WILLIAMSTOWN -- Over his more than 45 years as a barber on Spring Street, Roger St. Pierre has witnessed several transitions in the life of Williamstown's shopping district, but nothing quite like the changes that are currently underway.
Like many residents and visitors, St. Pierre remembers the days when Spring Street was home to a grocery store, a courthouse, a funeral parlor, a bakery, shoe and clothing stores, and a sporting goods shop. One by one by one, these small-town amenities have disappeared, often replaced by malls, superstores and the Internet.
"I think it's fair to say everyone kind of misses what we all think about as the old Spring Street," St. Pierre said. "But everyone has to realize that this is a different time. People shop differently."
St. Pierre sees the current transition - with several store closures, openings and reorganizations just in the last two years - as the most dramatic yet. One of the main differences, he said, is the degree to which Williams College has taken the lead in revitalizing the downtown area.
An evaluation of the college's 13 or 14 downtown businesses tenants began in 2012, when most of their leases expired. Steve Nesterak, director of real estate at Williams, said he worked directly with each business to determine the best options for the tenant, the college and for the community.
Everyone was given the same options, he said.
Nesterak had hoped the evaluation process would be completed by December 2012, but the target date was extended to March, and then to May, so that tenants could more carefully consider their options.
St. Pierre saw the process as an opportunity to downsize and reduce his hours. He described the change as a "semi-retirement," meaning he will be working 40 hours a week instead of 50 (or 60 as was the case when he was younger). The shop's new hours began last week.
"It's a long time to be doing the same thing," he said, "and I enjoy doing it and I want to keep going for a while longer, but I wanted to shift gears a little bit."
The college originally proposed relocating the shop to the Dennison Gate House at the bottom of Spring Street, but bringing that building up to code proved a serious challenge, so St. Pierre's will likely remain in its current location, at least through the year.
Nesterak said bringing the street's several older buildings up to code has been the college's biggest challenge during the transition.
He said the three or four alternative locations the college is exploring for St. Pierre's are also on Spring Street. St. Pierre's contribution to the community and to the character of the street "were never a question," he said.
The barber shop and the Ephporium Market (which closed in June) shared the ground floor of a historic building that has served many purposes since the 1880s. Nesterak is currently meeting with business owners who are interested in taking over the empty space.
Harts' Pharmacists and The Shops at the Library were among the businesses that chose to change their inventories. Harts' will begin carrying additional stationery and office supplies to help fill in the gaps left by the Newsroom, and The Library will re-stock its central portion with new products.
Denise LaBelle, St. Pierre's colleague of many years, opened her own shop, LaBelle's Clips and Cuts, in Eph's Alley (between Saigon restaurant and the future location of Pera Mediterranean Bistro) in July. Her future daughter in law, Liliana Perez (one of three barbers and cosmetologists in the family), will join her in September.
Nesterak and others at the college said the former owners of the Newsroom and of Ephporium chose to terminate their leases. But others insist that the options given to them by the college amounted to an eviction.
According to LaBelle, who signed a new lease with Mark Paresky (Crimson Peak LLC), the college's initiative has been less collaborative than some believe. She said the Newsroom and Ephporium had no choice but to close.
"The college didn't make anything easy for anybody," she said. "So basically a lot of the businesses here are upset." She added that neither she nor St. Pierre had been pressured by the college to downsize or relocate.
The former owners of the Newsroom and of Ephporium declined to comment.
LaBelle said she remembers the Clip Shop, where she started out more than 30 years ago, and other stores moving from one location on the street to another, but nothing on the scale of the current changes.
"I think now is the biggest change that we are going to see, with everything moving and other places coming in," she said.
Pieces of a puzzle
Williams College has more planned for Spring Street than just a closer relationship with the college tenants. In a letter to faculty and staff in June, Williams College President Adam Falk announced the college's plans to build a New England-style Inn on the street sometime in the future.
"A professional feasibility study confirmed that a hotel of around 60 rooms, located somewhere around where the American Legion building is now, would be profitable," he wrote. "Such a project, of course, would take several years."
(The American Legion chose not to renew their lease, which ends in September.)
Falk also mentioned the interest among "students and others" to use The Log (a college-owned event space that was once a student pub) more frequently, and the possibility of opening it up to community events.
"A third idea is the longstanding one of incorporating Water Street Books into a full college store on Spring Street," he wrote. "This college town is one of the few not to benefit from such a thing."
Nesterak said the college has begun to formally engage members of the community in its efforts to define the future of Spring Street. He mentioned student-led surveys and other activities that have emerged around the topic of Spring Street, including a small-business student competition in 2012.
He said the college's business tenants and community partners (including the Clark, Mass MoCA and the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, which along with the Williams College Museum of Art have partnered together to create and operate the new visitor information booth) will continue to provide input on sales, marketing and local events.
"And that will start to develop a framework on which to build," Nesterak said. "I think all members of the community in the town have been represented in different ways in all of those activities."
But much uncertainty remains. St. Pierre said customers are always asking him about the changes and what the college is planning, but he can't predict the outcome.
"The way I see it is that this is sort of like a great big puzzle board - all the property that the college owns - and they haven't quite yet located all of its pieces or even the shape of those pieces," he said.
"I don't know if they have the answer," he said. "But I think they are trying to put the puzzle back together. And unfortunately, the street that we all loved, it's gone. We're not going to get that Main Street that we once had. But it will be different."