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You Can Breathe—and Do Business—in a Small Town

Three small Capital Region communities show how creative commerce and laid-back, neighborly living can go hand-in-hand

by The Staff on March 29, 2012

Ballston Spa

By Erin Pihlaja

It isn’t crazy to ask what’s in the water in the village of Ballston Spa. The area was once famous for its mineral springs. It’s not obvious at first, but there is something different about this tiny village.

Ballston Spa was incorporated in 1807 and is situated between the Town of Milton and the Town of Ballston. The main drag is Milton Avenue, which is also Route 50 and leads to Saratoga Springs, about seven miles to the north. The tree-lined avenue is home to sprawling Victorian homes and a variety of storefronts. The main offshoots are Front Street and Washington Street.

You won’t find a big-box store here. The town of Ballston got locked into a heated debate that reached its height in 2005 over whether or not to allow a Walmart to open on the outskirts of town. Ultimately, Walmart lost and the village is mostly made up of residences and small, locally owned businesses.

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

At the corner of Milton Avenue and Front Street is O’Brien Pharmacy, an independently owned store. In most areas today, when one pharmacy, usually a corporate chain, takes root at an intersection it’s a matter of time before another follows suit across the street—but not in Ballston Spa.

The streets of the village are clean, the buildings well-maintained, and there is (gasp) ample parking. There’s even a free public parking lot. From all appearances, it seems as though the village wants people to stop in and stay awhile.

Ellen Mottola, executive administrative assistant for the Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association, says that’s the point. Throughout the year, the BSBPA organizes multiple events including free movies in the park, farmer’s markets, the Ballston Spa Film Festival, the “First Fridays” art event, and the annual car show. “We keep it all downtown, we want to bring people here. They come and check it out, then they want to shop, eat, and move here,” Mottola says.

The association does so many things to bring people to town,” says Alayne Curtiss, owner of Make Me Fabulous, LLC. Curtiss opened up a makeup boutique on Milton Avenue in 2005. “The foot traffic was a bit less busy than it is now. The association created more traffic, and drew the right type of businesses—quality businesses,” she says.

Ballston Spa is Curtiss’ hometown, and the pricing attracted her. “We grew a half-a-million-dollars-a-year business in a 600-square-foot spot. The rent was beyond reasonable. That’s why we were able to grow,” she says.

In March 2012, when her business did outgrow its location, she considered moving to other towns and cities. “We asked our customers to choose between Saratoga, Malta, and Ballston Spa. They did not want us to leave Ballston.”

She relocated the now full-service salon and retail space to 32 Front St., just around the corner. “Our customers are loyal and great to work with. Moving didn’t make sense; no one wanted us to leave. We had grown so much in this town, and ultimately we wanted to stay.”

We have the most amazing customers who are looking to support local business,” says Kim Andersen, co-owner of Mango Tree Imports (on Washington Street). “In our case, they are looking for handcrafted items that can’t be found at a big-box store.” Andersen and her husband Chris moved the store to its current location two years ago from northern Ballston Spa, where it had been for four years. Mango Tree Imports specializes in fairly traded, handcrafted goods from around the world.

We have an appreciation for handmade products from all over the world and we weren’t finding the opportunity to purchase these items around here 10 years ago,” Kim Andersen says. The couple decided to bring that opportunity to Ballston Spa.

The Andersens are happy with the sense of community they have found. “I think that the local business owners tend to work closely with one another. If we don’t have something at our shop, we are more than happy to send a customer to a neighboring store,” Kim Andersen says.

That same community has embraced the fair trade values that the Andersens believe in. Because multiple businesses and nonprofits incorporated some aspect of fair trade in their practices, the town met the guidelines required to be recognized officially as New York state’s first Fair Trade Town.

According to Mottola and the BSPSA, 26 businesses have either opened in the village or relocated to bigger spaces within the past year.

Kevin Borowsky thinks he knows why. “The quality of life is great here. Quality of life is the number one reason why I left New York City,” he says. He moved out of the Big Apple with his wife Meahgan, and in 2004, they opened the Whistling Kettle, a restaurant and tea house at 24 Front St.

