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Better than a room of one’s own? Local author reflects on the pleasures of writing among friends

  • David Williams, 3, and his father, Rob Williams, center, gathered with others during an Amherst Works happy hour, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Art by Teri Magner at Amherst Works, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Todd Felton, from left, Hazel Hall, 2, Jordan Hall, Vika Gardner and Kate Martel chat during an Amherst Works happy hour. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Drinks for sharing at Amherst Works happy hour, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Teri Magner, left, talks with Eric Osman, during an Amherst Works happy hour, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. Magner holds a monthly art and wine soiree in the space and also serves as its curator for art exhibits. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hazel Hall, 2, occupies a chair used by her father, Jordan Hall, who is the membership manager for Amherst Works, during a during a happy hour at the space, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vika Gardner, from left, Kate Martel and Teri Magner chat during an Amherst Works happy hour, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carl Vigeland, from left, Jordan Hall and Todd Felton talk during an Amherst Works happy hour, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Williams, left, and John Larsen talk during an Amherst Works happy hour, as David Williams, 3, looks on. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jerry Guidera, left, and Carl Vigeland touch glasses during an AmherstWorks happy hour. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Art by Teri Magner at Amherst Works, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Larsen of Pelham works in his office at AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Larsen of Pelham works in his office at AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Larsen of Pelham works in his office at AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space on Amity Street in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The office of InboxInsight inhabits the southeast corner of the main floor at AmherstWorks. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carol McCormick, who works for the Milwaukee-based app SelfieStyler, keeps busy in her upstairs office space at AmherstWorks while her Old English Sheepdog, Henry, takes in the view of North Pleasant Street. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Todd Felton of Amherst works at a table in the “flex floor” area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative workspace on Amity Street in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Julia Longley of Conway works in the office space of InboxInsight at AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • AmherstWorks membership manager Jordan Hall, left, talks with Todd Felton and Carl Vigeland, both of Amherst, in the entrance to the cooperative work space on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. At upper left a screen displays photos of "Who's Here" and a list of "What's Happening." —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Coffee mugs in the cafe area of AmherstWorks sport the logo of the cooperative work space on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • AmherstWorks, a cooperative workspace, is located in a former 1920s bank building at the corner of Amity and North Pleasant Street. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The office of InboxInsight is separated by glass walls that allow light but not sound through the main floor of AmherstWorks. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst writer Carl Vigeland works at a table in the "flex floor" area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space on Amity Street in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. In the foreground is one of the installation sculptures in "The Art & Sole Group" by Amherst artist Teri Magner. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst writer Carl Vigeland works at a table in the "flex floor" area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • AmherstWorks membership manager Jordan Hall welcomes walk-ins at the entrance to the cooperative work space on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, where a screen displays photos of "Who's Here" and a list of "What's Happening." —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Todd Felton of Amherst works at a table in the "flex floor" area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Todd Felton of Amherst works at a table in the "flex floor" area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space in Amherst, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst writer Carl Vigeland, left, works at a table in the “flex floor” area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative workspace on Amity Street in Amherst. Behind him is the glassed-in office of InboxInsight. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • AmherstWorks membership manager Jordan Hall tends the cafe area of the cooperative work space on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst writer Carl Vigeland works at a table in the “flex floor” area of AmherstWorks, a cooperative work space on Amity Street in Amherst, on what he said was an uncharacteristically “un-busy” morning. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING



For the Bulletin
Friday, March 16, 2018

‘What’s with the old bank in the center of town? What do people actually do in there?”

Around Amherst these days, you often hear some form of these twin questions. I was asking them myself one afternoon early last spring as I sat outside Amherst Coffee, across Amity Street from the Jones Library and its new neighbor, AmherstWorks.

Prompted by my curiosity, I walked across the street and entered what was formerly the ATM vestibule of TD Bank, which vacated the space three years ago (the rear part of the building remains the High Horse restaurant). I was greeted by a friendly, gracious concierge, Mythreyi Krishnan, who took me on a tour of a space that, in the past year, has changed not only the way I work but also how I feel about what I do.

As a writer — on my own since I left an administrative position at Amherst College more than 30 years ago to begin my first book, “Great Good Fortune”— I’ve had many different kinds of offices during my career. When we first moved to the Valley, I wrote newspaper pieces and short stories in an unheated, spare bedroom adjacent to the farmhouse apartment my wife, Bonnie, and I were renting. That “office” cost us an extra $10 a month.

