By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 28, 2019) Just a few years ago, downtown Berlin bustled with life during monthly 2nd Friday art strolls, with virtually each shop offering some kind of display of local artwork, as well as refreshments and special sales for visitors.
More recently, the events have been limited to just a few venues, including the Worcester County Arts Council and Wooden Octopus galleries on Jefferson Street, and Baked Dessert Café on Bay Street.
Members of the Berlin Arts and Entertainment Committee last week discussed revitalizing the event – and dropping the “art stroll” tag – during a downtown merchant’s meeting held at The Globe.
Specifically, committee members asked merchants to stay open during 2nd Friday events held April through October. Chairwoman Heather Layton on Monday said that largely went over well.
“For the most part, I took it as a consensus that everybody was on board,” she said. “People seemed excited or at least were more willing to stay open six nights a year, versus year round.”
Layton said several merchants complained they previously stayed open until 5 or 6 p.m., but then closed on a 2nd Friday after not seeing many shoppers.
“People don’t even get off work until 5 and then they’re having dinner,” Layton said. “I feel that they don’t even get out and get strolling until 7 – there’s always that little lull.
“We’ve tried so many different ideas and I truly believe consistency is key,” Layton continued, adding several prior attempts to boast participation and attendance were not met as well. “We [had been] taking ideas from everybody and constantly switching it up, and I think we’re trying to make everybody happy, but also to find something that works.”
What has been consistent, Layton said, is the Maker’s Market held jointly on Jefferson and Commerce streets during 2nd Fridays each May through October. The event allows local artisans to set up handmade items for sale, with portions of each street being closed to help boost pedestrian traffic.
“That has just been amazing,” Layton said. “It took several years to get the town to agree to close the street for the Maker’s Market, but we’re super thankful [they agreed to].”
She said that portion of 2nd Fridays would return on May 10, in conjunction with the Reggae Play Day concert hosted by the town.
Layton said committee members and merchants also discussed why the annual Holiday Arts Stroll, held each November with the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, was so singularly successful.
“I think we all said at the same time, ‘participation.’ Every single shop is open for that stroll, not to mention it’s tree lighting” that each year draws several thousand spectators, she said.
For future events, Layton said most merchants have agreed to stay open later, until 8 or 9 p.m. The Burley Café will start booking live bands from 5-8 p.m. on 2nd Fridays, and Victorian Charm co-owner Steve Frene regularly has his band playing outside of the Main Street shop during the warmer months.
“It still has so much potential … and I felt good leaving the meeting the other night,” Layton said. “There’s going to be shops that simply say it’s not worth it to them, and there’s nothing we can do about that and we understand.
“I think Maker’s Market is definitely where it’s at for the actual artisans, and we’re encouraging the shops that stay open to either offer refreshments, offer a discount, or just be there, be present,” she added.
Committee secretary Stephanie Fowler came away from the merchant’s meeting similarly optimistic. She said communication between the two sides has not always been ideal.
“The point was, merchants and A&E were actually talking,” Fowler said. “We were face to face, ideas were being exchanged [and] no one was yelling.
“It seemed like everybody wants the same thing and has had the same experience, but we weren’t having that shared conversation,” she continued. “From my perspective, it was good at least to get everything opened up.”
She compared the idea of reinvigorating 2nd Fridays to an “if you build it, they will come” scenario.
For several years, Fowler has put together a 2nd Friday map of activities, sales and specials at downtown shops and restaurants that’s promoted on social media and in local newspapers.. She hopes to continue doing that, but also to increase participation.
“If you’re having a sale, if you have live music, if you’ve got someone in your store, if you’re doing anything interesting, please tell me and I will put it on the map,” Fowler said. “There was kind of a group consensus that people would like to see the map earlier, and I kind of let them know I’m pulling teeth to get the information the day before it’s due, so it’s a ‘help me help you’ kind of thing.”
Fowler added the committee is happy to help any time a local businesses is having an event related to the arts.
“The A&E Committee welcomes input and help and ideas, and anything from the merchant community. If they have ideas, if they want to do fundraisers – anything they have going on – our purpose is to serve the artists in this community,” she said. “Our goal is to support this town looking like a place where artists would be happy and where they would be embraced, and a big part of that is merchants.
“I know that the politics of this town are a light fraught right now, but at the end of day I feel like the community here is still strong and I feel like the heart of the community is still good, from the A&E committee, to the merchants, to the artists, to the town – we all want to make it work,” Fowler continued. “If anyone has ideas and feedback, we’re open to hearing it working with them. That’s just how things get done.
“I, personally, walked away from that meeting feeling hopeful,” she said.
For more information on the Berlin Arts and Entertainment Committee, visit www.artsinberlin.org or www.facebook.com/artsinberlinmd.
The next scheduled 2nd Friday falls on April 12.