Northampton’s Stayin’ Alive

A new night club brings life into a fading Massachusetts town

By 11 p.m., the club was booming. Almost everyone who had entered now danced under a disco ball, shaking and moving with plastic cups in their hands on a Saturday night while the DJ played Afrobeats and Reggaeton.

The music reverberated through the floor, making it difficult to hear. People’s voices went hoarse trying to chat over the DJ’s mix. Despite all the bodies on the dance floor, the temperature remained comfortable, and the pleasant smell of Nag Champa incense wafted in the air.

The crowd was a diverse group. Ages ranged from 21 to people in their mid-50s, all of whom wore casual clothes and danced to their own beat while projecting no pretenses. A pink neon sign hung over the bar: “Come as you are.” As cliché as it may seem, the message rang true.

“I think I’ve been here four or five times, and every time, it’s like, a different group of people,” said Rick Gifford, an elementary school teacher and resident of Northampton. “Which is so nice, a different group of people every time.”

From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tellus & The Satellite Bar functions as a new restaurant in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts serving craft cocktails and New American-style food, such as a “Wagyu Double Smash Burger” or a vegan “Hot Pocket.” But starting at 9 p.m., the space transforms into a full-fledged nightclub. Tables and chairs are moved out of the dining room, revealing a dance floor. The lights dim and the DJ enters, and by 10 p.m., the doors open to club-goers.

After years of empty storefronts, limited venues, and the lingering impact of the pandemic, Tellus & The Satellite Bar brings a resurgence to an otherwise depleted town.

The club’s revolving musical line-up reflects the diversity of Tellus’ patrons: nights designated to Motown vinyl, 90s rock, throwback hip hop, emo, punk, a Queer dance party.

“We cannot be all things to all people, but our space is welcoming for everybody,” said Amanda Riseling, a co-owner of Tellus & The Satellite Bar with Nhan Bui and Jeremy Werther. “Really, that’s not lip service, it really is for everybody.”

And she was right. Patrons ranged from locals to tourists, all joining together on the dance floor.  A bartender at The Majestic Saloon drank a cocktail with his friends while a hostess from India House spoke with the bouncer at the front door. A medical student from New York arrived at Tellus after her waiter at HighBrow recommended it. Shocked by the absence of TV screens, she was wowed by the carefree energy of the dancing crowd, and even more thrilled by the $3 cover charge, a far cry from the typical $20 covers in Manhattan. Outside, groups took a break from the club’s warmth while bumming cigarettes and exchanging smiles and names.

COVID-19 undoubtedly impacted our social lives, but the desire to make up for it felt all-encompassing at Tellus. “After Covid, people just need to move their bodies, they gotta wiggle you know?” said Maz, a Smith College graduate student who wanted to leave out her last name. “We needed this.”

“Dancing is one of my favorite things to do and like, I couldn’t do it for so long,” said Susanna Hoffmann, a Saturday night club-goer. “It just, like, brings a sense of community.”

While people craved company after the pandemic, the surge for socializing expands prior to 2020. It was only apparent because now, there was finally someplace to go.

“Downtown after like 9 o’clock, um, it’s sad at a lot of places, most places,” said Amy Cahillane, the Executive Director of the Downtown Northampton Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the town. “It’s been just super quiet downtown.”

Although the difficulties of COVID-19 played a role in the closing of Northampton restaurants like Bistro Les Gras and Sylvester’s, not all closures stemmed from the pandemic. The owners of the restaurant Wine Witch closed their doors in September after being open for only six months due to “financial realities.” The Green Room, a popular cocktail bar, closed in August after the bar manager left for New York, causing his entire team to leave in solidarity. Patria, the restaurant now replaced by Tellus & The Satellite Bar, closed last November after an altercation between the owner and his sous chef.

While the lingering effects of the pandemic surely contribute to stressful working conditions and economic struggles, Northampton’s dining scene started declining years ago.

