A Northampton native’s Rip Van Winkle experience: A look at city’s changes

after 46 years away


Tuesday, May 5, 2015 
[The Daily Hampshire Gazette Wednesday, May 6, 2015]

NORTHAMPTON — Two years ago my wife Gail and I moved back to Northampton after being away for 46 years. We hadn’t gone far, less than an hour by car, and still visited often for the restaurants, shopping and shows. So we were familiar with the changes that had transpired over the decades.

We grew up in Florence, in houses only a mile apart. Gail was raised in the Cloverdale section, a post-war development, in a house that still stands. 

Mine, however, beside the train tracks on Keyes Street, long ago became a parking lot for what is now called Florence Bank. As kids, we walked to Florence Grammar School, and on the way home stopped at Birds Store for penny candy or 10-cent comics. Officer Bertrand was there on the corner to shepherd us safely across Main Street. As teens, we attended Hawley Junior High and had our first date with the Class of 1963’s junior prom at Hamp (not Noho) High.

Northampton then was a place where blue-collar workers really did wear blue collars. Yes, there was Smith College, but the city ran on the shoulders of men and women who punched clocks at places like the Pro-phy-lac-tic Brush Company (we called it Pro Brush or simply “The Brush Shop”), and International Silver in Florence. They operated machines that churned out toothbrushes and combs, or pounded steel into tableware on drop forges in a shower of sparks and a deafening rhythm that shook the ground. 

They poured coffee at the Florence Diner (not Miss Flo’s), folded sweaters at McCallum’s Department Store, or stocked shelves at Woolworth’s and Tepper’s five-and-ten-cent stores.

As a kid in the 1950s, you could spend a summer day at the Look Park pool, jump off the high dive if you had the guts, or climb the ladder of the big slide and scream down into the water. 

You could ride your bike to Arcanum Field for an afternoon of pickup baseball with friends, unorganized and unsupervised. Downtown, you could watch a movie at The Calvin, The Academy or The Plaza, enjoy a box of popcorn for a dime and a candy bar for a nickel.

In the early ’60s, my immigrant Lithuanian grandparents occupied a flat downtown on the third floor of a Pleasant Street block, where they shared a hallway bathroom with three other families. Downstairs I worked my first job at The Globe Market, where regulars shopped for staples — a few hand-selected potatoes, a bunch of bananas weighed on the scale, fresh kielbasa wrapped in white butcher’s paper, tied with a string, and priced with a china marker. 

At the store’s single cash register, I counted out change without a computer and bagged groceries without asking “paper or plastic?” In time, The Globe Market morphed into the Globe Book Store and the stock changed from coffee, cigarettes and lemons to Kafka, Siddhartha and lesbian lit. 

Upstairs, my grandparents’ tenement was converted to condos. McCallum’s transformed into the trendy offerings of Thornes Marketplace (although with the same creaky wood floors), Pro Brush converted to studios for artists and writers and part of International Silver evolved into Café Evolution.

The friendly cop on the corner was replaced by a pedestrian traffic light button, and the tracks that once carried the Burgy Bullet disappeared, replaced by a popular rail trail. The movies, too, vanished, but live entertainment flourishes.

Much has changed in the nearly half century since Gail and I left, but vestiges of the past remain. It is still Northampton, where City Hall resembles a castle, a place where creativity thrives, a place where sidewalk benches and the color of crosswalks generate animated civil discourse. 

We knew that coming back would be different. What I didn’t expect was that returning would feel like slipping into an old shoe —one with new laces — back in a comfort zone I didn’t know I had missed.

Ed Orzechowski lives in Northampton — again.