This column was originally published in The Montague Reporter.
As is the case for many people in the area, The Montague Bookmill complex has been one of my family’s most beloved destinations in the Pioneer Valley. Before COVID, we would regularly go book hunting at the Bookmill and eat lunch at the Lady Killigrew. I’d sneak off to buy records at Turn it Up. Our kids would look at the waterfall while my wife and I bought gifts at Sawmill River Arts. More than anything, we miss date nights at The Alvah Stone, when we’d leave the kids at home with a babysitter and have some adult time.
Last spring, when I rode my bike up from Amherst with a friend, we found the entire complex empty. All the businesses were closed because of the COVID pandemic. As we sat alone on The Alvah Stone’s deserted deck having a mid-ride break, it felt post-apocalyptic. We jokingly worried that zombies were going to round the corner and get us.
I returned a few times later in the summer when the businesses in the complex began re-opening. Curious about how they’ve been doing ever since, I spoke with several of their owners to see how they survived and are planning to move forward now that Governor Charlie Baker has eased most COVID restrictions. (Attempts to reach the owners of the Alvah Stone restaurant and Lady Killigrew café received no response as of press time.)
Starting May 29, Massachusetts will lift almost all face mask requirements, and most businesses will be allowed to resume operating at 100 percent capacity. Baker made this decision because Massachusetts leads the country in vaccination rates. According to the state’s interactive COVID-19 data dashboard, there have been no new deaths from COVID-19 in Hampshire or Franklin counties for at least a month, which is as far back as the site shows that information.
In March 2020, when Baker declared a state of emergency, all of the businesses in the Bookmill complex closed. “It was rough,” says Susan Shilliday, owner of The Bookmill. “It was the only time The Bookmill closed for an extended period since it opened in 1987.” She worried about the financial hit that she knew her business would take. To keep The Bookmill running in some capacity, she and her daughter took orders over the phone and email, shipping books to their loyal customers who preferred to buy locally rather than through online retailers.
Christine Mero, founding member of the Sawmill River Arts Gallery, described how the co-op gallery members also responded with distress and then resilience. Rather than close completely, the members created fanciful window displays with art-packed gift bags that people could buy, “reinventing the idea of window shopping,” she says.
Patrick Pezzatti, owner of Turn it Up Records, had to close all three of his store locations, in Montague, Northampton, and Brattleboro, Vermont. When he decided to reopen in early summer, he and his daughter were the only people working at the Brattleboro store. “Many of my employees were hesitant to come back at first,” he says, “But they almost all returned. We only had one employee not come back to work. Now they’re all vaccinated.” All three locations were open by the summer with limited capacity.
By last summer the other businesses in The Bookmill complex had also reopened. Pezzati describes the new safety measures Turn it Up had to put into place, including plexiglass screens and contactless payment. “We had to quarantine the used records that people were trying to sell us for three days,” he says, “given the fear of surface transmission. We even had customers leave records they were using at our listening stations in a special ‘to-be-cleaned’ bin.”
The Bookmill, which also sells items that customers love to put their hands on, had similar policies. Both businesses relaxed these practices as the transmission of the virus became better understood.
The Bookmill complex business owners I spoke to all said that the bright spot during COVID has been their customers. “We didn’t consider closing,” says Shilliday. “We have a loyal following and we just knew people would come back. I’ve been so touched by how grateful people have been since we’ve reopened. It’s been really special and not something that I’ve ever encountered before in my professional life – to know how much the business I run matters to people.”
Pezzatti concurs. “The customers have been fantastic. We lost money early in the pandemic, but business has been ticking up lately. We have lots of older people coming in to sell their records, who are really surprised that young people still want to buy vinyl.”
None of the retail businesses have decided yet how they will handle the state’s lifting of COVID restrictions. Pezzati says Turn it Up will be very cautious. He is planning to keep their capacity at 50 percent to ease his employees’ anxiety, and will continue to have an indoor mask requirement despite the federal and state guidance. Neither The Bookmill nor Sawmill River Art has decided on what their policies will be once restrictions are lifted.
As of Memorial Day, The Bookmill will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Sawmill River Arts is open Thursdays through Mondays 11 to 5. Turn it Up is open noon to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays. I look forward to getting back to all of these, and the restaurants as well.
I’m sure the crowds that will return this summer will keep all the zombies at bay.