New Energy in Canaan
It’s been hard to see. Roads and walkways have been torn up, repaired, torn up again. Traffic has been diverted, slowed by flaggers and, for the past week, stopped altogether.
But underneath the mess and disruption, Canaan is burgeoning.
After decades of languishing economically, the town is bursting with new businesses. Some of them—The Vault, Clover and Stuart’s Treasures—give a nod to the past, selling antiques and collectibles, while others, such as the newly opened Industry Kitchen & Bar strive for an edgy, chic, esthetic.
“People come here from neighboring towns—Millerton, Great Barrington, Lakeville,” said Industry Kitchen owner Festim Ajro. “The city people say they feel like they are in Manhattan, right here in Canaan.”
Ajro has taken the space at 14 Railroad Street from the funky, vaguely down-at-the-heels ambiance of the former Zia Maria (which had the best Italian food in Litchfield County) to a sleek, modern bistro with an upscale menu. It may seem an odd choice for a new restaurant in Canaan. Canaan, after all, is not Manhattan. It is not even Lakeville, Sharon or Great Barrington. It is a proudly independent, workingman and woman’s town. But Ajro knew what he and the people he surveyed wanted.
“I’ve worked in town all my life,” said the young man, whose father owns Roma, a popular pizza parlor just down the street. “The first thing I heard when I talked to people was, ‘not another Italian restaurant.’ I didn’t want something cozy and old school. I wanted to feel like I was in the city.”
“I did about 50 percent of the work in here,” he said, adding that all the hired construction work was completed by local contractors.
He opted for an “All American” cuisine with steak, burgers and salads. As with most restaurants in the region, post-Covid prices are higher than what the area clientele is used to. “I do the best with prices that I can with the current cost of food,” he said. “Sometimes people remark on the prices but they never complain about the quality.”
A slightly older business that has found a new presence on Main Street is Jesse Morey’s Artisan Shop. He moved his five-year-old enterprise from his former location East Main Street to a larger shop to the village center (6 Main Street) last fall.
Morey creates his custom-made pieces in a backroom workshop and showcases them in the front of the building. His live-edge and wood slab dining and side tables, handcrafted cheese boards, trays and other items are crafted from locally sourced wood and iron pieces. Morey focuses on reusing materials and bringing out the natural beauty in every piece of wood he handles.
“I keep it local to keep it green,” he said. “Much of the wood I use is from storm damage.”
Morey broadens the appeal of his shop with the work of other area artisans and plans to draw in even more for the holiday season. “I could get by with just the custom work in the backroom,” he said, “but I want to help the town and other artisans. Everyone who works here is local.”
Morey’s business is flanked on either side by new ventures. At 93 Main Street, the Old New England Market has taken up abode featuring Farmhouse Décor with a focus on local, handcrafted, reclaimed and repurposed products sold on consignment.
Co-owner Ann Tallmadge is inspired by an earlier ethic in which people made by hand the things they used—either creating them from scratch or fixing up and repurposing items to give them new life. The couple has been working with area woodworkers, yarn crafters, soap makers, paper and sign artists.
Although challenged by the disruptions of the pandemic and the state’s long summer of tearing up roads in the village center, Tallmadge and her partner Mike Reagan say they are here to stay, predicting a major revival in Canaan’s center.
A pop-up store that lives on at 32 Railroad Street, the site of a former car dealership, also offers vintage goods and collectibles. Linda Erwin of Falls Village and Nancy Rand of Sharon opened their shop, Clover, in September. Erwin, a nurse, and Rand who works in advertising were looking for a new direction and decided to house their finds in a “vintage industrial” space. Sharing space with Clover is a shop that moved from Torrington to Canaan, Stuart’s Treasures offering a potpourri of wares from minerals to jewelry to antiques.
Those who enjoy items from simpler times will find plenty to look at in yet another shop, The Vault opened its doors this spring in the former professional building at 109 Main Street. The Vault also sells collectibles and antiques.
Food is also on the agenda for Canaan’s resurgence. Walk east past the Artisan Shop and you will find the Berkshire Country Store, nearing its first anniversary in a space (85 Main Street) that has continually housed an eatery since the early decades of the 20th century. Owner Ryan Craig, who first started the store in Cornwall before moving to Norfolk four years ago, opened his Canaan satellite last January. He has also experienced his share of challenges this year but is looking to a brighter future.
