BRATTLEBORO — Kate Barry starts opening the first of a stack of cardboard boxes on the bar, her smile broadening into a grin.
“These are our light fixtures,” she says excitedly, as her husband, Bruce Hunt, tools in hand, looks on, and their 3-year-old daughter, Juniper, sits on a barstool momentarily entranced by a solitary Lincoln log that she found here, somewhere in the space that will become The Collective.
“All of this is new,” Barry says, gesturing to a gleaming array of bar appliances lining the still-empty north wall of 55 Elliot St.
On Friday, Barry and her business partner, Marty Griffin, will have what Berry described as a “soft, soft opening” of the space during August's Gallery Walk in downtown Brattleboro, with some food and some nonalcoholic drinks available while The Collective's liquor license is pending. They hope Aug. 13 will be the official opening day.
In April, right after the two announced the venture, Barry told me that getting back into the restaurant business was not originally part of the plan.
“I've been trying to talk myself out of this for six months because I swore to myself that I would never go back to restaurants and I would never open my own bar and all this,” she said. “Never, never, never.”
But she would see the spaces - both empty since Arkham closed last year - and think that it could work.
Never say never.
“We've gone through this whole year of a pandemic, and it's been so hard,” Barry said during our first, sometimes gut-wrenchingly emotional, conversation. “I was just looking at it like, someone needs to open it, someone needs to know how to do it - and I know how to do it.”
And then it got to the point where she had no choice.
She had to do what she thought was right for her. For her community.
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The ice machine and the lights might be new. But for Barry and Griffin, memories run deep here - so many of them good, too many of them bittersweet.
“Being here triggers so many good memories,” Barry says.
Memories of friends who worked together here, who gathered here, who bonded with one another here.
Friends - all too many of them - who have died from opioid overdoses or from despair that came to a head during the isolation during the pandemic.
Friends like Emily Chapman. Like Tom Holiday. Like Jonquil Clouet Boyle.
“They weren't sick from Coronavirus, but they died from Covid,” Barry says.
Chapman died on May 25, 2020 at age 30. Her obituary, accompanied by a photo of her smiling behind a bar, paints a portrait of the friend who, Barry says, was listed in her cell phone contacts as “Emily freaking awesome sweetheart.”
The obituary for Holiday, who died Feb. 12, called him “Brattleboro's ginger-bearded sage, raconteur and much-loved community fixture.” He was 30.
And on April 29, the same day that Barry had a gut-wrenching and emotional conversation with me about the nascent business and her sense of urgency and mission, Clouet Boyle died of an overdose. A gifted artist, she was 30.
Barry, 33, says that she has tried to count the number of people of her generation in Brattleboro who have died. She could never get through the whole list without being overwhelmed.
The through line of so many of these deaths of young adults in Brattleboro is overdose - “either accidental or non-accidental,” she says.
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Barry says that she and Griffin collectively have “50 years of restaurant experience at all types of venues, bars, restaurants, music, catering, fine dining in the tapas, wine bars - all of it.” They know how they will make it work to “put together all of our knowledge and our creativity and the things we've seen and make a space that is fun and comfortable and inviting and nice.”
Griffin will be the primary force behind the enterprise's day-to-day operations, she notes.
At first, they will open the old Metropolis space on Elliot Street, an intimate space with a capacity of 25, and eventually they will expand into the old Arkham space, which faces the Harmony Lot parking area.
The Elliot Street space, with exposed brick and stamped tin ceilings, is archetypal Brattleboro Victorian-era architecture.
They envision it as somewhere you can get a cheap draft beer yet also splurge on Barry's homemade infusions and bitters.
“It's not necessarily a fancy place,” says Barry. “We'll have something for everybody. But it's a place where everyone can feel like it could be their bar.”
The business partners want to cultivate a comfortable gathering place for the community. A lounge area of soft chairs are clustered around the window, defining a space that has the vibe of a comfortable living room.
Barry describes The Collective as a place where groups can rent the space to gather, where organizations can present and collaborate with ideas, from Queer Night to bridal showers to karaoke.
As Juniper interrupts to urge her parents to take her to get a hamburger - with the intensity and immediacy that only a 3-year-old can pull off - Barry says that the space will be family friendly. There will be dedicated time for arts and crafts and for games.
It also will be friendly for those who don't drink alcohol. “Alcohol isn't the main focus,” Barry says.
“We're going to have like a full nonalcoholic menu of like really nice fun cocktails,” she says - no cranberry juice as a lame afterthought.
* * *
There are, and will be, echoes in these well-worn, familiar spaces. The key to the Elliot Street door is still the same, Barry says with a laugh - it requires a quirky jiggle to unlock the place.
Those echoes extend to the people, too. In addition to area restaurant veterans like her and Griffin, a longtime Arkham employee, Antoine Trotman, who is “like a central figure to this place,” will resume his post as the doorman, she says.
And, of course, the spirit of lost friends looms large over the space.
Barry says that she and Griffin want The Collective “to be a place where everyone feels welcome.” But it's clear that she also wants it to be far more than just welcoming.
She wants patrons of The Collective to feel support. Safety. Trust. She wants people to be able to let their guard down and know that someone will always be there to listen - even if it's only bartenders gifted in building those connections, as Emily Chapman and Tom Holiday did.
The Collective, of course, will be a place of laughter and relaxation, of conversation and community. But it's clear that it also will be the place that Barry needed so badly when her friends passed away, one after another - a place that will provide comfort and that will be there when people need to grieve.
And maybe in the process, just by being there, the business will blossom into a place that will help keep people alive, a place to keep a fragile and hurting community intact, a place that will help prevent others from having to do that grieving.