Cambridge, NY’s gem of a bookstore

Battenkill Books photoDuring my visit to Cambridge, NY, I had a chance to visit Battenkill Books, a great independent bookstore right on Main Street.  And there I chatted for quite a while with Connie Brooks, the owner, and Kate Reid, who was handling a large sale.

I asked my standard question and Connie and Kate discussed and answered.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Kate: It’s a place with big ideas and creative energy, surrounded by beautiful agricultural land.  There’s a community theater and education program, so there’s lots of arts and an educated population, along with diversity.

Connie: There’s diversity in education level, for example.  And it’s not a homogeneous community as far as politics.  It’s diverse in that sense.

If I had to describe Cambridge, I would say:  A very special and unique upstate New York village, because we are a village–it’s important to point out not everybody’s a village, but we are–and very community oriented.  I think Cambridge is perfect, but I’m so biased.

Connie and Kate
Connie (left) and Kate.

Me: Are you both from here?

Both: No, no. We’re not.

Kate: I grew up in New York City.

Connie: And I grew up in Massachusetts.  Not terribly far.

When I first moved here, I thought, “I have landed in a Norman Rockwell-esque town.”  There’s a Christmas parade and there are all these trappings of, I don’t know, this image of what a village used to be, but it’s real here.  It’s all really real.  Gosh, it’s beautiful.

Cambridge is really community oriented.  I think that’s why a bookstore can survive in such a small town.  We have a very supportive community.  And, like Kate said, very arts oriented.  It’s amazing how many shows you can go to, how many artists live here.  I think that’s something that continues to surprise newcomers.

At roughly this point a customer joined the conversation.  She noted that she lives in Greenwich (pronounced Green-witch) and comes to Cambridge for the bookstore.  She bought a nice pile of books to make it worth the trip.

Then followed a little further chatter about how lucky the town is to have had a bookstore continuously while so many other towns (including Cambridge, MA) have lost them.  Connie told me, “We took over the existing bookstore, so there’s been a bookstore here for 40 years.  I’ve owned it 10 years.  A decade of the many decades.”

And that, more or less, was our conversation.  Except for a digression while Kate took a call and I was challenged to consider the question offered by Connie’s young son:  How many people in the world are sneezing at any one time?  Now, whenever I sneeze, I think of him and his question.

Then I was off, glad to have met Connie and Kate, two relative newcomers who are meeting the book needs of the area.

Motel Cambridge

My gracious hosts during my visit to Cambridge, NY were Farrah and Dave Dobbins, who moved to the area only about a year ago, and were running the motel for only three weeks when I turned up. (In fact, they told me I was the first to reserve a room with their new online booking system.)

Farrah and Dave, motelFarrah and Dave sold two businesses in their home state of Colorado (Dave originally hailing from Missouri), packed up their belongings and daughters, and moved to a farm just over the border from Cambridge in Vermont. They had a vision of operating a Christmas tree farm, which they’re doing, but they needed a way to generate income while the tree business matures.  Just then, the motel called to them.  A roofer was at work while I was there — the first of the renovations Farrah and Dave are planning.

Farrah sat down with me to talk about their move and Cambridge.

How would you describe Cambridge?
I think if I had to describe Cambridge, I would say it is a quaint and friendly and rural upstate New York town. A lot of people I know grew up here, and a lot of them told me that, when they were in high school, they wanted to leave, but then, once they started their family, they wanted to come back. So I would say that it’s a great town to raise a family and to plant roots. I also think it’s a town that, once you’re an outsider, you’re maybe always kind of an outsider. I mean, I’ll never be from Cambridge. I think for a long time I’ll always be the new person. Not in a bad way. There are people who generations of their family have been here.  It’s a place that people come back to.

Farrah told me that their move from Colorado was prompted by wanting a lifestyle change.  The first seed of interest in a Christmas tree farm was planted more than five years ago when they read about one in Maine.  After a few zigs and zags as they figured out the right next step, they found Cambridge and loved it.  They also appreciated its proximity to Albany, from which they can fly back to Colorado to visit family.

