Erin MacLean describes her response to Turners Falls pretty succinctly: “It was love at first sight.” She discovered it on a trip with her partner (in business and life), John McNamara. She recalls, “I was inspired by how beautiful this little city was, the wide sidewalks, the tree-lined streets, the architecture. I pointed to this one building as the one I wanted to open a store in.” That building, it turned out, was for sale—and now houses Loot: Found and Made.
On the day they laid eyes on the building and she floated the idea of the store, the pair weren’t in the market for a retail venue. “The idea came out of the blue,” MacLean says. But it stuck, and the couple purchased the downtown building four years ago.
“First, we renovated the top floor to make an apartment for Hallmark students to rent,” MacLean recalls. “Then we renovated a living space for ourselves on the second floor.” They also worked at the storefront. Loot opened for business in October, 2011.
When MacLean met McNamara, he was already in the business of selling industrial artifacts. Self-described as a person who “has always liked old things,” as well as the quest for obscure and even obsolete ones, he mixes a good eye with dogged willingness to gather items. From business liquidations where he picks up furniture to old barns or flea markets where things wait to be discovered, from yard sales to dumpsters, McNamara travels about, searching.
Loot is filled with the kinds of things McNamara already sold—somewhat obscure objects, very often industrial in nature and ready for new purposes, like rubber molds from the defunct Lunt Silversmiths factory that had been used to make charms and trinkets, or old office furniture. The store has a broader scope that includes gifts and crafts. Prior to the storefront, most of his business took place at the Brimfield Antiques Fair—or stemmed from connections made there. Before she joined him in the business, MacLean was a freelance book designer whose background was in graphic design, letterpress and magazine and book publishing.
The storefront is MacLean’s purview while the foraging continues to fall primarily to McNamara. Among the gift items MacLean has gathered for sale at Loot are, according to the website: “tables, benches, stools, bowls, chalkboards, bowties, tins, bins, fabric, paintings, photographs, hats, signs, mittens, jewelry, rulers, buttons, cards, locks, Elvis sideburns, aprons, soap, scrap paper and piles of cool stuff.” Asked whether she gets attached to merchandise, MacLean first says, “I don’t get attached to many things.” Then she pauses: “I do get attached to all animal-related items.” She is especially partial to cats. “The store has two cats, Jimmy and Tina, and people come to check in on them.” Upstairs, at home, she and McNamara have four. “I’ve always liked cats,” she says a bit apologetically.
MacLean enjoys the opportunity to display work by local craftspeople. “I am really surprised how much traffic we get, given what a small city this is,” she says. “People think of us when they have gifts to buy. It’s very gratifying.” She admits that of the more practical items Loot sells, she’s partial to things that get people organized. “People always want storage items, containers, baskets, that sort of thing,” she muses. “I like categories. I try to arrange things in ways that inspire confidence in the possibility of order.” People come in and see items to be repurposed as furniture, or find industrial furniture and figure out ways to fit those items into their homes. “There are,” says MacLean, “plenty of DIY people who come here.”
Those rubber molds? Magpie, the Greenfield restaurant, bought some to be used as décor. MacLean says, “Since then,” says MacLean, “other people have come in to do the same thing.” She is most impressed by people’s ability to see creative purposes for things originally intended to be something else. “Sometimes a person will come to the register with a hook, scrap paper, washers, a hammer handle, railroad ties and a skeleton key,” she says. “They’ll have numbers or letters in some form. They make a pile. It’s fun to know these things out in the world will be repurposed, perhaps as art. Sometimes people tell me about their ideas; other times, they don’t yet know—at all—what they hope to make, but they are sure the items will tell them.”
A former painter, MacLean can’t imagine how the would-be sculptors turn these odd materials into art. Yet she found the task of creating a retail space to be “almost like making a painting. …There are all these shapes and colors to arrange.” This perspective extends to the experience of maintaining the space, too, with one particularly critical distinction between storefront and canvas—fluidity. MacLean describes inventory as “ever-changing,” and adds, “When something sells, I have a hole left behind and have to scramble and rearrange. We just sold a table that was in the store’s window. I don’t want the hole. I had to figure out what might go in there next.”
Window display issues aside, there were more steps than the couple had imagined in the process between the moment MacLean and McNamara laid eyes on Turners Falls and their building and the October day when Loot opened for business. For example, they took a small business class to learn how to write a business plan. “Amy Shapiro at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation has been incredibly helpful,” MacLean says.
MacLean remains awed by the community, and the beauty of the place: “Turners Falls feels like a little city, except that it’s got all this nature right here, too: the canals and the bike path, the river, and then beyond, the farmland and the mountains. With efforts like the River Culture series, there’s such careful attention being paid to how this city can make it, and the arts is so much part of this revival. We are so pleased to participate.”•