I still have a basement office in our Amherst home, where we’ve lived since the early 1990s. With its attendant temptations to get a head start mowing the lawn or fixing that leaky faucet, I’ve often found it more productive to work in a library or café. But that has meant the usual concerns about security of laptop and distraction of neighbors. 

Then, last year, Bonnie retired from Hampshire College, where she was a reference librarian, and began occupying parts of our house during the day — a living room couch, the dining room table — that had also served for me as extensions of my home office. She, too, wanted what Virginia Woolf called in a famous essay, “a room of one’s own.” I got the hint.

A brave new world  

Originally the First National Bank of Amherst, the prominent brick building dating back to the 1920s that Mythreyi showed me around last March became AmherstWorks near the end of 2016.

The building is owned by Amherst native and local icon Barry Roberts, who also owns several other Amherst properties, including the renovated, augmented building that houses the Amherst Coffee/Amherst Cinema complex. Roberts is a partner in AmherstWorks with the interim executive director of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, Jerry Guidera, and the two principals of Archipelago Investments, developer of several new Amherst condominium projects.

Their joint vision has produced a cooperative work space of around 100 members. The exact total fluctuates month to month, as some members leave or “pause” their memberships — one of the major differences from a typical office lease — and new people join. The majority, of which I am one, are flex members, which for $225 per month entitles us to space in the spectacular main room, formerly the bank lobby, with its three-story-high ceiling and soothing natural light. Like members who have dedicated desks (at $275 per month) or offices (ranging in several sizes, starting at $600 per month), we also get free coffee that comes over in fresh canisters several times a day from Amherst Coffee, high-speed Internet, and access to a color copier and scanner. A conference room — one of the bank’s former vaults — is available by reservation, and three private phone cubicles are situated around a corner hallway. (Flex space is immediately available at AmherstWorks; as of today, just one office is open, but that could change tomorrow.)

Like most other such spaces, including Click Workspace in Northampton, Easthampton Co.Lab in Eastworks, and Commons Coworking in Williamsburg, there is 24/7 access. Members use a key card for entry, though at AmherstWorks, on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the door is unlocked when the ever-cheerful new concierge, Jordan Hall, is on duty. As members, we can also partake in many of the special events held in the space, including a monthly art and wine soiree led by Teri Magner. And if we find ourselves on the road in sundry New England locations, we have reciprocal privileges at a network of other such spaces under the corporate umbrella of a company called Workbar.

Vision alone cannot account for the enormous sensory appeal of the AmherstWorks space. Veteran Amherst architect John Kuhn — the same person behind the Amherst Coffee/Amherst Cinema design — took advantage in his plans of numerous details in the building’s original construction. The lobby’s chandelier and a lovely medallion design in the ceiling above it were preserved, as were the triplet of semi-circular glass window configurations in the upper reaches of both the front and rear exterior walls of the building’s center and bas-reliefs on top of  the main interior columns.

Where tellers last stood when TD Bank was still the building’s primary tenant, Kuhn designed a café area in which the back wall abuts new restrooms. To the street side of the café, he added one of two lounge arrangements (the other is in a far corner that was once a tobacconist’s shop).

In a masterstroke, Kuhn and AmherstWorks’ ownership team decided to make the former ATM foyer the building’s new entrance, which meant knocking out part of the wall that now opens to the lounge at the café’s side. The original entryway to the bank was then preserved for egress to an outdoor patio, complete with picnic tables and new plantings that complement the greenery that frames much of the main room, or flex floor in AmherstWorks parlance.

That floor retains its original marble — another formal touch that also serves to further a function of quiet that, when the space is not busy, can seem serene. But the plaster walls that fronted upstairs offices were replaced — at considerable extra cost — by glass, which has the cumulative effect of contributing to the overall feeling of community that is the re-purposed building’s greatest accomplishment. 

When I asked Barry Roberts what persuaded him to make these extra accommodations, this man whose self-described hobby is raising and driving draft horses immediately replied, “I became a believer.” What he was primarily referring to, I realized, was something Archipelago co-principal Kyle Wilson described to me as engagement with one’s surroundings. Wilson defined the foundation of that concept as good design, but he stressed as well the larger context of a brave new world of work in which information and access is at the ready with the touch of a few smartphone or laptop buttons. Everything is connected.