The farm and the motel aren’t even their only occupations right now.  They’ve also been working on real estate photography (which is what first led them to the motel).  And then there’s the running of the household — their daughters were at the motel when I arrived, but soon were ferried off home having finished a morning at basketball camp.

I imagined that most of the motel business would come from seasonal activities — foliage in the fall, snow sports in the winter, etc.  Farrah said that wasn’t really the case (though someone called, while we were talking, to book a room for his fishing trip).  Instead, the motel keeps busy with regulars (folks originally from Cambridge who come back to the area to see family) and crews of laborers (road repair crews, tree pruning teams who maintain power lines, for example).  The motel also regularly sees guests attending local barn-based weddings, and it housed the pilots for the 2019 balloon festival.  Farrah hopes, ultimately, to draw more visitors from other cities.

Farrah, Dave, and I very briefly discussed the political environment in our respective Cambridges.  While I mentioned Cambridge, MA’s strong left-lean, they said they found Cambridge, NY to include a diversity of views, more so than Fort Collins, CO, their previous home.

My conversation with Farrah was perfect for framing my interactions with other folks during the rest of my short trip to Cambridge, NY.  I appreciated her perspective as an outsider who is now an insider.  And plus, both she and Dave were very generous in making time to chat with me and pose for a few photos.

Best Annual Event, Cambridge, NY

My original Q&A with Mayor Bogle included a question about the best event of the year in Cambridge, NY, and that’s how I learned I was only about a week too late to attend the annual balloon festival.  She wrote:

Balloons“Cambridge Valley Balloon Festival has been held in the village every June for the past 19 years. It has grown to be the second largest event in the county, and is a major event for economic benefits. What started out as a small event with hot air balloon launches has grown into a three-day event with multiple activities. Businesses have their most profitable sales period during this time, and it’s a wonderful time to visit with friends and neighbors around the community.”

The best place to find out more is the website of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, from which I’ve borrowed these two photographs.  I hope to take some pix of my own next June!

balloons-and-tractor

 

Best annual event, Cambridge, MA

Taking a moment from Cambridge, NY to return to Cambridge, MA, I don’t want too much time to pass before a quick post about my personal pick for the best event of the year — something I’ll try to bring out for every Cambridge.

Though there are many annual festivals and regional events, my vote for the best event of any year is the Cambridge Dance Party.  Held each year on a June summer Friday, the 2019 party was held on the weekend before I popped over to NY.

The dance party takes place on Massachusetts Avenue (a main street through town).  It starts at 7:00 p.m., when lots of families are there and elders sit in front of the senior center, and continues until 11:00, by which time the “dance floor” has been taken over by the young professional crowd.

Here’s the scene at about 9:00, when the street is full and the lights are shining on Cambridge City Hall.

Late Dance Party, 2

The party is fun, of course, but I value it for other reasons.  It’s the gathering that best reflects the diversity of the city and that offers the best opportunity for residents of Cambridge (and surrounding communities) to come together across the age spectrum, something that happens all too rarely.

It will be hard to convince me that another event tops this one, but I’m open to suggestions.  Add your thoughts in the comments, Cambridge, MA, and I’ll write about your suggestions in the future.

The view from the Cambridge, NY library

Christina Becker, libraryContinuing my spin through Cambridge, NY, I’d like to jump to an evening chat with Christina Becker, the director of the Cambridge Public Library.  Even in our larger city of Cambridge, MA, the library is a hub of activity, with services going way beyond books.  Along with the Cambridge Central School, the library is a center for Cambridge community life.

Christina is not from the village of Cambridge, but she lives in the immediate area and grew up there, too.  In between, she lived elsewhere for a while, before returning with children.  She’s an enthusiastic spokesperson for the region, though one with a window into some of the area’s hardships.

