An Insider's Guide to Great Barrington | The Berkshires | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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An Insider's Guide to Great Barrington 

The Middle of Everywhere

click to enlarge TIM GRAFFT/MOTT
  • Tim Grafft/MOTT

It's easy to look at Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Southern Berkshires' forested mountains, with its historic streets and tidy, scrollable business district, and think it's a sleepy town. But Great Barrington sleeps like a panther in the branches—elegant, poised, and self-assured in its ability to surprise you at any moment.

The Heart of Great Barrington

As much as it's an old town, steeped in history, including being the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington these days is all about the future. In 2017, the town board enacted a Trust Policy, ensuring undocumented immigrants are supported and protected by town government and police. Town board member Pedro Pachano said the decision was unanimous and was indicative of the values Great Barrington wants to wear on its chest. "It was a conscious effort for the town to be recognized as being welcoming to all people," says Pancano. "It's a pretty progressive town. Other towns in the South Berkshires are much more conservative, but we want change and we want growth."

The Trust Policy was the idea of the Multicultural Bridge, one of a number of other innovative and brightly run community aide nonprofits that speak to Great Barrington's civic character. The South Berkshire Regional Community Center, for another example, along with its many programs, holds a weekly free dinner where local professional chefs rotate in to cook high-quality meals available to all regardless of their circumstance.

click to enlarge The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market has been operating for 29 years.
  • The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market has been operating for 29 years.

A Budding Industry

Great Barrington will also soon be a destination for those looking to enjoy Massachusetts's recently legalized recreational marijuana industry. There are four recreational dispensaries in the pipeline for the Berkshires and two of them will be on Main Street. Theory Wellness is already an operational medical marijuana dispensary, and received its state approval to sell recreational cannabis on December 13.

Its soon-to-open neighbor, Calyx Berkshire Dispensary, received their final town approval the same day and hope to get their licensing from the state within 90 days. Calyx, named for the female part of the plant, is a harbinger of the business opportunities presented by legislation. Calyx is proudly female-owned and operated and is focusing on supporting woman makers and growers in the emerging industry. "Great Barrington just seemed like the perfect fit for us," says Calyx CEO Donna Norman, who's had a home in the southern Berkshires for 18 years. "Women are becoming a big part of our industry. We are very caring and nurturing by nature and more in tune with our bodies and what they need. I think bringing those characteristics to our business will help break down the stigma [around marijuana].

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"It's really exciting to be a part of history and help shape the industry and not let it become yet another man's world," she adds. "We feel like we are in a really good spot here, and Great Barrington has been really supportive. The arts and culture here is a huge draw for us."

Artistic Backbone

Great Barrington's downtown was recently named a Cultural District by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, recognizing its stable of galleries and venues as an invaluable artistic contribution to the region. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center is physically and metaphorically at its center. Ever since the historic movie theater, built in 1905, was restored in 2005, the Mahaiwe has been presenting world-class performances of all kinds as well as community programing. "I think our success has been rooted in a focus on inclusivity, a wide variety of projects, and being open year-round," says executive director Beryl Jolly. "We love bringing back the area's favorite acts, but we also want to make sure to keep things fresh. It's a very special experience to go see a national draw in a 650-seat historic theater." Early 2019's slate of events includes screenings of the Met Live in HD as well as performances by the Pilobolus dance troupe and the Berkshire Bach Society.

click to enlarge The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center is the cultural hub of Great Barrington.
  • The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center is the cultural hub of Great Barrington.

Tucked into the woods on the outside of town is the heavily arts focused Bard College at Simon's Rock and its Daniel Performing Arts Center. Along with providing facilities to students, it has also invigorated the previously reclusive school's relationship with the town in a major way. "During the academic year, all our events are free," says Sandy Cleary, the Daniel Center's executive director. "That really helps connect with the community and people who maybe couldn't afford tickets elsewhere—and many of these performances are world-class."

Ken Roht, artistic director at the Daniel Center, has spearheaded a number of groundbreaking community-integrated art projects. He's working on a show with the local public television channel, and he's staged ballroom dancing events with the local dance school, broadcast radio plays, and facilitates the Daniel's Art Party spring festival.

Nature's Draw

You can't talk about the architectural or cultural aesthetic of Great Barrington without first acknowledging the awe-inspiring beauty of the town's natural surroundings, even in gloomy, leafless winter. "Bartholomew's Cobble and Monument Mountain are integral to this place's understanding of itself," says H. Emerson Blake, editor-in-chief at Orion magazine, which is based out of an office on Main Street and explores humanity's relationship with nature through literary expression.

Lake Mansfield, Alford Springs, the Housatonic River Walk, and so many other beautiful spots inform life in Great Barrington. Of course, the art, restaurants, and distinctive small businesses of the town are a huge draw but, if you don't pack your boots for your next trip here, you're missing out.

Think Global, Shop Local

There's a new term of art in the business world and it suits the vibrant tapestry of shops that wind through Main Street and Railroad Street. Great Barrington is "Amazon Proof." You just can't match the feeling of shopping in Great Barrington online, or in few other places for that matter.

Home goods and clothing shops like Karen Allen's Fiber Arts (owned and run by the actress, who lives nearby), One Mercantile, Mistral's, Hammertown, The Chef's Shop, and many more exude the individuality and skilled dedication of their local owners.

click to enlarge John Prusinski, in the back, was a foley artist for a Daniel’s Art Party/Red Room Radio Redu, radio theater production of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The audience was invited to check out the foley table after the show.
  • John Prusinski, in the back, was a foley artist for a Daniel’s Art Party/Red Room Radio Redu, radio theater production of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The audience was invited to check out the foley table after the show.

