Keeping Cool in ‘Dream Town’

Checking out the scene in Northampton, Mass., called a “dream town” by Outside Magazine, with family fun and strong arts programs.

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Retailer Peter Vogel is gleefully shooting his customers. He aims the AirZooka’s huge plastic barrel and expels a puff of air gusty enough to ruffle an unsuspecting customer’s hair at 50 paces.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Look, she doesn’t know what hit her,” said Vogel, owner of Faces department store here.

The AirZooka toy is one of those things that tickles Vogel, as do the edible tattoos, the Mr. Potato Head string lights and the ability to stock a whole department with trendy duds priced for less than $50.

All things colorful and kitschy make up the Willy Wonka-like world of Faces, the Vogel family’s department store here that’s teen bliss and pretty cool for older folks, too.

Faces shines in this western Massachusetts town of 35,000, which is as famous for its aging hippies as for its plucky independent stores, restaurants and lively music scene. A small Starbucks is the only national chain store in the downtown area, but Smith College students usually name the local contender, the Haymarket Café, as the best java hangout. Northampton has been called a “dream town” by Outside Magazine and has been listed as a best arts town and a best place to raise a family by national media.

But what’s often overlooked about the town is that, despite a lack of mass marketers, it hasn’t priced out its youth. Local proprietors like Vogel and concert promoter Jordi Herold have worked hard to offer affordable products and entertainment.

It makes sense to cater to the under-21 crowd, since Northampton is home to Smith College and is a stone’s throw from four other colleges, including the University of Massachusetts’ main campus. Some 30,000 students throng into the Pioneer Valley, which includes Northampton and surrounding towns, each September and depart each May.

While they’re around, Northampton delivers the goods.

In January 2002, for instance, teens could hear Norah Jones playing at Pearl Street Nightclub for “barely her gas money,” recalled Herold, founder and creative director of Iron Horse Entertainment Group, which runs Pearl Street and two other venues in town.

“She sold out 1,300 seats for us six months later. Now we can’t even touch her,” Herold said, noting how fast things move and how much credibility a club can gain by keeping its ears open.

It only took hearing 60 seconds of rap trio Northern State’s demo before Herold was dialing to see when he could book them. Their self-released album, featuring only seven songs, is reviewed in a recent Rolling Stone, but they’ve already played Pearl Street and are due to return again in late June. When prodded, he describes them as “female Beastie Boys two decades later.”

“I hate that shorthand,” he adds. “But it gets the message across.”

Not only are the acts authentic, the atmosphere is, too. All of Herold’s clubs admit all ages, although alcohol is served only to those with bracelets who have been proofed. That means teens can hear blues legend Taj Mahal under the pressed-tin ceiling in the Iron Horse’s beer-scented gloom.

“It requires cooperation on the audience’s part and vigilance on our part, but we have a good track record,” he said of the alcohol policy.

Tickets are generally affordable, too. Those for acts at Pearl Street, a Twenties brick bunker built as a Polish social hall, rarely exceed $20. The 170 seats at the Iron Horse go for slightly more, up to $35.

There’s rarely a quiet night at Herold’s clubs and there’s never a quiet corner at Faces. The store pops and zings with activity, cramming 14 departments into 10,000 square feet, stocking everything from $500 chaise lounges to $5 hot sauces.

It’s reminiscent of Urban Outfitters, but brighter and with a more mod sensibility. Both companies started in the early Seventies, but Faces, founded by Vogel’s father, Steve, has remained a single location.

The team works hard to ensure Faces is never stagnant. Every two weeks, windows are changed and merchandise at the store’s entry rotates. There are few sales events (Vogel can only think of the June dress sale), but the store fusses over every holiday, filling the storefront with wigs at Halloween and chocolate body frosting at Valentine’s Day.

The whole store is repainted every six months. Currently, it’s a pool blue and lime green reminiscent of Fifties appliances, but apparel buyer Lora Fischer is already dreaming of the fall color scheme.

To make sure customers can even buy something fun with only a quarter, there is a carnival game called “Love Tester” and an Art-o-Mat, an overhauled cigarette machine that now vends a range of small handicrafts and gives the proceeds to arts charities.

The 2,000-square-foot apparel department is the store’s most productive, Vogel said. Most tops retail for $10 to $25, although the store carries some higher-priced Paul Frank garb. Bottoms are less than $50. Julius monkey aside, there are no major national brands in sight. In addition to Paul Frank, Faces stocks T-shirts from Doe, Beaver Power and Cosmic, the latter featuring goth storybook character Emily Strange. Trendy tops from Angels pair with denim from Los Angeles-based Z. Cavaricci and Bongo.

Sales average $350 per square foot. Business this year is slightly off from last year, Vogel said.

A Polaroid camera is always at hand for customers to be snapped modeling an item. The dozen or so hat styles lining one wall are a favorite item for teens to mug in. Snapshots wallpaper the front entry and years’ worth of shots spill from boxes in back, Vogel said.

“We’d love to say this is innate,” he reflected. “That we can sit in a windowless office and just dream this up, but of course we can’t. We brainstorm a lot, travel, think about what we read and see.”

Some of his best ideas have come from restaurants. “Most things I can relate somehow to the business,” he said. “Sometimes something flashes at me and I just know how we can massage it and make it right for us.”

A few doors down, footwear and accessories boutique Synergy picks up where Faces leaves off, plying locals with sunglasses and footwear.

In the blue neon-lit store, focus is on key shapes — flip-flops, strappy sandals, platform slides — and the store offers these styles across a range of brands. Most shoes sell for $60 or less, but some, like Camper and Diesel, ring in slightly higher.

Like footwear, fashion is addressed in shorthand: tanks, shorts, pull-on athletic bottoms and skirts in denim or rayon compose the edited assortment. Unionbay and Energie are key resources.

In the spring months, staffers encourage shoppers to bring in their prom or graduation dress to be tried on with shoes or perhaps a matching pair of rose-tinted sunglasses.

“That’s fun,” said manager Giulia Mastrangelo, a Smith student. “My favorite time of year.”

The town’s shopping drag, Main Street, also houses Cathy Cross, a contemporary boutique selling Diane Von Furstenberg, Plenty and Vivienne Tam. There’s also Thorne’s Marketplace, a towering department store renovated during the Seventies into an arcade of smaller stores. Most of Thornes’ tenants cater to baby boomers, however, the building is home to 25 Central, a youth-friendly spot offering such mall staples as Roxy, Free People and Hot Kiss.

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