“The day I signed the lease in Canaan, the state’s machinery rolled in,” he groaned. “But I am optimistic. Canaan is undergoing a major shift with new gift stores, restaurants and the Brewery at the Depot—that was a big win.”
His deli-style eatery has attracted a growing cadre of regulars to the large dining area with its vintage lighting, wooden floors and a high tin ceiling, a perfect backdrop for the historic photos of Canaan that line the walls.
Crossing the railroad tracks, one is confronted by the Canaan Union Depot which has, like Phoenix, risen from the ashes of a devastating 2001 fire. Now fully restored, its ground floor hosts the lively Great Falls Brewery in the east-west wing of the L-shaped building.
Like other businesses that have pushed against the odds, the three-year-old business met with robust growth in the first year, only to be stunned by Covid and the shutdown of restaurants and bars. But managing member Chris Tripler persevered and a visit Saturday saw the seats in the dining area and bar abuzz with chatting visitors. Food trucks provide food while the beer is produced downstairs, below the tasting room.
Manager Kate Rubin said that beer master Jonas Griggs has now booked his production area with new offerings through late January. “We’re preparing for our third anniversary,” said Rubin—no mean feat in troubled times.
Canaan is a small town so it is perhaps surprising that it has three museums and a history center: a taxidermy museum over the library, a railroad museum and an accordion museum. The Depot hosts the railroading museum which details its long history in the community. Adjacent to it is the surprisingly sprightly accordion museum opened recently by Paul Rammuni. Ramunni, a CPA who owned the depot until it was purchased by the Connecticut Railroad Historical Association following the fire, returned to his former stomping grounds with a collection of some 500 instruments, some with remarkable associations such as an accordion once owned by Lawrence Welk.
“The front room has the antique accordions and the backroom has those for sale,” he said, “but, in truth, everything here is for sale.”
Ramunni said he was forced to learn to play the accordion when he was 10 and gave it up when he went off to college. As an adult, on vacation, he awoke with an unexpected urge to play again and a visit to a Vermont dealer provided the impetus for his collection.
“The day I went to his shop there was a pile of old concertinas on the floor,” he said. “I learned that they were from concentration camps and were on their way to a museum.”
While he has purchased many of his beautiful instruments, others were simply given to him. “I have kind of an accordion orphanage,” he said. “People just leave them here because they can’t bear to throw them away.”
Canaan is an Italian town. Many immigrants who came at the turn of the last century established thriving businesses and had large families. That Italian base can now find a selection of exceptional ethnic ingredients at a small, upscale, shop called Tenuta located in the Ducillo Block directly across Route 44 from the Depot. Owned by Ian Edwards and Travis Powell, the tiny shop sells cooking ingredients not readily available in a rural American town, even one with an Italian background. Neatly displayed on stainless steel shelves are rare capers, Italian semolina flour, exquisite bottles of salt and jams, pastas—one of which is made with Italian wheat that can’t be found in this country—extra virgin olive oils and exquisite tomato pastas and sauces.
Edwards took a year off from his job working in communications to live in Sicily and many of his products originate from there or in Venice.
Back on Railroad Street two other businesses have taken root, a tattoo parlor and digital art gallery called Nerdy Visions and Nutrition on Railroad, a nutritional cafe. They are respectively found at 21 and 5 Railroad Street.
Cassidy Considine serves up protein shakes that taste like milkshakes and energizing teas at Nutrition on Railroad. A Canaan native, she returned to her hometown to throw her energy into building her own business empire and to promote the revitalization of her home town.
“I felt strongly that (my business) should be in Canaan,” she said. “If I can make this work here, I can make it work anywhere.” And she may be on to something. In the five months since she first opened her doors, she has built a continually expanding clientele base with customers returning regularly to buy favorite concoctions and to sample her new creations. Often they even request flavors not yet on the menu.
“I sell protein shakes that are high-protein, low in calories with low sugar,” she said. “We keep the sugars really low by not adding fruits.”