Unspoken agreements

During my tour of AmherstWorks, followed by a trial work session via free day pass, much of what I’ve been describing here hadn’t specifically occurred to me. Rather, in my initial immersion, what happened was a kind of conversion of my own, wherein I began to discover a different kind of change, both in the way I work and the recognition that my new, accidental co-workers shared with me more than a beautiful building. Surrounded as I was by a diversity of professionals who included a Bitcoin software expert, an investment entrepreneur, and several other writers, I felt in the act of my own writing that I was not alone.

But at first I was uncertain about the protocol of meeting my fellow members, even as I sensed an energy force around me that somewhat mysteriously bolstered my own focus and stamina. Certain people, I could see, wanted to be left undisturbed, while others might pick up a conversation thread over coffee or tea. I soon learned that Greg Carlson liked to talk about our mutual passion of skiing (he was marketing a new kind of ski wax he has developed). When graphic designer Mike Herzog initiated a chat about deadlines, I discovered he not only shared my love of music but was, in fact, a conservatory-educated jazz guitarist. Patty Stacey, finishing a memoir at AmherstWorks — a place she had come to think of as  “sacred”— told me one day when we met at the copy machine that she used to work at The Atlantic Monthly with an editor who had been a frequent correspondent of mine.  

On a miscellany of domestic matters, there was also a period several months ago of friendly discussion about noise levels in the main room, which can vary from library-like silence to café-level white noise. Most of us use or keep handy a pair of earphones, and if someone seems to be talking too loudly a diplomatic, downward hand motion seems acceptable. We also have a tacit agreement among ourselves about health — people tend to stay away when they’re sick — and most members thoughtfully keep food consumption in the main room to snacks, with meals in the café area or in town.

Certainly the proximity of AmherstWorks to restaurants and other local businesses is a convenience. And Archipelago’s Wilson cites the ease of walking to work as one of the attractions for people who may live in one of his firm’s condos. In my own case, I’m lucky that our home is only a mile away, and so I will often walk there for lunch, leaving my car in its parking space or, in warm weather, eschewing my car completely. Either way, my AmherstWorks routine includes a daily decision about what to bring in the backpack that, I’ve noticed, is a main accoutrement of AmherstWorks regulars. More to the point, that packing part of my routine has indirectly helped me organize what I hope to accomplish each day.

Back to work

It’s a late winter, Monday morning. I’ve come in early to catch up on correspondence about a college/university hockey idea and to continue the draft of a social-media-inspired political credo, two of many projects that have grown out of the most productive year in my writing life. Since becoming an AmherstWorks member, I’ve completed a novella-length nonfiction manuscript about music and medicine, set at Tanglewood and Tufts Medical Center, called “A Symphony for Shelbie”; lengthy proposals for a biography of jazz great Wynton Marsalis, with whose bands I toured as a non-playing member for many years, and a companion memoir about that experience; the draft and first revision of a metafiction takeoff on a famous 20th-century novel, set in Amherst; a compendium of my golf writings, “By Golf Possessed,” still a work in progress; the beginning of a short book about my failed efforts to become a snowboarder (torn tendon, cracked rib, slight concussion, lol), “Facing the Fall Line”; and the start of a ghostwritten memoir for a major commercial real-estate developer in New York.

Keeping me company is another early arrival, Carol McCormick, of the Milwaukee-headquartered app SelfieStyler, which, as she explains, “allows people to mix and match outfits while seeing clothes on their own photograph.” Carol and her two colleagues work in one of the upstairs office spaces with Carol’s Old English Sheepdog, Henry. At a nearby desk is Phil Jackson, whom I’ve just met and whose business puts him in touch with people as far away as India. And so, he explains, he’s just been talking with a person whose workday halfway around the world is ending as ours begins. Soon after meeting him, I’m greeted by Julia Longley, a salesperson for a British-based B2B marketing firm called InboxInsight, AmherstWorks’ largest office tenant. We chat about Conway, where she lives and where that first farmhouse office of mine was located. Next to arrive is veteran member Todd Felton, a fellow writer and principal with StitchDX, a digital agency specializing in organizational communication. 

“From the first day of my free trial, I was hooked,” he says. “What has kept me hooked is the other members, here in an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy that is far better than at any single organization I have worked for.”

But enough talk … time to work! If we’re lucky, Jordan Hall’s two-year-old daughter, Hazel, will make an appearance with her mom late this afternoon. Hazel already knows several of us by names she can almost say. What better reason to be here than to hear her sweet voice and see her beguiling smile.