For Beacon businesses, the community is key
When the Thomas family opened Matcha Thomas at 259 Main St. two years ago, everything went right. They had delicious products (matcha beverages and homemade vegan snacks), an inspiring story (the family was able to reverse their father’s type 2 diabetes with a healthier diet) and a built-in audience (the eldest sister Haile, then 20, is a well-known food activist and author of a vegan cookbook).
But the teahouse’s instant popularity led to problems. The family was the only staff, and the 400-square-foot storefront was often filled with customers waiting for orders, far from the quiet, peaceful spot the family had envisioned. “We were completely in awe of how well things were going, but with only three people running the business we just couldn’t accommodate everything,” said Haile.
The family regrouped, found a bigger space at 179 Main and hired staff. Last month, they reopened with expanded hours and a room for people to relax, based on a customer suggestion.
It’s been an eventful two years, but the family has learned two hard-won lessons: If you’re a small business and doing everything yourself, you need to avoid burnout, and if you invest in the Beacon community, the community will invest in you.
“Coming from a Jamaican immigrant family, we’re bringing our own flavor to Beacon,” said Haile. “At the same time, we want to respect the community that exists here and want to build in partnership with them. How can we root back into that foundation? How can our businesses become a co-creative space, rather than promoting cultural and communal erasure?”
Mountain Tops Outfitters went through a similar trajectory. Buddy and Katy Behney, lifelong residents who were high school sweethearts, opened it in 2006 at 143 Main before moving across the street into a space that had been a grocery store. As might be expected, the Main Street of 16 years ago was far different.
“It was strange when we started to see people walk by the store on the street, because for so long there was nothing on this side of the street until you got to Hudson Beach Glass,” Katy said.
“We didn’t start out with a loan and a ton of inventory,” she recalled, so stocking a shoe meant spending thousands of dollars to have every size. The couple learned that there wasn’t any point in selling anything they couldn’t personally vouch for.
They also learned that they needed to keep costs low so they could build inventory. They moved into the basement of Buddy’s parents and worked other jobs. When a coffee shop opened across the street, Katy applied and learned how to make coffee and how not to run a coffee shop. It became clear that the shop was not going to be open much longer. The shop had the same landlord as Mountain Tops, so Katy mentioned to him that, when the coffee shop closed, they’d like to take over the space.
Bank Square opened in 2009 with two bright rooms and a patio that became Beacon’s unofficial front porch. In her 2017 book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, Dar Williams, the singer-songwriter who lives in Cold Spring, explains why coffee shops with multiple rooms are integral to a community’s health and well-being.
Speaking at the Howland Cultural Center that same year, Williams noted that at Bank Square, “the second room is where poetry readings happen and the depressed teenager can go to write in her journal and get hooked on caffeine instead of heroin.” Bank Square opened around the time that Beacon’s two community centers closed, and the coffee shop quickly became (and remains) one of the only places for Beacon teens to hang out.
Buddy didn’t even drink coffee but is, in Katy’s words, “a tinkerer.” He became fascinated by the espresso maker, became an espresso drinker, grew fascinated with coffee roasters and realized that they should be roasting their own coffee. The Behneys opened a second coffee shop, Trax, at 1 E. Main St. in 2017, and a second Trax location at 469 Fishkill Ave. in 2020.
Katy said that while the growing numbers of tourists have been good for business, locals keep their shops afloat, which is why they are open seven days a week, a philosophy their old neighbor John Gilvey at Hudson Beach Glass shares.
“People come into town on a Tuesday and everything is closed,” Gilvey said. “By the time they get to our store, they shop angry. If you’re only open 20 days a month, your rent is actually a lot higher than you think.”
“We stay open seven days a week because we have to pay rent seven days a week,” said Richie Kaplan, who, with his brother Harvey, opened Max’s on Main in 2006. (The bar is named for their immigrant father.) They attribute their success to one thing: “We knew we were never going to quit. We expected to still be here 17 years later.”
They believe that businesses that have been around for years create a consistency on Main Street that reassures residents. That became clearer during the pandemic. People weren’t allowed to come inside, but they were happy to order food, which Richie would deliver. He jokes that he finally learned where all of his customers live.
“A sense of community is important,” Richie said. “During the pandemic, Beacon supported us, Brother’s, The Yankee Clipper, because they wanted to keep us going.”
From the beginning, Max’s stayed open until 4 a.m. to give people somewhere to go, even if it meant Richie and Harvey walking customers to their cars at the end of the night. Richie dropped off free food to other businesses opening on Main Street. They rented a crash pad above Homespun Foods, a few doors down, so that Harvey, who insisted on closing on Saturday nights, would have a place to get a few hours of sleep before opening early Sunday morning.
“My wife decorated it,” Harvey said of the apartment. “I don’t know why.”
They also have donated gift certificates to what they estimate is 99 percent of local nonprofits and school fundraisers. It’s not 100 percent, Richie said, because 1 percent haven’t asked.
A similar philosophy is in place at Beacon Bath and Bubble, which Brenda Murnane opened in 2006. She took a break from renovating the interior recently to say she is always happy to donate a basket for a raffle. “I don’t advertise,” she said. “That’s what I do instead. If I did not have my support from locals from Day One, I would not still be here.”
Murnane, who has lived in Beacon since 1993, said she has watched the sense of community grow since her store opened. “There’s more to do now,” she said. “More clubs, more social activities, more to get involved in. When people move here, they’re hungry to learn. They’re asking me about all the things they can do here, how to get involved in the community. That’s the best thing that’s happened here, in my opinion. People are looking for community, and they’re finding it.”
The biggest boon is Main Street itself, she said. It’s long, it’s walkable and, as she pointed out, “you go out to get a bagel and see three people you know.” It’s also narrow, which, while being a problem for cyclists and drivers sharing the road, makes it easy to have a conversation with someone across the street.
“What you get when you invest in Beacon, whether you open a business here, move here or stay here, is Main Street,” agreed Mei Ying So, who opened Artisan Wine Shop with Tim Buzinski in 2006. The two met while attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park; Buzinski now teaches there. “You don’t have to go to a mall to entertain yourself. Then you have the mountain, the river, the creek. You’re not just renting an apartment or buying a house — you’re getting an entire ecosystem.”
Owning a wine shop was not on their minds when they started to look at Beacon. Fancy sandwich shops were all the rage, but it looked like Homespun Foods had that market cornered. In one way, Artisan was like every other store that came to Beacon in the first decade of the 2000s and is still here: It’s a small shop with a small staff that wanted to build a larger community. “We found so many like-minded people here who were committed to the same thing, to opening up a business and investing in the town,” said Buzinski.
“We felt like we would do anything to help Main Street thrive,” said So. “And now it’s like a runaway train. There are other Hudson Valley river towns, but none like this.”