Ralph R. Renzi began writing a column called "Street Talk" with the second issue of The Advocate, June 18, 1981. His first offering was about the relocation of businesses, including his own. Renzi accurately reported the buzz of Williamstown, with occasional detours into his talented family and his politics, for many years. No one had to ask what street "Street Talk" referred to; Spring Street defined Williamstown.
It's not clear that Spring Street will continue to provide the buzz.
That role requires that people be drawn to Spring Street to conduct their daily business and to socialize, as currently provided by such enterprises as the Post Office, St. Pierre's Barber Shop, Tunnel City Coffee Roasters, Images Cinema, The Purple Pub, Pappa Charlie's, Where'd You Get That? and Goff's. Some businesses that used to contribute have closed recently, such as the newspaper store, the stationery store, a market and the drug store (still there, but having an identity crisis as it no longer fills prescriptions). Roger the barber may be moving and has clipped his hours. Longer memories hark back to an era of a bakery, grocery store, men's clothing, shoes, cleaners and gas station -- all on Spring Street.
Of the three groups shopping in Williamstown, Spring Street seems to be shifting towards visitors (tourists), as opposed to local residents and college folk. Thus its three blocks now host three galleries and eight restaurants.
The fundamental cause is a change in buying habits, with consumers turning more to the mall, chains, big box stores and on-line purchases.
Spring Street may have lasted longer than once-shopping streets in other Berkshire towns and beyond. Efforts small towns have made to fend off the Wal-marts of this world in order to save their downtowns have generally been unavailing. So now, if we don't get our meds from Canada, we pick them up at a chain store on the outskirts of town.
Getting people to change their buying habits would be tough, but in Williamstown, Williams College is a force to be reckoned with. After all, how many towns have a gymnasium on their shopping street? Williams owns most of the east side of Spring Street and, as landlord, has generally tried to maintain the small businesses. So the community wonders if that policy has changed, as tenants recently were invited to reconsider their leases.
In Ralph Renzi's day their was no college-owned book store, rather his and Joe Dewey's, both on Spring Street. Now Williams may move Water Street Books (the Williams College book store) to Spring Street, which is intriguing but certainly would be tough on other Water Street businesses. Expansion to meet students' needs beyond books would depress the market for potential small stores and maybe even some existing ones.
Tough times for small shops on Spring Street provide an opportunity for the college to continue to demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of students, local residents and visitors. "Street Talk" consistently reminded us that places where people regularly come together create community, a scarce commodity in an Internet age.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.