Until recently, Worcester represented the past to me. It was the long-ago place where my mother-in-law, Pam, spent her childhood. She’d told me tidbits about that phase — about working at the art museum as a teen, exposed to Andy Warhol exhibits and film. It was formative and put her on a path to the Rhode Island School of Design and a fashion job near the nation’s capital.
After moving to Boston from D.C. as newlyweds, my husband brought me to see her old street and his grandparents’ graves. He shared stories of Thanksgiving trips and a vague memory of a Swedish bakery beloved by him as a boy. Unsure where else to go and with nothing enticing us to stay, he drove us back to the South End before dinner, and I figured that was that.
So imagine my surprise to start reading about Worcester’s renaissance. Rooting for the PawSox to remain in Rhode Island — where we lived at one point and Pam returns for alumni events — I assumed the boom was overhyped. It took an unexpected detour to show me the city’s charms, which are real and worth experiencing.
I wound up in Worcester this winter, following a morning of skiing with a friend and our sons at Wachusett Mountain. Call it fate or a bad sense of direction, but I’d been paying more attention to our conversation than the Highlander’s navigation system. Kelly had just been telling me about an Instagram for a shop in the city’s Canal District.
It happened to be a mile away, so we stopped. I quickly realized Worcester had upped its game. Described as a plant and lifestyle boutique, Seed to Stem looked like it belonged in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill — forget Beacon Hill. We spun through the succulents as our patient fourth-graders lingered in their long johns.
With more time to explore, we went again this rainy spring. Seed to Stem, it turns out, operates in a bustling building that once housed a loom manufacturer and that embodies the city’s changes. In fact, the store is only one reason to hop in the car on a summer weekend and head west to Crompton Place.
“Our Worcester is pretty much these four blocks,” co-owner Kristian Solfiell said while ringing me up, describing it as “Brooklyn of 2000” and dressing the part with sunglasses hooked to a neckerchief. With its popular bars and restaurants, the district has become a destination.
Seed to Stem moved into its current location in October, expanding its offerings. The space, awash in white, green, and beige, felt both calming and cool as the Alabama Shakes sang from the speakers on our visit. Kelly and I perused the natural decor and terrariums, putting plants, candles, and national park posters in wire baskets.
From there, we walked across the hall to Bedlam Book Cafe, which opened in November. The cozy store sells used copies and remainders from the familiar to the unexpected with one section devoted to “miscellaneous printed matter.” Kelly paid for a book on beer-can collecting as I eyed spirals titled “Je Me Souviens La Cuisine,” settling for French press coffee from the juice bar.
That’s not all. In other parts of the building, shoppers can browse antiques at the Crompton Collective, find Free People blouses at Haberdash, and eat at busy BirchTree Bread Company, where we had a lunch of salad and wine. I also bought a bottle of local sriracha, bringing Brooklyn back to mind, as did the many versions of toast.
Sure to further satisfy hipsters, a food hall and lofts are coming to the same street. That development is next to the seven-way intersection in Kelley Square, best known for its darting traffic and gas stations. Even that landmark of sorts will soon see improvements, thanks to the stadium being built for the new baseball team.
Throwbacks do remain, like the tiny Table Talk pie I purchased for 50 cents around the corner. “It’s affordable,” Solfiell explained of Worcester, adding, “People can come and start things.” Meaning, they don’t have to leave to chase their dreams. I already returned, Instagram paving the way.
If you go . . .
Seed to Stem (138 Green St., Suite 3, Worcester; 508-890-0933; www.seedtostemhome.com)
Bedlam Book Cafe (138 Green St., Suite 1, Worcester; 508-459-1400; bedlambookcafe.com)
BirchTree Bread Company (138 Green St., Suite 5, Worcester; 774-243-6944; www.birchtreebreadcompany.com)