Ballston Spa wasn’t their first choice; they originally had their eyes on Saratoga Springs. “It was extremely difficult to find anyone to work with,” he says. “We were new to the area, and landlords there didn’t take us seriously. We would describe our concept and they would just get a glazed look in their eyes.”

Frustrated, the couple looked at Ballston Spa. They liked what they saw. “It’s one of the few areas in the Capital Region where the downtown is like an old-school downtown. You can park and walk around to check out the village,” he says.

When they found a space, moving in was easy. “The landlord helped us with the renovations, and went the extra mile to make the place look nice,” he says.

The village has grown a lot in the last few years. “It’s almost night and day from six years ago, says Borowsky. “There was nothing here, now we have a yoga studio, spas, antique stores, and fine dining. He also noticed the impact when Global Foundries, a semiconductor foundry, moved into the neighboring town of Malta.

I am definitely happy with our decision. Every year has been better than the year before,” he says. He also feels as though the Whistling Kettle has outgrown the space it’s in, and is open to expanding.

But that’s not news in the village of Ballston Spa—it’s becoming business as usual.


By Amy Halloran

You might feel like you’re driving through a painting as you approach Cambridge over back roads, because the hills, fields and farms dot the landscapes of Harry Orlyk and other artists. Some barns are in use, and others droop to the ground. Drive out there often enough and you’ll see the ghosts of barns that fell down before they got restored.

Turn onto Route 372 and you’ll find Main Street. The village’s central artery boasts a bookstore, a diner, a café, hotel and food co-op, plus other eateries and shops.

The village of Cambridge seems at once simple and sophisticated, too far away from New York City—three and a half hours by car—to be a true bedroom community, but attractive enough to lure a strong pocket of ex-urbanites to this rural, farming locale. Many longtime locals keep calling Cambridge home, too, staying for farming, family ties and the advantages of small-town living.

That living isn’t always easy, however. The area took a big economic hit in 2003 when the Mary McClellan Hospital closed, which had employed up to 300 people. The village has survived plenty of ups and downs, long ago losing agricultural industries like seeds and plows. After the hospital closed, a grim cloud hung over the village. Soon, the Cambridge Hotel closed, too. The hotel, which had been renovated in the late ’90s, sat dormant for a time until investors took matters into their own hands in 2007.

My husband wanted a nice place to eat on New Year’s and there was no place to go in the area, so he said, what do you think about buying the Cambridge Hotel?” said Tina Imhof, laughing about the affirmative answer she gave.

John Imhof is an attorney, and he and his family moved to Cambridge in the 1990s from Turkey, where he was stationed in the military. John was from Greenwich, so the location made sense. The scale of the village made sense to Tina, who had grown up in a military family and wanted a safe, small community for her kids.

Main Street was good and solid when we first moved here,” she said. “But when the hospital closed, Main Street seemed to fold up quite a bit.”

The hotel staff numbers about 20, and Tina Imhof feels good about getting the jobs in the local economy. She works in the office, bartends on weekends and makes the hotel’s famous apple pie a la mode. Her husband and daughter work at the hotel too, and her daughter’s fiancé is the chef, but she says, “Really everybody that works there is a part of my family.”

Battenkill Books is another family affair, purchased by Connie Brooks and her husband Chris Callahan in 2009.

There’s been a bookstore in Cambridge since 1984,” says Brooks. The store has had different names, owners and locations. “When we bought the store, it was really important to us to move it back onto Main Street.”

They had a certain storefront in mind, and the space expanded the book population fourfold. The couple also stretched the concept of the bookstore. While Battenkill Books has always had a community feel, featuring local authors, and often, hosting writing groups while the retail part of the store was dark, the bookstore now stitches itself to all elements, literary and otherwise.

