readings, knitting and spinning groups, and on Fridays, an informal jam session where more than a dozen people play music together. Bellows Falls resident Gregory Dow, a regular at the knitting group, said, “You need all kinds of commerce downtown for a town to thrive. A town has to have lots of things going on or it gets hollowed out.”
Coffee sales at the Exchange have far exceeded expectations, as have the uses community members have found for the space. “They made a real commitment, and it’s become a meeting place for all different ages,” McBride said. “It really fit a social and cultural need, and I think it’s also a testament to the level Bellows Falls has come to. Even a year ago it might have failed.”
“It’s not just a place to buy coffee,” agreed local lawyer Ray Massucco, whose family first set down roots in the area in the 1750s. Massucco has been involved in repeated cycles of downtown renewal since he returned to Bellows Falls after law school in the early 1970s. But finally, he said, “It looks like this combination of music, art and food is bringing people in. It’s really blossomed in the last five or so years. This thing has taken off like nobody expected.”