Breakfast with The Eagle

How a hometown boy is helping reshape his hometown

Stephen Sears, co-owner of The Stationery Factory, shares his full circle journey back to Dalton

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DALTON — Stephen Sears is accustomed to having his meals photographed. He's usually the one behind the lens, though.

"I take a picture of every single thing I get served on a vacation. We just went to Portugal, and I did a little photo essay," Sears said before his order of two eggs over medium, home fries and whole wheat toast was captured at The Dalton Restaurant on a recent Thursday morning.

Photography and food are just two of the The Stationery Factory co-owner's many passions. When he and his wife, Maria Cruz, aren't traveling, they don't eat out much. Sears loves to cook at their Dalton home. Cruz is a registered dietitian and nutrition educator at Williams College.

"We're really into organic, no-till gardening," he said, noting that they have chickens as well. " ... I forage. I pick leeks in the woods, so I've been having that for three weeks."

Sears hasn't ventured far from his roots to grow The Stationery Factory, the arts and business center occupying a former Crane & Co. mill on Dalton's Flansburg Avenue. Sears grew up on nearby High Street, where his parents, Fred and Carol, reside today. After graduating from Wahconah Regional High School, Sears even worked as a janitor in the building he now co-owns with Cruz and business partner Willa Kuh. He still does some janitorial work, in addition to his many other responsibilities.

"You could call it full circle, or I haven't gone very far," he quipped.

The 100,000-square-foot building has come a long way since its 2013 sale. It now houses about 18 tenants, according to Sears, including a brewery, distillery, art school, massage therapist, construction firm and two artists. It also regularly hosts weddings, environmental fairs and concerts, the last of which has become a major draw in particular. On Friday, May 17, blues musician Popa Chubby will grace the main stage in "The Big Room." David Bromberg Quintet and Galactic will play on July 7 and Aug. 21.

"We'll never be the Colonial. We'll never be the Mahaiwe. We'll never be Mass MoCA, but we are who we are, and we think we can produce sound that's better than any place else," Sears said.

Sears and his staff are obsessed with acoustics. They recently received a major endorsement from Livingston Taylor, the folk musician and longtime Berklee College of Music teacher who played at The Stationery Factory on April 20.

"He said, 'It is the best sound I've heard in decades.' And he then stopped, thought and repeated the same thing exactly. He's a teacher, so I think he wanted to make sure that he was not misquoted!" Sears recalled, laughing.

Taylor's show was recorded on an early 1980s 24-track Studer A80 tape machine. Sears and company hope that the vintage machine can draw acts the building might not otherwise attract due to the revered warmth of analog sound. Washington resident Johnny Irion had coordinated the Studer's travel to the Berkshires from its previous location: Jackson Browne's Santa Barbara, Calif., studio. Western Massachusetts-based Americana band The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow tracked its first full-length album on the Studer during the fall. The group created a top-floor studio in The Stationery Factory with Irion, the record's producer. Now, Irion is working with local musician Wes Buckley on his album in the same space. Small shows in that studio are in the works, according to Sears.

"We're going to test it out. It's just another one of those little things that we can do whatever we want as long as we're good to the tenants and good to the neighbors. That's important to us," he said.

An open house after the building's purchase underscored Sears' deep ties — and accountability — to the community.

"One of [the attendees] said, 'We're not really worried. We know where your parents live,'" Sears recalled.

Sears grew up around many musicians in Dalton, playing classical violin during his youth. His grandfather's brother made him a violin, leading to a longtime interest in the art of instrument construction.

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"Before we bought The Stationery Factory, I was en route to start building instruments. ... If I had time, that's what I would do. I'd be doing that in the morning and hunting and fishing and gardening in the afternoon," said Sears, who serves on the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board.

Skiing is another one of his outdoor passions. After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and graduating in 1981, Sears didn't find a great job market, so he moved with a Pittsfield pal to northern California to teach skiing during the winter. During the summer, he was a machinist in San Francisco. But he soon returned to the Berkshires.

"I think the sense of family in New England was just something I really missed being in California," he said.

For nearly 25 years, he worked at Crane & Co., starting as an hourly shift worker and rising to a vice presidential role, managing the business' manufacturing, engineering and environmental services. At one point, he had about half the company working for him, he said. But an organizational shift left him jobless more than a dozen years ago. Sears' concerns were also broader at that time. He was worried about mill desertions around the county, contemplating their best use. By the time Crane & Co. decided to move its stationery mill to North Adams, Sears and others had been mulling the structure's potential function for years. Still, Sears didn't have a clear vision when he took on the project.

"I'm not a developer. I didn't have a plan," he said.

Instead, a purpose has guided him and his partners.

"We think we can bring stuff to town in that building so we don't have to go to Northampton, Great Barrington, North Adams or Pittsfield," Sears said.

RBD Electronics was the building's first tenant, moving into a 25,000-square-foot basement space.

"The good thing was, we immediately had somebody as a tenant, and it worked well," Sears said.

From there, growth has been organic. For example, Sears knew he wanted a brewery. After multiple years of preparation, Andrew Crane and Nick Whalen opened Shire Breu-Hous, a popular spot for young professionals in the area.

"We need young people. That's part of what we need to encourage. It can't be all old people like me. If Dalton's going to survive, we need to have a vibrant community," said the father of Zach, Nate and Ella (all from a different marriage).

Less well-known tenants are also making an impact. Paper specialist Innova is bringing its sponsored "Atlas of Humanity" project to The Stationery Factory this fall, according to Sears. The exhibit will feature photos of numerous cultures from around the world by a host of renowned photographers. It has been on display in major cities in the U.S. and Europe.

"I'm so excited because that's not even in a national thing; that's an international thing," Sears said.

Eventually, Sears wants to fill the local need for a commercial kitchen, adding to the building's smorgasbord of activity. Its owners will tinker with things like the performance schedule in the meantime.

"We won't find our niche for a while," Sears said. "And that's OK."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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