We run an event series with Hubbard Hall called the Curiosity Forum,” says Brooks. The series brings in local experts on a variety of topics. They host story hour in the summer, bringing in local authors and illustrators so kids get a sense of who makes books. They lend bags of books to Pre-k groups, and house a knitting night in the wintertime. Another non-bookish winter activity was being the distribution point for Clearview Farms CSA. This brought about 20 families into the store once a week, which in the weeks leading up to the holidays, had lots of benefits.

Hubbard Hall

Being part of a strong Main Street really helps, Brooks says, as people grow increasingly aware of the shop-local movement. This has been apparent especially over the last six months.

People start to think we can go to Cambridge for a Saturday, we can have lunch at the hotel, we can shop at the Village Store, shop at the Co-op. We start to become a destination.”

Battenkill Books teams up with other businesses like Valley Artisans and the Village Store for advertising to reach out beyond the village and draw new customers.

Valley Artisans is a cooperative of artists and fine craftspeople that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. The shop is housed on half of the first floor of Hubbard Hall—the Village Store is in the other half—and its steady presence has lent a strong backbone to the natural ups and downs of retail life.

We have local customers who are loyal customers who come back month after month, year after year,” says Mary Lou Strode, a visual artist and one of the cooperative’s original members. “I think we’ve made a great contribution to Cambridge.”

About 25 people are members now, and some people consign their work at the store, too. The store, with its tall windows and rough floors, feels a bit like Mr. Olsen’s store on Little House on the Prairie, but the quality of the goods jumps the place up from quaint and into a nice mix of arts and fine crafts. Which might describe the experience overall of visiting Cambridge’s Main Street, too. If the place feels a little like the set of a small town, the people who serve you coffee, books, art or pie ala mode are not acting. They are living the business of life.


By Ann Morrow

Clock Tower Toys & Gifts is an actual old clock tower, one that gaily lords its height over the rest of Chatham’s historic Main Street. Inside, it’s packed to the rafters with merchandise as enchanting as you would expect in a shop that looks like it materialized out of a storybook: puppets and playthings and toy-type toys that don’t require batteries or chargers. I almost bought a Spark Shark fishing game—for myself. A few doors down is Cow Jones Industrials, a vegan boutique specializing in non-animal leather goods and PVC-free vinyl. If you’re expecting clunky utility wear, then you’ll be surprised at how fashionable—and indistinguishable—cruelty-free, ethically sourced leather and wool substitutes can be: slinky evening sandals and luxuriously supple carry-alls included.

At the bottom of Main Street (on Hudson Avenue), Native Clay offers a wide array of authentic Native American art, selected by the owner from the many tribes she does commerce with as a “helping hand.” This isn’t kitschy beads-and-feathers stuff, but pottery, textiles, home decor, and sculptures in the indigenous styles of the craft people who created it. And at the top of the street, Our Daily Bread offers gluten-free baked goods and locally grown ingredients for its café menu. If you want to know more about the unusual items offered on this old street (the first store opened in 1787), all you have to do is ask: Almost always, the owner is behind the counter, and will enthusiastically answer questions and make suggestions.

The block also encompasses a bookstore, a fabric shop, a new-fangled general store, a fair-trade, made-in-the-U.S.A. clothing store, an organic grocery, and a Welsh pub, among other charming stores and eateries, with antiques shops a short distance from all points. On Saturday afternoons, you can walk a few feet down an “alley” to Chatham Brewing and sample the brewers’ award-winning, all-natural microbrews while socializing al fresco with other beer aficionados.

Less than an hour’s drive from the larger cities of the Capital Region, Chatham is a flourishing example of the many reasons to shop in a small town: unique merchandise, friendly, personally invested owner-operators, conscientious business practices, and often—especially in Columbia County—a picturesque setting amid historic houses and hotels, with nearby farmers markets and nature preserves. Last but not least, there’s the economic factor: Most, if not all, of these shops are higher quality and lower priced than malls and chain stores, and Columbia County does not charge a sales tax on clothing items or footwear under $110.

