To paraphrase the piece in the Republican, Sunrise has ridden off into the sunset.
The signs may have been there for a while, but few of us thought it would really happen. Fifteen years in this little downtown these days puts you firmly in the category of local institution. Say what you will about the place, and perhaps you haven't been there in months or even years, but I think the town lost a small piece of its charm this week. Carl, the owner, chief baker and bottle washer, took a chance on Easthampton when she was still rough around the edges, with the kind of downtown so sketchy parents of Williston students were given directions to the campus from the Mass Pike via route 10 even when they were coming from the East. When I started Mt. Tom's nearly eight years ago, I had the benefit of trailblazers like Sunrise, Smokin' Lil's, and the Nashawannuck Gallery to cushion my landing here. There are still a few holes to fill downtown today, especially on Union Street, but I'd argue it's daring entrepreneurs like Carl who were the real risk-takers, and the ones who should get the lion's share of the credit for downtown Easthampton's renaissance.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't also give credit due to all the 'starving artists' who took up residence in the reclaimed mills around town. These are the other fearless pioneers who discovered Easthampton in her tougher days, bringing with them a creative energy that has become the pleasant undercurrent of the city.
So why will I no longer enjoy the comforting aroma of baking donuts wafting through the walls of the bakery I share a basement with? Carl shares some of his thoughts over at MassLive. In a nutshell, he says it just stopped being fun. I think most of us who start our own business say it at the outset, but I also think few actually live by the words - 'When it stops being fun, I'll get out.' Too often businesses fail or in some ways worse, they survive while their overworked owner watches the years of their life zoom past at warp speed as they play the wizard behind the curtain for 83 hours a week. Let's face it, owning your own business is a lifestyle, and anyone who tells you otherwise, hasn't done it, or if they have, it probably wasn't for long.
When my Dad owned his ice cream shop with Mom back when I was in my 20's, I saw how chained he was to the business. He loved it. His favorite line was, 'I'm not going to work. I'm going to play.' But it baffled me why he never just hired a manager to run things so he could have a 'normal life' and have more time to do the non-ice cream things he enjoyed like fishing and reading a good book on a hammock in the backyard. It's the same problem I find myself struggling with today. I get it now. It's just not that simple. If you read the E-Myth by Michael Gerber, it's the classic entrepreneur's dilemma. Work like mad with a ton of passion and excitement for your new 'baby'. It becomes a success, and you end up working like crazy all the time. You finally say 'enough', then hire a manager and begin to off-load tasks. If you find the right person, they will do an adequate job, perhaps even a very good job. But they will never be you. They will never have your level of enthusiasm and stake in the game. Almost inevitably, just as you start to feel a bit of work/life balance returning to your life despite the negative impact on your bottom line, the dam starts to break in your business. The place isn't quite as clean as it would be when you were there all the time. Quality of the product starts to deteriorate a bit. And so begins the slow and steady slide to mediocrity. If you're not paying attention, by the time you realize what's happening, you've lost customers, the numbers are in the tank, and your biz is at the brink of self-destruction. Once it gets to that point, there are really just two options - say goodbye to your reclaimed personal life and jump back in to save your baby, or let it go.
During the short conversation I had with Carl in the parking lot the day he made the big decision to shutter Sunrise, he described his frustrations with staffing. In the colorful way only Carl can. Anyone who's come in contact with him knows, what you see (and hear) is what you get. He may sugarcoat his pastries, but never his words that's for sure. That may have alienated a customer here and there, but to his credit you always knew where you stood with Carl. Cross him and you'll feel the wrath of his words. Passive aggressive would never be used to describe him. But he always seemed to have time for his customers. Most mornings as I gazed over to his window, I could see him standing at a table of his regular customers, telling stories a mile a minute. That's the Carl many of his patrons will miss.
As for the staffing issues, I've always said it's the best and worst part of the gig. When you have a great crew, your job and your life is immensely easier. When it's not so great for whatever reasons, you find yourself working much longer and much harder to keep the ship righted. The ironic part is I believe I have Carl's staffing Achilles' heel to thank for my ice cream shop being in Easthampton.
You see, Mt. Tom's was actually started in a way by Carl ten years ago. He is the one responsible for the candy store part. He called it Sunrise Sweeties, and it was meant to be primarily a way to peddle his own homemade chocolates, truffles, petits fours, and other confections. He rented the space from our landlord after buying out the Northampton candy store Sweet Expectations. He cleaned it up nice, filled it with all their shelves, jars, and displays, added a few tables and counters, and Sunrise Sweeties was born.
Since he spent most of his time baking and operating Sunrise Pastry shop, he hired a manager to run his new candy store. From what I understand, that worked pretty well the first year, until that manager quit. The manager who replaced her wasn't up to the task in the same way. The business soon became a burden, and he decided to shop it around quietly. Around this time, I just happened to wander out here to visit a friend in Worthington. She owned a bed and breakfast and got her pastries from Carl. She just also happened to sell real estate on the side. Carl had mentioned he had a candy store to sell. My friend mentioned it to me after I described my so far fruitless search for a suitable location to bring to life my ice cream shop dreams. Voila, the stars had lined up, my friend made a call, I stopped in to see the place the next day, and the rest, as they say, is history.
My first look at the future Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream & Candy Store..
I didn't want this to read like an obituary, but more like a 'this is what Sunrise closing means to me'. When I saw Sara sitting on the back step of Sunrise the day they closed, I asked how she felt. Her response was simply, 'it feels weird.' Owning a business is, as I've said a million times, a lifestyle. The good news is it's a lifestyle you get to choose. I enjoy it because I still feel the passion for creating, for making people happy, for employing local youth, and for being able to spend my time in a happy and social place. It comes with the price of long hours, hard work, risk, and physical labor. I admire Carl for creating something from nothing, for taking a chance on this little town that couldn't, for putting his skills for creating amazing culinary treats to good use, and for getting up at 3:30 am nearly every day of the week for over a decade to do it. I'd guess he and Sara are feeling an emotional hangover of relief, sadness, guilt, angst over the future, and just plain 'weird'. Endings are never easy, but they do give us a chance to stop for a minute and reflect on how far we've come and what we've learned, before we decide where we're going next.
Carl and Sarah should feel good about all the great memories they've provided to Easthampton over the past twelve years. The idea of Sunrise not being around does feel weird, but I admire them for what had to be a very difficult decision. Life only moves forward, and I wish them the best of luck with whatever new lifestyle they choose, whether it be Hawaii, Florence, or a small culinary college in Vermont. Thanks for the impact you've had on my life and the many in town who will miss your talent for creating great sweets. May the road ahead be everything you hope for and more.