The Cambridge (NY) Public Library is chartered by the village, but receives additional funding from the Cambridge Central School district and the surrounding towns (Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson).  It can be found toward the edge of the village in a historic building.  A plan is just getting going to enlarge the building to enhance accessibility and to enable the creation of appropriate spaces for children and groups that meet there.

Library

Christina told me it’s “a beautiful building, but not a conducive space for the things we’re doing.”  By way of services, this includes free assistance with tax preparation and in navigating the health insurance marketplace, along with tutoring around literacy, computer technology, and GED programs.  The library also offers a meeting room for outside groups, including scouts (boy and girl), youth sports organizations, and mahjong players.  But any expansion plan, which could offer accessibility and a quiet meeting room, will have a long lead-up and may not happen until 2020/2021.

About a year ago, Christina and Mayor Bogle partnered on “Community Change Agent,” a series of “aspirational meetings” that gave local folks the opportunity to express their thoughts on areas for improvement in Cambridge.  Christina said that “regardless of demographic, people were on the same page.”  One key issue was communications.  She said, “Outside the village, there is no high-speed internet.  The digital divide is real and economic opportunities follow the digital divide.”  The library’s contribution toward easing the divide is 24/7 open-access wifi.  Anyone can access the internet from inside or directly outside the library.

The village’s work in connecting people will get a boost from Verizon’s extension of FIOS into the area and the NY governor’s broadband initiative, but it still remains to be seen how many people are reached.

As a general policy, Christina said, “We do everything we can to offer as many free services as we can to enhance people’s life.  We’re big on connecting people.”  To that end, the library lends tablets, Kindles, and laptops, and they’re working on lending mobile hotspots (which don’t yet work everywhere).  They also lend out a metal detector and plans have been floated for next summer to lend a fishing pole.  And the library has partnered with the local farmers’ market to connect the arts and agriculture with a maker tent.  Christina said, “Libraries are more about people now than about the things we’re lending.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is a tight-knit typical rural town.  The beauty of Cambridge is that it’s a safe place.  I have two kids, 13 and nine, and I’ve never once worried walking down the street with them.  The people who see them will know they’re mine.

Last notes on village government

Village of Cambridge signDuring my Cambridge, NY visit, I stopped by to chat with Mayor Carman Bogle, which gave me a chance to better understand the issues she had identified in her written Q&A.

First, some detail regarding her comment that wastewater infrastructure is acting as a drag on development.  She explained to me that homes and commercial buildings all currently rely on septic systems that present a hard limit on how many people can be based on a site.  But starting from scratch to create a new sewer system is a major lift for a small village and will almost surely require support from the towns, county, and /or state.  There’s no plan yet for how to get it done, but people are thinking about it.  The housing stock is there, but the physical restrictions on business expansion limits potential job creation.

The village budget is currently at $1.2 million and it funds the police and fire departments (though the fire fighters are volunteers), DPW, a one-room court that considers both civil and criminal cases, a youth department, and the library.

Mayor Bogle also provided some detail on the village’s electoral system.  The candidates in local elections do not affiliate with the national political parties for their run.  Instead, they create local parties that reflect the community.  Mayor Bogle’s party is “Community Voices of Cambridge,” and she ran unopposed in the most recent election in March 2019.  In addition to the mayor, there’s an assistant mayor and trustees.

Last, Mayor Bogle answered a question on the mind of some blog readers.  Residents of Cambridge, NY — unlike those in Cambridge, MA and Cambridge, UK — do not refer to themselves as Cantabrigians.  They’re “The Villagers,” instead.

Pre-K to 12, all in one place

My whirlwind trip to Cambridge, NY yielded a big batch of material to draw from for this blog, but where to start?  As I sifted through my notes, I realized that nothing will make complete sense unless I first introduce a place I didn’t have a chance to explore, the Cambridge Central School.

