Directions: (about an hour from Williamstown) Take Rte. 2 east toward North Adams for 40.5 miles; take I-91 south toward Springfield for 17.1 miles; take Exit 26 at Northampton.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and the sidewalks are still comfortably busy – not packed with the bustling urban panic of elbows and clicking shoes, but alive. The stores are still open, the restaurants are still full, and no one looks as though they’re going home any time soon.
Located in the center of the “Five Colleges” area, Northampton is a typical college town, but it possesses the panache and style of small town mingled with an undercurrent of artsy sophistication. The town is central to the cluster of schools made up of Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, and U-Mass Amherst.
In so many small towns, the people out at night are the sort of people who only go out at night. The people on the sidewalks of Northampton are not all such tattooed, rebellious 20-year-olds with exciting piercings and hair colors, although a welcome number of such individuals do appear. No, the view more shocking than any body art is the number of people out who could pass for parents of college students. They aren’t visiting parents, though. They are businesspeople, parents with small children, professors, and other community members, simply out enjoying their town. So refreshing is it to see these two groups out at the same time, enjoying the same space.
Northampton imparts a successful blend of college and community, wherein the town gains from the student populace, but does not become a mere extension of campus. The town has a sense of independence, of being something more than just a string of college hangouts.
The streets are riddled with earthy-chic boutiques offering the hemp clothing, incense holders, tapestries, and jewelry that the stereotypical undergraduate student subsists upon, but the options don’t end with this vapid array of mainstream college kitsch. On either side of the wide main thoroughfare are bookstores (both used and new), a gourmet chocolates shop, a pottery shop, a number of small art galleries and an old-fashioned movie theatre.
More significant than the content of the shops, though, is the attribute that should be underscored again and again: It was 8 p.m. and the stores were all open.
And the restaurants were all full. Many places even presented diners with the inconvenient, though refreshing, condition of a 20-minute wait to be seated. Just knowing that there were so many other people out eating a late dinner on a Saturday makes any wait wholly worthwhile.
There is of course the requisite Starbuck’s, but for those who prefer a little more charm with their chai, there are a number of small, non-franchised coffee houses. One spot in particular is a quite literal hole-in-the-wall down a side street. Fire and Water is a vegetarian cafÃ© and coffee bar. In addition to all the gustatory delights (including vegan baked-goods, soy/rice milk options in all coffee drinks, and trendy little Paul Newman chocolates), the small establishment offers live music of the folksy, grassroots variety. At times it is quite deserving of the dump-truck-full of tips passed around at the end of the show.
At nearly midnight, Northampton still has not transformed into a dark and sleepy little town. The stores have closed, but the life remains.
Merely an hour from Williamstown, Northampton offers enough excitement for an evening excursion. The busy sidewalks and the friendly chatter offer that small but needed reminder that the rest of the world is still there, that it is a big place and that we can visit when we need to.