I have very little tolerance for the celebration of well-established holidays that thrive on consumerism, let alone those industry-created observances like National Cheesecake Day. And yet, I have to admit I’ve subconsciously turned the oft-reviled Record Store Day into a full-fledged ordeal. Most Aprils I use RSD as an excuse to shoot up the Berkshire Spur to Northampton where two fairly reliable record stores remain stocked with the kind of niche vinyl selection I’m willing to damage my credit score to own.
Brooklyn, Providence, New Haven or Boston would all be better choices if the trip was just about records, but in reality, it’s not. That hour and a half drive has become a roundabout way to celebrate the start of spring. As the home to Smith College and nearby Hampshire, Amherst and Mount Holyoke Colleges, Northampton is flush with arts institutions, makers, fantastic eateries and unique shops. Spending the day there with my wife and daughter is my favorite way to bid winter farewell.
The two record stores that lure me to town year after year speak to the dynamic that concerns many resident artists of the town—the pull of commerce and expansion and the desire to maintain the city’s legacy as a home for the arts.
There used to be a number of record shops in Northampton proper, but as of writing, there were only two. The chain Newbury Comics maintains a steady flow of new releases and used vinyl, along with cheap merchandised goods and comic books. Just across the street and down a flight of stone steps is Turn it Up!, a grittier, more comfortable place for those of us concerned with fighting the man. Turn it Up! boasts a strong back catalog of the works of popular and indie artists on CD.
Just across the city line in Florence is Electric Eye Records, which has a healthy stock of old punk, folk and rock music.
Serious collectors, and those looking for music off the beaten path can do no better than Feeding Tube Records in Florence. Owner Ted Lee initially filled the shop’s shelves with records from his friend’s collections. Those friends just happen to be music critic Bryan Foley of Forced Exposure and Spin and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Lee also operates a record label under the same name, home to Moore and a number of other experimental artists.
Northampton also used to be home to Moore and Kim Deal before their divorce. Noise rockers Dinosaur Jr. formed in Amherst and their members are regularly still seen around the city. Lead singer J Mascis bought a VW from a local dealership in 2015—causing a bit of an internet sensation.
I’d suggest that the city might set a record for sheer number of performing arts venues hosted in a certain square mileage but I’d just be wildly speculating.
A Music Town
Venues include the Iron Horse Music Hall, The Pearl Street Nightclub, The Calvin Theatre, and The Basement, which are all overseen by the Iron Horse Entertainment Group.
Academy of Music functions as a multipurpose theater with live pop music, theater, classical performances, movies and offers youth programming and workshops. Mascis played a solo gig there in February.
Some residents have come together to battle the rise in real estate prices that has forced some local arts institutions and businesses to either downsize or leave town altogether.
Conserving Arts Space
The Northampton Community Arts Trust uses grants and donations to buy and preserve spaces used for art and performance. “The Arts Trust envisions a downtown Northampton with art at its center, including a diversity of spaces that can incorporate a range of artistic activities: A black box theater, exhibition galleries, music and dance performance areas, workspace for artists, office space for arts administration and retail space for arts-related businesses,” reads the organization’s mission statement.
The group recently unveiled a renovated 5,000-foot “flex space” designed for performances and creative workshops at 33 Hawley Street.
More to Explore
Those looking to take in stunning visual works have a number of options. The Smith College Museum of Art houses works by masters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and George Seurat. They also host thousands of prints by Albrecht Durer.
- Michelson galleries is always worth a visit, featuring artists such as Leonard Baskin, Leonard Nimoy and Rebecca Leveille. Children’s book author Mo Willems’ show “Try Being Nice” debuted at the gallery in March.
Northampton is so flush with amazing eateries that it would be folly to try to give a comprehensive account. However, no trip to the city would be complete without a stop at Sylvester’s, a restaurant/bakery full of charm and dedicated to using locally sourced ingredients.
Perhaps my favorite feature of Northampton’s dining options is just how well Mediterranean food is represented. Spots like Amanouz Cafe, Filos Greek Taverna and over fresh delicious salads, falafel, moussaka, and souvlaki. They serve as wonderful spots to pop into before a show.