I’ve already mentioned the challenging map of administrative jurisdictions in the area, with three towns and the county all playing a role in village life.  Layered over those units is the Cambridge Central School District, which draws from a large geographic area, including the towns of Cambridge, White Creek, Jackson, Easton, Salem, Schaghticoke, Hoosick, and Pittstown.  There are about 900 students at a school that offers all grades from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, with the 2019 graduating class numbering about 70 students.

School.PNG

The building — which dates to 1950, following a fire that destroyed its predecessor — has a one-story wing for the younger students and a two-story wing for the high school.  With only one school for everyone in the village of Cambridge (and beyond!), Cambridge Central is the focus for many community activities, and team sports draw support from beyond students and parents.

As I spoke to folks in Cambridge, the experience of being part of the school community (as students or as parents) came up in every conversation and often seemed to cement their relationship with the village.   I don’t think I can accurately reflect the life of the village without at least this brief description of the school, which offers fuel to the phenomenon of everybody knowing everyone else in the village.

Triumph in Defeat, 1953As a side note that I saw referenced in many places, the school was the inspiration for a Normal Rockwell 1953 painting, “Triumph in Defeat.”

With this introduction complete, readers will understand the references in future posts to this important center of village life.

Take exit B3 and you’re there

Cambridge, NY is a place that, I feel confident, will see me again.  I had a delightful (if short) time there, chatting with folks and exploring.  It’s going to take me some time to gather up my notes and share the content of the conversations, so today I’ll simply talk about the trip.

Travel map

It’s hard to imagine that I’ll find any other two Cambridges that are as easy to travel between as those in MA and NY.  Once I pulled onto the Massachusetts Turnpike (I90, about two miles from home), I went west until I had crossed the border into New York.  I took exit B3 for NY Route 22 and traveled past NY towns with names reflecting the upstate area’s tradition of mixing the classical (such as Troy), international (Lebanon), Biblical (Canaan), Dutch (Rensselaer), Native American (Hoosic), and English (Greenwich).  Another hour later, I reached the Motel Cambridge, right on Route 22 and where I would spend the night.  The local address is 51 South Park Street and, given that the address of my childhood home was also 51 Park, there was no doubt but that I’d be staying there.  (Also, it’s pretty much the only game in town.)

Common Sense Farm

Cambridge, NY doesn’t sprawl far beyond the intersection of Park Street and Main Street, where you’ll find the village’s only stoplight.  A few streets radiate out from Park or Main but, really, not too many.  That made it super easy to get around and meet up with everyone I had arranged to see.  Once outside the compact center of the village, most of the roads I followed took me past a farm, such as this one: Common Sense Farm.

The Cambridge Valley Chamber of Commerce describes the location of the village this way.  “Cambridge is located in southern Washington County, eastern upstate New York. We are northeast of Albany, east of Saratoga Springs and southwest of Manchester, Vermont….Driving Times: Albany-55 minutes; Manchester, VT-45 minutes; Greenwich-10 minutes; Saratoga Springs-25 minutes; Bennington, VT-20 minutes; Williamstown, MA-45 minutes.”  In other words, it’s neither completely isolated, nor is it part of a teeming metropolis.

Continental RoadCambridge has a long history, with Native American settlements and a significant role in the Revolutionary War.  And that long history is what, I think, has led to a very complicated government structure.  There’s the village, which was the focus of my visit, but there’s also a Town of Cambridge.  Most public services are provided by the village, which is probably a good thing, as the village is split among three towns — Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson.  All of the towns are in Washington County, which stretches up the eastern edge of New York State.

(My home town on Long Island, NY is also a village that, along with several other villages, is rolled into a town, so the governance structure wasn’t totally foreign to me, but no one in Cambridge told me it was better to be part of three towns, much as they might be used to it.)