In 2019, eateries such as ConVino Wine Bar and La Fiorentina Pastry Shop closed due to Northampton’s changing landscape. High rent, the influx of dispensaries and the increase in panhandlers have been blamed for the closures.

Meanwhile, despite being a college town, Northampton’s nightlife revolves around Bishop’s Lounge and The Majestic Saloon, both of which are carrying the local entertainment scene for millennials and Gen Z. Otherwise, live music comes in the form of various 1970s cover bands playing tribute to The Eagles, ABBA or Led Zeppelin at the Calvin Theatre.

“There’s a bunch of our downtown entertainment venues that aren’t open right now, or certainly not open with a robust calendar of offerings,” said Cahillane. “With no late-night entertainment, all of that late-night traffic that used to go out, I think dropped off.”

Although the town continues to hold a soft spot in the hearts of many locals, empty storefronts and a dwindling night scene have turned the once-bustling town into a state of desertion.

Riseling personified Northampton as the loveable friend who’s going through a hard time, causing grounds for concern. “Other people want to come in and wanna talk s*** about [Northampton], and you’re like, ‘Nope, no, no absolutely not,’” said Riseling. “But amongst ourselves, we’re like ‘it needs some help – how can we help you?’”

Riseling says that besides being the Roman Goddess for “earth,” the name “Tellus” is a play on words: “Tell us” what you need.

“We want our space and what we do to be like a conversation,” said Riseling. “We see that there’s a need and so this is our response, and how do we meet that?”

And what does Northampton need? Better music, better food, and someplace fun, according to Riseling. “We want people to come in here and have fun, and there are multiple ways to do that,” said Riseling.

“I was at Tellus until, like, 1 o’clock in the morning, or 1:30 in the morning, and just the notion that I could be in downtown Northampton out that late, having a drink, I was just so happy,” said Cahillane.

Based on the crowd that surfaced on Saturday night, better music and a sense of fun officially arrived in Northampton. “It only took six years,” said Luis Fieldman, a journalist for MassLive who covered the Tellus & The Satellite Bar’s opening weekend. “Finally, something good in Northampton.”

Fieldman’s friends agreed with him as they stood outside Tellus on Saturday night. “It’s a better Basement, like the Basement 2.0, or 3.0,” said Cid Ferreira. The Basement, a Northampton dance club where Tellus co-owner Nhan Bui previously bartended, remains closed since the pandemic.

“[Bui]’s trying to restore something that Northampton lost and it’s great,” said Gifford. “It’s better.”

“Our mission statement is ‘make it better,’” said Riseling. “And that’s not just for us to be like, we’re coming in to save everything. Of course we’re not. We’re asking to have a conversation with people about how we make it better.”

The conversation to “make it better” has already begun circulating among the locals, offering a semblance of hope for downtown Northampton. “We need more bars that are locally owned and locally committed,” said Carlos Garcia, a Northampton resident who attended Motown night on Oct. 29. “With the amount of empty storefronts, it’s nice to see an establishment open up and stay open.”

“If it can bring back that late-night scene and encourage other bars that people will actually come out, then I think that would be great,” said Cahillane. In addition to the benefits of being open late, Cahillane remarked on the high quality of the food and drinks at Tellus. “I don’t want to say it will make everybody step up their game, because there are other places that are great,” she said. “But I’m excited to see something of that caliber downtown.”

While the town’s decaying dining industry seems to stem from stubborn inflexibility, Tellus brings a breath of new life.

After working in the hospitality industry for most of her life, Riseling understands how businesses can be “living” things. “They have people in them that are living, and they have to change, they have to grow, they morph, they breathe,” she said. “They sometimes have a mind of their own. I think sometimes listening to what a space needs, or what a business needs, in theory, it should equate to like, you know, it being a little more organic.”

It appears the owners of Tellus already know how to make Northampton better, but they remain open to the needs of the community, a quality that hadn’t existed in the now-vacated buildings.

And how is the community responding? Jag Liore, a Tellus club-goer, summed it up: “So far, so good.”

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