International markets fill niche in Pittsfield

Saturday August 18, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- When Virgin Galliher first came to live in the United States in 2006, she found the food to be less than desirable.

"I got here, saw the restaurants around here, saw what people were eating, and said, ‘a burger's not a meal, French fries are snacks, not a meal in my country -- not where I came from,' " she said.

A native of the Philippines who moved to the Berkshires to live with her husband Jon, a Dalton native, and their two kids, Virgin found she had to travel to places as far as Albany or Hadley in order to locate the kinds of Asian markets and restaurants that had food reminiscent of the home she left.

Unhappy with the drive and the high expense of some of the Asian food sold at local supermarkets like Stop & Shop, the Gallihers took it upon themselves to open a market in downtown Pittsfield that would provide a wide variety of food from various Asian cultures at a reasonable price.

That goal became a reality earlier this summer, when the couple's Asian International Market officially opened its doors at 375 North St. on June 8. On that first day, Virgin said the clientele consisted mostly "of older Filipinos and personal friends" looking for an Asian food market in the Berkshires that would offer a selection including everything from Thai and Indonesian to even Russian food, among others.

If the market doesn't carry a specific item, the Gallihers will make individual orders for patrons and have the food shipped directly to the store, which Jon said has been well-received so far.

Through word-of-mouth, the market has been slowly making its mark, and the Gallihers said their business's impact has been twofold: it filled a void for the area's Asian-American communities, and also joined a number of other North Street businesses that have made downtown Pittsfield a decidedly-multicultural destination.

British in the Berkshires

"Since I opened up on North Street last September, I've found so many different businesses that come from such a wide variety of backgrounds -- it's great to be around everything like Brazilian, South American, and Asian shops and restaurants," said Alan Greaves, owner of Brits ‘R' Us, on 80 North St. A British expatriate who moved to the Berkshires to live with his wife, Greaves said his quirky British goods store was well received when it settled into its downtown home.

"We were embraced so warmly because people were so curious about what the store was," Greaves said. "I think people came in and got a pleasant culture shock to see all of the European and British goods -- they weren't expecting it."

Being able to offer something unique to North Street patrons was what interested Greaves in the first place when coming up with the idea for the store, and he said his business has facilitated something of a cultural exchange between two parts of the world that he said are very similar.

"The Berkshires are very, very English in a lot of ways," he said.

From the area's landscape to the architecture of the county's towns, Greaves said the "Britishness" of the area made his store seem like a good fit.

Making options available

For a city of 44,737, Pittsfield has a fairly diverse population, according to 2010 national census data. The Asian-American communities that have flocked to the Gallihers' store make up 1.2 percent of the city's total population, while African Americans and individuals who report to be two or more races total 5.3 and 3 percent, respectively, according to the data.

The census data also shows that from 2006 to 2010, Pittsfield residents who, like Virgin and Greaves, were born outside of the United States made up 4.7 percent of the population.

It's a level of diversity that Berkshire native Christine Hurley did not really notice until she returned to the area after spending most of her life in California.

The assistant to the exec utive director at Down town Pittsfield, Inc., Hurley said it was refreshing to see the city's downtown reflect some of the diversity that she experienced beyond the Berkshires.

"When I was in California, I was in the mecca of cultural diversity," Hurley said. "My idea of what should be available in my community may be different than someone who grew up here and never moved away -- this is the direction we should be going in."

It's a direction that Hurley got to be a part of, since Downtown Pittsfield Inc. coordinates the annual Pittsfield Ethnic Fair, which was held on Aug. 5 this year.

With live music and a wide range of food from various cultures, the downtown festival was what Hurley called "a reminder of all of the communities that are here."

This embrace of cultures outside of the Berkshires is something that Virgin said is important for the success of her business.

"Many non-Asians are the ones who have been visiting the store so far," she said. "It's great that we've been offering these options to so many people," Virgin said.


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