CoOpBefore my trip, I looked at the restaurant options in town and discovered that nearly all are closed on Monday, and many on Tuesday, too.  Folks seemed more amused than irritated when I commented on how eating out must be confined to Wednesday to Sunday.  With a lunch picked up at the local co-op, dinner at one of the open restaurants, and breakfast supplies from the supermarket, I easily got by.

After all the conversations on Monday and Tuesday morning, I followed a suggestion I received several times and zipped out to the local monastery (!), located on a hill that truly brings out the loveliness of the surrounding area.  From there, back to the stoplight, a left turn onto Rt. 22, and the drive back home.  My next posts will reflect my Cambridge, NY conversations.

Monastery

Mayor Carman Bogle reflects on Cambridge, NY

While I travel to Cambridge, NY, I’d like to share this Q&A with Mayor Carman Bogle, who took office in April 2015, following the village’s March election. 

I should note that Mayor Bogle was extremely generous in answering a long list of questions that I have since learned was simply too long.  But her kind response made me think that I might be onto something with this blog — that there is a lot to learn from each other. I’m excited to visit her village and to meet her this afternoon.

Carman Bogle
Mayor Bogle (waving from the front of the cart). Photo credit: Eric Fellows

How would you describe Cambridge?
The village of Cambridge is a charming walkable community with a population of about 2,000 people. Most properties are historic with a mix of Victorian and Colonial homes and businesses.

Because of close proximity and a smaller population, Cambridge is a close-knit community. Everybody knows their neighbors and fellow community members. People are always ready to help each other, as well as welcome new people to the community. Smiles and friendly waves of hello are readily available as you walk down Main Street. There is no shortage of those willing to volunteer to make and keep Cambridge a warm inviting place where people want to raise their families.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Challenges facing Cambridge right now are a lack of infrastructure and economic development, particularly with regard to wastewater infrastructure. This has deeply impacted business development since property sizes are small and too close together to meet standards. Jobs are hard to come by in Cambridge.

What are one or two national issues that particularly affect Cambridge now?
I would say a national issue affecting Cambridge as of late has been the negativity that we see displayed through the media and social media, and the overall divide that seems to be developing nationally. While we are close-knit, there have been times when attitudes and treatment of each other have not reflected our local core values. We often need to remind ourselves that we are friends and neighbors, and ultimately we care about each other more than our opinions.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what concerns you most?
What has me most concerned for the future we leave for our children is that the economic conditions will leave them with no option but to leave Cambridge.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what leaves you feeling most hopeful?
What leaves me most hopeful when I think of the future we are leaving our children is that this is always home. There is always someone here who cares about you and wants to see you succeed in life. The feeling of community and belonging has been instilled in our children, and I hope they pass that on to their children.

Cue up the first road trip

On Monday, I’m heading out for my Cambridge (MA) to Cambridge (NY) road trip.  I’ve been studying up on Cambridge, NY, where I’ll focus on the village, rather than the town of the same name.  (More on that next week, once I figure it all out.)  For now, I started by gathering basic information (thank you, Wikipedia) to guide my conversations when I’m there.

A bird’s-eye view of these numbers could lead to the assumption that the difference between Cambridge, MA and Cambridge, NY is population and there’s not much else to see.  As I’ve read further, though, I’ve come to think there are other key forces at play.  I’m looking forward to chatting with folks there and finding out more.

Massachusetts New York
Type of community or government City Village
Zip code(s) 02138 to 02142 12816
Population from 2010 Census 105,162 1870
Area (square miles) 7.1 1.7
Population density/square mile 16,355 1151
Median age 31 40
Population breakdown (percent)
Under 18 13.3 25.7
18 to 24 21.2 7.1
25 to 44 38.6 24.5
45 to 64 17.8 23.0
65 or older 9.2 19.8
Percent white 67 98 (2000)
Median income $47,979 $31,164
Elevation (feet) 40 496
Miles to an ocean (approximately, as the crow flies) 3 124
Distance to Cambridge, MA (shortest driving distance) 0 160 miles