WILLIAMSTOWN - Visitors to this year's Summer Sundays kickoff on July 7 may have noticed some changes on Spring Street. The Clark Art Institute's newsstand and reading room, Extra! opened on July 2, along with the town's new tourist information booth. Local residents may also have felt the absence of Ephporium Market and the Williams Newsroom, which recently ended their leases with Williams College.
One notable development in the downtown area is the emergence of "pop-ups," or temporary stores, a phenomenon that is popular in many cities, but new to Williamstown. The idea is based on a mutual relationship between the tenant and landlord, where business owners sign a short-term lease that allows them to engage in a low-risk business endeavor.
The first pop-up in Williamstown was Lickety Split, which moved into the college-owned Dennison Gate House in 2012 and operates on a seasonal basis. El Conejo Corredor, the town's first taco truck, which hopped around Spring Street in 2011 and 2012, was also something of a pop-up. Brian Cole, who started that business after graduating from Williams in 2011, worked closely with the college on everything from recipes to finding an industrial kitchen to work out of.
The School for Style, a clothing and accessories boutique that occupies the former McClelland's stationery shop, opened on June 19. Anne Kennedy, the store's co-owner with Wit McKay, had the idea for the pop-up after learning about Lickety Split's agreement with the college.
Kennedy also works as a costume designer for regional theaters around the country. Her original idea, she said, was to ask Williams if she could rent a storefront window where she could arrange displays as a creative outlet - something she had been doing for the Browns clothing store on Water Street before it closed in December 2012.
"And the more I thought about it, the idea morphed into an environment that could sort of be a curated design lab," she said. As a newcomer to town (she and McKay moved from New York City in 2010) Kennedy said she was "happy to be here but wanting a little more liveliness and energy on the street. And it's really great to be able to contribute to that."
The street's several empty storefronts even before Ephporium and the Newsroom closed were partly what inspired Williams to begin offering short-term leases for business owners like Kennedy and McKay.
"The response from the community has been so supportive," Kennedy said. "That has been so gratifying for me People popping in just to say that they're happy I'm here."
Fred Puddester, vice president for finances at Williams, explained that the college's investment in Spring Street (it owns most of the buildings on the north side of the street) is less a matter of profiting than of creating a vibrant downtown that will benefit students, faculty, staff and the local community.
In terms of the pop-up ventures, he said, the benefit is in making use of empty storefronts and creating more traffic on Spring Street, while at the same time allowing the college to continue bringing in rent from its properties.
"Our goal is vitality on Spring Street," he said. "And for the merchant it's a great way to test [a new idea] out without making a huge commitment to a long-term lease. So I think it's a win-win."
Williams College is not the only local institution that stands to benefit from a vibrant downtown. On July 2, the Clark Art Institute opened Extra! a pop-up newsstand and reading room in the building where Lickety Split once was, and where Tony Sombrero's Mexican Restaurant and the Barbara Prey gallery recently moved in.
That building is owned by Crimson Peak LLC, which owns several business and residential properties on Spring Street.
"This whole thing came together literally in the last few weeks," said Vicki Saltzman, director of communications at the Clark. The project was undertaken by Rachelle Jones, the museum's retail manager, who also is involved in organizing the two museum shops in the Clark's new Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center.
"The Clark has long thought about creating some sort of a presence on Spring Street. But this summer we thought it was an opportune moment to create a shop here that would provide a service that doesn't exist right now on the street."
When the Newsroom closed, the nearest place in town to buy newspapers was Cumberland Farms on Route 2. Extra! also carries a variety of international papers, including Shanghai Daily and the Guardian Weekly, and visitors can relax on a couch in the back room, where a selection of books from the Clark's museum shop are available.
"We just see EXTRA as an extension of what we're doing on South Street - both through reaching out to international audiences and offering a pretty great shopping experience," Saltzman said.
June 2 also marked the official opening of Williamstown's new tourist information booth. Organized by the Clark, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mass MoCA, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, the booth offers an additional bridge between town residents and visitors and local institutions. Each day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. the booth will be staffed by a representative from one of the partnering groups.
Jennifer Civello, director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, who works closely with the four organizations, believes that Extra! represents the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that is needed for local business districts to thrive. The project meets the town's challenges twofold, she said.
"It brings newspapers back to Spring Street, because people were upset that the Newsroom had closed But it also brings a little piece of the Clark over here because their biggest problem is getting people from Spring Street over to the Clark. So now this is just a natural conduit for that kind of change."
While many people are concerned about what the recent changes will mean for the future of Spring Street, she said, Extra! is a perfect example of how to make the most of a new situation. She added that "School for Style is a perfect example of the college working with a tenant to make things happen."
The tourism booth (also in a college-owned building) shares some of the qualities of the pop-ups, in that it is an experiment, with the goal of benefitting businesses, institutions, visitors and local residents. It will also allow the Chamber to better gauge the needs of the community.
"It's definitely a pilot project," Civello said. "We're finding out what people's needs are, what our visitors are asking for."