High-end antiques are also a big part of the local business scene. None are bigger than Asia Barong, an Asian furniture, art, and antiques importer with an unmatched selection of beautiful pieces from tableware to massive sculptures and full temples. "We are probably the biggest draw in Great Barrington. We are somewhere between a museum and a gallery," says owner Bill Talbott. "We have so much depth to our collection that anyone can find that piece that will be a spark of inspiration for them. We also do things like supply temples of Asian organizations within the US that help them preserve their culture here, and that is a pretty special thing to be a part of."

A Town with Taste

Just down the road from Asia Barong is Shiro Kitchen and Asian Market. Along with their excellent restaurant and bar, they are now offering cooking classes to show folks how to use the ingredients on their shelves at home. Bizen on Railroad Street, is also serving some of the best sushi and Japanese cuisine in the region. Serious and beautifully designed, Bizen makes Great Barrington a destination for lovers of Asian fare all by itself.

The diversity and quality of the 60 restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops here is truly impressive. Everyone has a list of different favorites, but some stalwarts rise to the top of the recommendation list again and again. First, Guido's Fresh Marketplace has been keeping the area eating well, healthier, and locally, at home since 1979. Everyone's getting coffee each morning at Rubi's, tucked stylishly behind the decadent Rubi's Cheese Shop and the Great Barrington Bagel Co. and Deli.

When it comes to fine dining, there is a nuanced but distinct Berkshire style of cuisine and it's on full display here. Restaurants everywhere claim to be farm-to-table these days, but the produce and animals Great Barrington chefs are getting from local farmers and how they adapt to seasonal inspiration is creating a food culture as singular and affecting as the surrounding landscape.

Places like Mark Firth's Prairie Whale, Field and Cellar, 20 Railroad Public House, and others are making the absolute most of a good thing. The ingredients the Berkshires gift these chefs are so good they deserve to be treated this well.

"People really appreciate food here," says Adam Zieminski, chef and owner of Cafe Adam, one of the originators of the Berkshire style. "It's a great area to cook in, because the farm community has grown amazingly. Through requests from us and the farmers' creative minds there are new varieties being grown. We get to put things on the plate people have never tasted. People have come to expect a level of quality from us, and that's a good reputation to have to live up to." (Longtime Great Barrington resident Alan Chartock, President and CEO of WAMC, claims Cafe Adam is the best restaurant in town. "I had the best sandwich of my life there," says Chartock.)

The greatness of Great Barrington is that it can be many things to many people. It can be that sleepy New England town with its luxurious shops waiting to embrace you. It can romance you at its sexy restaurants. It can smell of rocks and earth beneath your hiking boots. It can edify and enlighten with its dedication to the arts, and it can humble you with the way its people approach their community's (and the nation's) problems with resoluteness and compassion. Great Barrington is at once in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere.

Great Barrington Insider Scoop

Ken Roht, Artistic Director for the Daniel Canter of Bard College at Simon’s Rock

“In January, our Daniel’s Art Party started nurturing relationships in the arts and with many other Berkshires organizations. I have found an open-minded curiosity about taking part in new, community-engagement projects. My goal is to continue to find creative ways to bring all of us together as a vibrant and unified community, making unique and joyful performing arts projects. Personally, I’ve come to love Great Barrington’s Goodwill store. Such incredible finds! And I’ve finally settled on Rubi’s as my favorite morning coffee destination.”

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Alan Chartock, President and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

We have lived in the Berkshires for 40 years and in Great Barrington since 1985. We love it! It’s a phenomenal town and has virtually everything you could want. I can’t think of another place like it. Railroad Street is the best place in the whole world. It’s become a little West Village. The Mahaiwe Theater is fantastic. You’re a 15-minute walk to Lake Mansfield. You’re a half an hour from Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. When people think of the Berkshires, what they picture is everything we’ve got.

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Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and Founding Director of Multicultural Bridge

For 10 years Multicultural Bridge has been bridging the gap for underserved communities here in Great Barrington and throughout the county. The community has shown that it cares and what we’ve done is all preparation to have the even tougher conversations around things like racial inequality and police activity. It’s important to build up muscles around these conversations. Part of what we focus on is the tension between visitors and second homeowners and people that live here and help to show that it’s not all white and it’s not all affluent. We are starting to use the legacy and local history of W.E.B. Du Bois as something everyone can come together around to have conversations around unchecked racial tension and lack of understanding.

click to enlarge cp_gwendolyn-hampton-vansant_sm2_6.jpg

Amparo Vollert, Architect and board member at the Great Barrington Rudolph Steiner School

“There are many aspects that I think makes Great Barrington a wonderful place to live and raise a child. The beauty of the natural landscape, which both expands the mind with its breathtaking mountain views and intrigues the senses with anything from the bursting colors of a native wildflower to the velvety moss growing on a rock. I’ve discovered that every season, with its particular light, colors, sounds, and even temperatures, has inspired me on levels I never imagined.

click to enlarge cp_amparo-vollert_7.jpg

H Emerson Blake Editor-in-Chief at Orion magazine

“Orion moved here from the city in 1996, in the knowledge that this is a community that wants to take care of one’s own place. Communities set the tone for our culture and our culture sets the tone for how we treat our environment. The South Berkshires have a history of seeking community identity. Wendell Berry said that any understanding of human values starts with the land. There are more community supported agriculture projects here than just about anywhere in the country. They’re enacting the ideals of human values that start at the community level.”

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