BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — “Between Hurricane Irene and the Brooks House fire, our downtown has sustained some big hits lately,” said Jan Norris, owner of the Delectable Mountain fabric store on Main Street.
The key word is “sustained.” Despite the double wallop in 2011 — in April a fire gutted the historic Brooks House, which makes up an entire block anchoring the north end of the street, followed in August by the flooding of lower-elevation streets after Irene — this resilient city of 12,000 doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. The hardships, economic and otherwise, wrought by these catastrophes are still very real. Yet on a bright winter Saturday, crowded sidewalks signal a vitality that many small cities would envy in any season.
Part of downtown’s appeal lies in Brattleboro’s pride of place, which includes not only its geography, but also its reputation as an arts-and-culture capital. Though that previously conjured the flash of tie-dye and a whiff of patchouli oil, in recent years the city has shed the dated baggage and hung onto a timeless vision: a destination that capitalizes on creativity, originality, and history. For example, in the Delectable Mountain Cloth — its name paraphrases a line in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — two women fingering a bolt of fine pale fabric say that they have driven up from Brookline, Mass. “I discovered this place when I was going to college in this area,” says Andrea Burns, who enjoys returning with her mother, Anne Burns, in tow. “It gives me a great excuse to come back here.”
The unique store, which sells rare natural-fiber textiles and buttons that could pass for jewels, was one of the businesses that ushered in a downtown renaissance in the 1970s, when back-to-the-landers and artists like Norris — a painter, dressmaker, and quilt maker — migrated to the area. Within a streetscape of late-Victorian commercial buildings sandwiched between the Connecticut and West rivers, they opened galleries, bookstores, clothing boutiques, coffee shops, outdoor equipment stores, pubs, and restaurants. Even though many of the individual businesses have changed, the overall mix of retail still reflects the artistic influx of that time.
Even the bakery a few doors up on Main Street does double duty as a gallery: Amy’s Bakery Arts Cafe serves espresso drinks, pastries, pizza, and sandwiches in a narrow storefront. Inside, the aroma of pastry dough melding with fig preserves in a hot oven hangs in the air, and the heat steams the windows on the street. Tables in the back look out on the wooded banks of the Connecticut River, with the slope of Wantastiquet Mountain rising from the opposite shore, in Chesterfield, N.H.
The rivers and the dome of the mountain forming a backdrop behind the east side of Main Street lend the downtown a folksy character. In the past these geographical advantages gave Brattleboro strategic importance as a fort settlement and economic significance as a shipping port. Today they make the area a popular destination for hiking and paddling. Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters (also on Main Street) is the central resource for all things outdoorsy. Hikers can find maps to in-town recreation trails online, including one showing the nearly 9 miles of public trails on the campus of the Brattleboro Retreat, a hospital on the shore of the West River that treats mental illness and addiction, and the Living Memorial Park Trail, west of Interstate 91, which touts snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Fort Dummer State Park, site of the first English settlement in what is now the state of Vermont, lies just southwest of downtown.
Roughing it, however, is not a requirement. Since 1938 the Art Deco Latchis Hotel and Theatre has offered stylish hospitality and entertainment at the corner of Main and Flat streets. The lobbies in both the hotel and the theater (a three-screen cinema) boast gleaming terrazzo floors with brass inlay, and the hotel guest rooms contain period furnishings. The main downstairs theater holds a sumptuous display of “Greco Deco” bas reliefs, fountains, statuary, and murals. The figures of the Greek zodiac march in a wide circle on the theater lobby floor and float overhead on the painted-silk ceiling in the spectacular downstairs theater. The nonprofit arts organization that has owned the hotel and theater for the past decade has invested more than $1.8 million to buff up its one-of-a-kind premises.
Two galleries anchor each end of Main Street. On the north it’s Gallery in the Woods, a quirky and fascinating venue that opened in 1998. It bills its wares as “Visionary Art, Surrealist Art, World Folk Art and Fine Craft.” At the opposite end of the street the Vermont Artisan Designs Gallery sells fine art and contemporary American crafts in all media, made by artists and artisans in Vermont and elsewhere in New England. Established 40 years ago, this gallery was another successful pioneer in the downtown’s postindustrial comeback. Smaller shops with more specialized crafts beckon from the side streets in this ultimately walkable downtown.
Art lovers can check the latest exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, a non-collecting institution that continually freshens its exhibits. The center is housed in the 1915 Union Station depot building on Vernon Street.
Mocha Joe’s Coffee House and Coffee Roasters is cut into the slope above the Latchis block. Steps descend to this basement hideout for aging hippies and young hipsters. The lightning-quick barristas serve a perpetually backed-up line that overflows the stairs onto the sidewalk.
Eight area colleges ensure that pubs and bars are not in short supply. More than 30 restaurants cover virtually all price points and cuisines, from sushi to brick-oven pizza.
The revolution ushered in by the baby boomers is now part of history, and visitors may find the fading emblems of granola culture as quaint as the Victorian “water cures” that once lured city dwellers to the health resorts in town. But as long as historic preservation remains a priority here, the counterculture of the past will compose a significant stratum of all that underpins the city.
Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at brown