We are here for the local community,” says Chatham Village Cake Shop & Patisserie owner Robert Harvey. And the local community has been there for him: Harvey says word-of-mouth has helped his eight-year-old business to expand beyond Columbia County, and that he regularly gets orders—sometimes for pick-up—from New York City. The professional baker and wedding-cake creator says he relocated to Chatham from Britain (via the Gulf of Mexico) because his wife is a local. “I’d rather be an independent,” he says of his decision to open a business in the village, where he was able to buy the building his storefront is in. For the Village Cake Shop, just keeping up with orders is the biggest (though enviable) problem.

Photo by Ann Morrow

The small-town challenge for Chatham Brewing is “getting the word out to people, and creating interest to draw people in,” says co-owner Jake Cunningham. “It’s a people-to-people business.” The five-year-old brewery is meeting that challenge the small-town way: “We’re cultivating relationships with like-minded retailers so we can benefit each other,” he says. “There’s a revival in Chatham, and a lot of it is related to agritourism. And were trying to promote that—we don’t really promote outside the area,” the brewer continues. Which brings him to the upside of small-town entrepreneurship, which Cunningham says is the personal relationships they have with their clients, both retail and wholesale (their beers are on tap at many area establishments). “We do tastings, we donate to charity events and art events, we do our own delivery. And we like it that way,” he adds. “That’s how us small artisan businesses do business.”

In a corporate-dominated society, where the personal touch is considered as outmoded as handwritten ledgers, these retailers are definitely on to something. Lynne Michael, owner of American Pie, a whimsical gift shop known for its unusual yet practical kitchen wares, says that much of her customer base came from the friends and family of local customers, and that they will travel long distances to shop there.

It’s about knowing your customers, and having a warm and friendly rapport with the community,” she says, adding, “They are your neighbors, too.” Michael explains that she and her husband committed to Chatham for it’s quality of life and being a nice place to bring up a child. They opened American Pie 15 years ago to provide items that weren’t easily accessible. More recently, Michael says, she is seeing Main Street rebounding from the recession, and she gives some of the credit to a second-home community that is “bringing vitality” to the town. As to carrying merchandise specifically for this clientele, Michaels says she doesn’t differentiate: “Chatham is so diverse now, everyone adds interest.”

As do all the structural reminders of the village’s past as a bustling train junction (where a hundred trains would arrive and depart daily). Not far from the 1870s clock tower is a beautifully restored gothic-revival train depot that now houses a bank, and the street is anchored by the Chatham House, a restored 1850s grand hotel well known for its formal restaurant and plank-floored tavern; and on the other end, another restored hotel, the two-story Blue Plate, a chic yet affordable bistro known for its meatloaf. And there’s the much-loved Crandell Theater, a converted vaudeville hall that still screens first-run movies for $5. In sum, this two-block hub offers everything you could want for a weekend day-to-evening jaunt, and the almost-Soho ambience is gratis.

While you’re driving south, you might as well stop at another Main Street, this one in the neighboring village of Valatie. Until recently, the blue-collar village showed little signs of emerging from decades of desertion, but now it boasts enough shops to be worth a drive from Albany or a short detour from Chatham. Like many small towns being revived by private entrepreneurship, the strip offers a unique gift shop, a noncorporate toy shop, a surprising vintage shop, a yarn-and-fabric store, and a traditional family-owned Greek diner that—like most other businesses in this area—offers a more pleasant ambience and lower prices than some of its city counterparts.

Consider Great Finds gift shop the anchor. Located across the street from scenic Cotton Mill Falls, in a historic millhouse that was renovated by owner Maggie Calhoun’s husband and sons, the shop still looks like a house, albeit one you would see featured in Cottage Living, and is filled to every nook and alcove with the kinds of housewares, home décor, and flirty accessories that you would see . . . in Cottage Living or similar design magazines. Only the modest prices reflect the store’s location in a tiny village. Yet it’s precisely the former mill town’s shabby ambience that gives it its distinction (as well as allowing for those all-important lower prices).

Unlike at a mega mall or supersized box store, you may not find the generic thing you thought you wanted, but down on Main Street, there’s a good chance that you’ll find something better.