Clarence Fanto: Tourism season starts in earnest
LENOX -- The streets of this town and others in Berkshire County catering to the summer crowd are alive with the sound of ringing cash registers (figuratively, if not literally). With the unofficial start of the prime tourism season last weekend, visitors are numerous and merchants are keenly anticipating a strong summer.
Despite efforts to rev up shoulder-season attractions, Lenox remains highly seasonal. Nevertheless, the town’s historic district, which doubles as its business center, is unique in the number of stores under the same ownership for three or even four decades.
The champion, with 46 years of ownership by the Albert family, is Loeb’s Foodtown. Glad Rags, Lynne West’s funky clothing boutique, is a close runner-up at 45 years. Matt Tannenbaum’s The Bookstore has 38 years under his auspices. (It was opened in 1971 by its original owner, David Silverstein). Randy Austin’s The Gifted Child has been around for 33 years, as has Judie Culver’s Purple Plume.
Several restaurants and B&Bs also make the cut. (Apologies in advance to anyone left out of the longevity honor roll.)
The single-proprietor ownership rate is remarkable, since only half of all new establishments survive five years or more and about one-third remain open 10 years or more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Small Business Administration.
Joining the Three Decade Club today is Kate Pincus’ Weaver’s Fancy, which she opened with a partner, Barbara Caplin, after selling her handwoven wearables out of her Lenox home. Pincus had been relying on word of mouth from neighbors and friends to drum up business -- "but it wasn’t a very busy business," she recalled during a chat at her store. (Caplin left the business in 1990.)
During that period, she was supplying fashion designers in New York, including the well-known Mary McFadden, under hectic, twice-yearly deadlines.
"It became a little less satisfactory selling to designers, less rewarding, because I didn’t meet the customers," Pincus said. She joined the Southern Berkshire Arts Council, which mounted exhibits and sold merchandise from area artisans at locations in Great Barrington.
Pincus and Caplin opened their 65 Church St. store on June 1, 1984, offering shawls and scarves at first, then branching out with a line that now includes woven and non-woven items (all natural fibers, all inventory designed and made in the U.S.), including hats, caps, tote bags, quilted items, vests, tunics, jackets and "cocoons," which are full-length wraparounds akin to a jumbo shawl with sleeves.
After more than 50 years as a weaver, half of the merchandise at Pincus’ Church Street store remains her own work, as she spends several hours every day on the three looms at the Kimball Farms home she shares with her husband, The Eagle’s longtime classical music critic, Andrew Pincus. (Disclosure: I’ve been well-acquainted with both since the mid-1980s.) The other half of her inventory is supplied by American artists she knows personally.
From her vantage point in the heart of the business district, Pincus has observed dramatic changes in the town’s retail landscape.
"It’s evolved from being a town with a lot of different types of things in it to being a tourist town," she said, noting that the gradual exodus of GE beginning in 1986 caused a major retrenchment, along with the closing of the private schools in Lenox that had supplied a steady stream of students, parents and faculty customers.
"It was a broader mix and steadier year-round business," she noted.
As time went on, Pincus recalled, three downtown hardware stores, two shoe-repair shops, dry-cleaning establishments and other retailers such as the Lenox Newsroom pulled up stakes. She remembered that for inexplicable reasons, she lost some of the steady customers from her home-based business after the store opened, possibly because "they thought I was commercial or something. Š The prestige sort of dropped as soon as I sold in the store instead."
To celebrate the anniversary, she has cooked up a "roll of the dice" discount for the first two weeks of this month. Actually, it’s a single dice and the percentage off depends on the number that comes up -- from 10 to 30 percent. The discount applies to each wearable purchased. She tried the promotion just once before, during a slow winter -- "I found that people loved it."
Current store hours are noon to 4 Sundays and 11 to 5 Monday through Saturday, except closed on Tuesday; hours expand in the summer.
Among Pincus’ notable repeat customers has been John Williams, who has used Lenox as an artist’s retreat when composing scores for Steven Spielberg’s films.
"Every time I see him, he tells me his wife loves the things he got her," said Pincus.
When former Boston Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa bought a family retreat near Tanglewood in the 1970s, she gave him a throw blanket as a housewarming present.
The impact of the Great Recession had an inevitable impact as fewer people were willing to spend, Pincus noted. "For a year or two, everybody would say, ‘I simply can’t afford it.’"
But there’s been some bounceback.
"Now, people don’t complain how expensive it is, they either buy it or they don’t," she said. "The ones who buy don’t look at the price, they buy it because they want it."
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.