A wave of new businesses are now calling downtown Pittsfield home. They see opportunity in North Street

February 26, 2024 : The Berkshire Eagle, Meg Britton-Mehlisch

PITTSFIELD — Eight new businesses opened on North Street in the last three months and three more are expected to open in the coming weeks.

For the owners of this freshman class of businesses, the city’s much talked about central district isn’t a challenge to be overcome — it’s an opportunity to be capitalized upon.

In the last year, 17 new and 21 existing businesses joined Downtown Pittsfield Inc., according to its managing director Rebecca Brien. The nonprofit’s mission is to promote downtown and increase economic activity. Brien told the city council recently that this has been a banner year.

“We know that the look and feel of downtown is extremely important and have worked very closely with a number of organizations and agencies to help improve where people can shop, dine, play and live in our downtown,” Brien said.

The city, DPI and the MassDevelopment transformative development initiative— a program specifically focused on spurring economic growth in GatewayCities — has poured thousands of dollars into downtown through American Rescue Plan Act funds and state grants over the last year. Those dollars have brought storefront and public space improvements and several new murals to the district.

The increased activity may be evidence of a new hum to the city's downtown.

Here's a glance at some of the new happenings downtown.

146 North St.

Marie’s North Street Eatery and Gallery, located at 146 North St., opened fully last week. It’s a long-awaited milestone for co-owners Neil Davis, the space’s gallerist, and Ashley Marie Mendonca, the head chef. The duo stepped into the space in late 2022 when Maria Sekowski, who owned Maria’s European Delights, announced her retirement and closed shop. Davis and Mendonca had been patrons of the eastern European deli and grocery.

After putting in a lot of work and elbow grease renovating the space, Marie’s North Street Eatery and Gallery began quietly serving up deli classics to downtown customers in late November.

Mendonca learned a lot of the magic behind Sekowski’s menu and took trips with Sekowski to Brooklyn, N.Y., to stock up on some of the “European delights” that made the deli a destination. Mendonca has fostered a growing group of regulars who make lunchtime visits for soup, the salad bar or the sandwiches served on Pittsfield Rye Bread.

While the new deli was finding its flow, Davis was working on the concept for the gallery —envisioning a way to make the“bowling alley”-style entry hallway into something that really sings.

A fortuitous trip to the recently renovated Ruins at Sassafras — a former Shaker settlement turned museum and event space in New Lebanon, N.Y. — landed Davis with a bunch of wooden tabletops, beams and boards. Davis turned the Shaker lumber into frames that, in this first show, hold a host of Berkshire landscapes captured by local photographers. He’s carved out some space in the gallery to showcase scenes from national parks and the gem of his native California — Yosemite.

The end product is a celebration of the space held dear by both of the owners. Maps of old Pittsfield serve as the tabletops and photos of old North Street serve as backdrops to the booth seating.

Davis and Mendonca said they feel like they landed in a great opportunity.

“We’re the epicenter of North Street, which means Pittsfield, which means all of Berkshire County,” Davis said. “I think we’re going to end up doing well here, but time will tell.”

393 North St.

Ashley Davidson, the owner of Thistle ‘n Thorn, said she never thought she’d end up on North Street. When Davidson decided to move her growing floral business from
Lanesborough Local to a new location in Pittsfield, she envisioned a storefront on Wahconah Street.

When push came to shove, the location at 393 North St. was a better deal. “Since I’ve been on North Street, I’ve found it to be nothing but welcoming,” Davidson said. 

“I’m really happy where I am and I’m happy to bring back North Street to what we want it to be,” she said.

Thistle ‘n Thorn’s move to Pittsfield is a homecoming of sorts for Davidson. Born and raised in Pittsfield, Davidson spent most of her life working in restaurants locally and then in Saratoga, N.Y. She started bussing tables at the age of 12.

Davidson thought the restaurant business was going to be her livelihood until she tried her hand at flower arranging — for her own wedding. She began offering her newfound skills to friends and family members and slowly grew her portfolio. When she moved back to the Berkshires several years ago she decided to give her passion a real shot.

Davidson called on her network of friends and connections and soon was designing arrangements for Patrick’s Pub, hosting classes at Zucchini’s, and selling wreaths and bouquets at Balderdash Cellars. Embraced by her community, she set out to put down roots for Thistle ‘n Thorn.

In her new space on North Street, Davidson is a one-woman show. Under a canopy of hanging bay leaves and eucalyptus bunches, she organizes classes and community events, designs arrangements of flowers from local growers for funeral pieces, birthdays and special events and more.

1220 North St.

On the northern end of North Street, Frank Goncalves is using his business to bring new life to his community. After driving by the empty storefront of the old K&K Discount Liquors and Variety, 1220 North St., one too many times, Goncalves decided to do something.

