Clippings: 51 Main bridges town's generations
In business, it’s not always possible to achieve your mission the first year out of the block. But there’s evidence that 51 Main Street in Middlebury has come pretty close.Roll back the clock with me to a scene there last April. It’s a cold, blustery Thursday night and one would have expected Middlebury’s Main Street to be quiet at the 8 o’clock hour.This night, however, was different. Professor Victor Nuovo, a selectboard member and a friend, was to give a lecture titled, “Poetry, Philosophy and Enlightenment: Reflections on Locke, Lucretius, Reading Great Books, Nature, Life and Death.” I’d been purposely working late at the office that night to catch the lecture before heading home — and, besides, I worried that Victor might be lecturing to just a handful of folks while most stayed snuggled at home. And sure enough Main Street was quiet on that dark, April night. But there was a bustle of activity inside 51 Main Street. I had arrived a few minutes late and the place was packed with more than 100 people – all raptly listening to Victor. And there was a fascinating segregation — the front half of the room that was closest to the lectern was filled with adults (mostly older than 50); the back half of the room was filled with students — just about 50/50 students and area residents. The room was not segregated out of a desire by attendees to be distant, but rather to allow older residents to sit closer to the lecturer — a move, I would say, done out of respect. And there were times at that lecture (that is often filled with student laughter and live music) that you could hear a pin drop. It was the perfect late-night spot to gather for a lecture, where you could also sip a decaf coffee, or Irish coffee, or a glass of wine or port, or water.The lecture lasted 90 minutes or so with questions and answers afterward. Students and adults chimed in without hesitation and were noticeably appreciative of each others’ generational perspective. It was astonishing, really. If you removed yourself from the scene and just looked at it, you wondered: Where else in the world would college students and resident adults gather in the same downtown bar/restaurant on a cold, April night to listen to a lecture on such seemingly esoteric subject matter?But that mixing of generations happens here frequently. 51 Main is a popular spot for theater-goers to stop in after attending an evening event at the Town Hall Theater. Its couches, leather stools and high tables are an ideal venue to cap a stimulating performance with friendly banter and a nightcap. And the business also offers a nice variety for decompressing after work, having a light lunch of crepes, or a conversational early dinner with tapas where the focus is on the conversation — not a three-course meal. And I’ve had wonderful moments there listening to student jazz ensembles or professional musicians too, almost always with a mixed crowd of townsfolk and students.How did it come about? The college willed it to be so. With deliberation and vision, college officials saw an empty downtown space and set out to create a place for college students to come downtown and to freely mix with area residents. To accomplish that, the business wouldn’t have the typical bar room atmosphere with sports on the television and drinks flowing freely; rather, it needed to be a place that offered live music and drinks, some food but distinct from the other offerings in town, and a desire to keep the atmosphere unique from other restaurants in the downtown. It was a conscientious effort from the start to not directly compete with existing businesses. As the college community analyzes the cost effectiveness of 51 Main and how important it is to the mission of the college, we offer a vote of enthusiastic support. It has created what few other venues have tried, by offering a unique meeting place for both residents and students, and both at once — a benefit to the community that is hard to put a price on. On that score, at least, 51 Main has reached its mission early on and offers many riches to come if it is allowed to stay open and prosper.