Felix Carroll: An origin story warm enough to bake a bagel
Bidding goodbye to North Street's Bagels Too
PITTSFIELD — When it comes to, say, the birth of a child, the baking of a bagel, and the turnaround of a city's downtown fortunes, timing may not be everything, but it's certainly something.
Today, we celebrate Susan Gordon and her sense of timing.
Of her 66 years, seven months and 23 days of life (as of Tuesday), Gordon's first crucial two weeks were spent as a New Yorker, a Jewish child born of love somewhere off Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens.
Sure, wrapped in swaddling clothes, she was thereafter conveyed to Lee, where she was raised. But Gordon — the Marco Polo who says she was responsible for first bringing fresh-baked bagels to the Berkshires — drew her first 14 days' worth of breaths in the heart of that bagel megalopolis known as New York City. For eaters of authentic bagels, the circle of bagel is the circle of life, and so origin stories matters.
If Gordon were, say, Irish-Catholic from, say, Stoughton, could you even call it a bagel? Could you even call it anything more than a roll with a hole in it?
Gordon, owner of Bagels Too at 166 North St., bid a final farewell to her customers Tuesday afternoon after 30 years in the bagel business. Having run a kitchenware store before that, she has been on North Street since 1977.
Timing may not be everything, but it's certainly something. Gordon's downtown career began just as the city's then-largest employer, General Electric, began laying people off in earnest and just as North Street's good fortunes started going south. She and her bagels remained an unflappable fixed point through an era when nearly everything else flapped off its hinges, when the bright lights and bustle of North Street became a dim expanse of vacant storefronts.
And now look at her. And now look at North Street. She's getting out as the city's downtown renaissance has become incontrovertible.
"Yep, that wasn't the best timing in the world, was it?" she jokes.
Actually, maybe it was. Gordon, who never played with dolls, never played house, never wanted children — and so didn't have any — put her maternal instincts toward nurturing her businesses and nurturing downtown through some dismal decades.
Her "kids" included the dozens of employees she has had over the years, but also the city's poor and disenfranchised. In 1995, Gordon founded Our Berkshires' Bounty, which gathers surplus food from businesses and delivers it to numerous organizations that serve meals to the needy. She was a longtime board member for Habitat for Humanity and a longtime volunteer with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which serves abused women.
Furthermore, over a span of 15 years, she and her husband, Jim Moran, took in 15 exchange students from Central America and the Caribbean who were part of an international development program tied in with Berkshire Community College. In her retirement, she plans to pay them a visit, because, it turns out, she's a "grandmother" now, too.
"She continually volunteered for every committee under the sun. She was a doer," says Steven Valenti of Steven Valenti's Clothing for Men, one of North Street's few other holdouts from the bygone era. "She didn't just sit in her store and complain. She tried to make downtown a better place. It was never about her. It was about everyone."
Meanwhile, timing might not be everything, but she did happen to open her kitchenware store, Your Kitchen, just as the gourmet cooking craze hit. Timing may not be everything, but just as consumers beyond the ethnic niche of Jewish New Yorkers were starting to take a liking to bagels, Gordon declared it was time to bring the real deal to town.
"My whole family lives or lived in New York, and we never went to New York without bringing back bagels," she said. "And family weren't allowed to visit us unless they brought bagels."
As an adult and Pittsfield resident, Gordon kept thinking to herself: "Pittsfield needs a bagel shop."
In April 1987, she and her best friend and business partner, the late Donna Bills, rented the storefront adjacent to Gordon's kitchenware store. They bought a Sirocco electric steam oven and a mixer that holds 200 pounds of flour. With some recipes in hand donated by a friend who was a bagel-maker, they made their first batch of bagels. After 25 minutes under 500 degrees Fahrenheit, they gave them a taste, nodded to each other and, with that, Bagels Too was in business, the Berkshires' very first bagel shop. Soon, they were selling upward of 5,000 bagels a day.
"We were mobbed," Gordon recalled. "I was totally unprepared."
And soon it got even crazier because, before the year was out, legendary weatherman Willard Scott declared on the "Today" show that Bagels Too bagels tied with Kinder Bagels of New Haven, Conn., as the best bagel outside New York, in his opinion. Gordon had thereby extended New York's bagel belt 150 miles due north of Queens.
Tuesday's closing was not how Gordon had hoped things would go down. She was hoping to sell the shop and ease into retirement. But late last year, the building's longtime owner, Floyd Passardi, said he wanted her out because he has other plans for the building, which he hasn't disclosed. A long-negotiated sale of Bagels Too fell through Oct. 13. There have been other interested parties since then. Twenty grand will buy you a bagel store, but you would have to find a new storefront. The shop had seven employees, two of them full time.
"There's a glimmer of hope it will reopen" under new ownership, Gordon said Tuesday afternoon at closing time. Something's in the works.
Meantime, her walk-in cooler stood empty for the first time since 1987.
With only a few whole wheat bagels unclaimed from the day, Gordon dragged a chair outside to the sidewalk to use as a step stool. As she reached to take down the OPEN flag for one last time, longtime customer Alex Piaget walked by and repeated two words: "It's tragic," she said. "It's tragic."
But it's time.
"North Street has been my family for years," said Gordon. "I'm going to miss being here, being a part of this community every day. I'm going to miss the family that are my employees and the family of North Street."
From one end of North Street to the other, the family has grown in recent years.
"It's an exciting place to be again," says the bagel lady making her exit.
Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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