“I kept seeing it empty and pretty much left alone, and it just felt bad for the community seeing the place like that and not being able to generate business for the community,” Goncalves said.

In the summer of 2022, Goncalves bought the liquor license from the previous owners and got to work on the store. He said it was an effort to bring some good energy and life back into the neighborhood as well as a more personal opportunity.

Goncalves’ father was living in Valencia, Venezuela, at the time. Goncalves was watching his father struggle to make a living as a liquor store owner in Venezuela, a country beset by economic and political challenges. Goncalves told his father the new business could be an opportunity for the two of them and his father moved to the Berkshires a month before renovations began. For the last 15 months, the father and son have worked together to build something bright and new in the lot. In late January, they opened the doors on Franky’s Liquor and Latin Market.

Goncalves said the new store welcomes the Berkshires to sample the best of items from Central and South America, like chorizos, Colombian coffees, and whiskeys from Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, among other items. Goncalves stocks his shelves with the help of local and international suppliers.

“We put a lot of love into it and a lot of sacrifice because we see the opportunity in our community,” Goncalves said. “Now when people drive by and see something nice going on, they’re very happy about it.”

305 North St.

A calling from a loving community played a part in finding Dolce Rose a space on North Street as well. The new beauty supply store coming to 305 North St. is the product of the love and passion of mother-daughter team Gloria and Destiny Saunders.

After years of losing hours on the road to Albany, N.Y., or Springfield to find a good beauty supply store that caters to their needs as Black women, daughter Destiny Saunders said inspiration struck her and her mother like a lightning bolt.

“It’s like a light hit both of our brains and we were like, ‘Let’s do this in Pittsfield!’” Destiny Saunders said.

The Saunders sourced the kinds of products that they knew were out of reach for Berkshire residents — pomades, curl creams, edge controller, high quality wigs and wefts of hair. They started Dolce Rose as a monthly pop-up shop that bounced between 305 North St. and the space next door.

Destiny Saunders said those pop-ups were packed houses that showed they’d arrived upon something special. She said it helped that they were also selling Gloria Saunders’ secret weapon — a hair grease called Mamma’s Recipe that customers swear by in the length of their locks and curls.

The Saunders decided to try their hand at a permanent spot, renting the space where it all started. Around the time they decided on a brick-and-mortar store, the Berkshire Black Economic Council launched its Vibe North Street grant program that directed MassDevelopment funds to new businesses looking to establish themselves on North Street.

Destiny Saunders said dozens of people sent her the link to the application. She applied.

Dolce Rose is one of four recipients of the Vibe North Street grant, which awarded between $7,500 and $25,000 to each of the winning businesses. That money has helped the Saunders transform their North Street spot into the“one-stop shop” they were dreaming it would be.

When they host their grand opening this Saturday (Feb. 24) at 4 p.m., the storewill be stocked with beauty supplies for every kind of Berkshire resident.

163 North St.

Jocelyn Guelce is one of the other recipients of the Vibe North Street grants. With support from the Berkshire Black Economic Council, Guelce is launching The Collab, “a dynamic blend of a recording studio, art gallery and collaborative workspace” that’s “an extension" of The Collab's digital marketing agency, at 163 North St.

Guelce said her mission — and the mission of the studio’s resident engineer Mark Messina — is to “nurture and promote our local arts community while also serving as a catalyst for professional development.”

The response to that drive has been overwhelming, Guelce said, adding that the first youth workshop the Collab hosted nearly sold out. On March 1, the organization plans to host its grand opening showcase event.

46 West St.

This wave of new energy in Pittsfield is success begetting further success. Bonnie Marks and Emilee Yawn, co-owners of the Plant Connector plant shop and gallery in North Adams, said it was the energy in Pittsfield that encouraged them to launch a North Street pop-up of the store late last year.

The duo said their experiences with neighboring businesses Hot Plate Brewery and Witch Slapped cemented their interest.

“We’ve been flirting with the idea for years now doing the [Pittsfield] farmers market, so we thought the pop-up show would be kind of a nice gateway,”Yawn said. “We felt like in order to do it right, we just needed to commit andkind of stop flirting with Pittsfield and do it for real.”

Around March 7, Yawn and Marks plan to open their second Plant Connector location in the Berkshires at 46 West St., a short walk from Park Square.

The new location will be a cabinet of curiosities — something closer to a Victorian or naturalist salon-style space, Yawn said. Like Plant Connector in North Adams, it will be filled to the brim with plants, a refill station and lifestyle and self-care products. The Pittsfield location will be something unique as well — the owners hope it will play host to a bunch of new classes and events that will bring people together.

“We kind of want to jump on the bandwagon,” Yawn said. “We feel like plant shops are a really great way to build community and we really want to be in that downtown area. We’re really excited for this location.”