Sounds of Vermont: Montpelier

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(Host) A Statehouse debate in Montpelier may be a familiar sound, but it’s only part of the character of Vermont’s capital. The city, with a population just over 8,000 people, has developed a distinctly independent personality.

For our series on the Sounds of Vermont, VPR’s Bob Kinzel listened in.

(Sounds of legislature adjourning, gavel drops.)

(Kinzel) The gavel falls and Vermont’s legislators leave their mark on another year. Bills pass and bills die as a session under the Golden Dome comes to a conclusion. But then the lawmaking, the lobbying and the politicking of the winter and spring give way to other activities.

(Sound of people playing bocci ball on the Statehouse lawn.) Outside of the main entrance of the Statehouse, an expansive lawn unfolds. The people take ownership of the space. (Sounds of people cheering on bocci players.) Andy Snyder, who works at the Department of Education, helps organize a weekly bocci game:

(Snyder) “Oh, it’s just an incredible space, just to see what’s it’s inspired. There are days when we’ll look out and we’ll see people playing croquet or other people playing bocci as well or ultimate frisbee games. It’s just great to see that people recognize that it’s their own and it’s a great green space in the community and this is part of what makes up the community.”

(Kinzel) Montpelier is the smallest state capital in the country and its shopping district defines a large part of its identity. Several years ago, McDonalds applied for a permit to locate a franchise in a former bank building downtown. (Sound of a cappucino being poured.) After heated debate, city planners said no to fast food and a coffee house opened in the space instead. Now every morning long lines form at Capital Grounds as Montpelierites get their morning caffeine fix.

The smell of freshly ground coffee is in the air. Patrons sit on wooden stools and watch the busy comings and goings of State Street. Bob Watson, who is the owner, thinks Capital Grounds has filled an important void in the city:

(Watson) “Montpelier’s known for a lot of restaurants but there wasn’t a real true coffee shop that you could just come in and get a cup of coffee and read the paper meet somebody here. This is a big meeting spot.”

(Kinzel) At lunchtime, state workers pour out of their offices and Montpelier is a beehive of activity. Many people head toward street vendors who sell a variety of international foods.

Down the street, at the corner of State and Main, is Montpelier’s oldest book store – Bear Pond Books. The store is spread out over two floors and its old wood floors vibrate with every footstep. Books line the shelves that span from the floor to the ceiling. Michael Katzenberg opened Bear Pond Books in the summer of 1973 and now finds himself in competition with much larger national chain bookstores:

(Katzenberg) “Well I think we’ve got a staff of devoted readers and people who are also helpful and friendly and are part of the community.”

(Kinzel) Montpelier’s answer to big box store development is the short Langdon Street in the heart of the city. Langdon Street has a reputation of being the alternative business district with its bike shop, an herbal caf and an independent music store – Buch Spieler, that opened in 1975.

(Sounds of clark answering the phone, “Hello, Buch Spieler.”)

(Kinzel) Progressive political ideas often occupy the space on the store’s plate glass windows. Owner Fred Wilber doesn’t see himself as being in competition with the larger national music chains that are located in nearby shopping malls:

(Wilbur) “We’re interested in selling art, music as an art form and supporting the artists, as opposed to just being a commodity that if we’re not selling a thousand units a week then discard it and put it out of print.”

(Kinzel) The spirit of independence is also present at the Savoy Theater. In the evening, the Savoy features independent movies that rarely make it to theaters that show the newer Hollywood productions. (Sounds of a movie preview at the Savoy Theater.) Rick Winston is the principal owner:

(Winston) “The so called ‘counter culture’ put down a lot of roots here during the 1960s and part of that counter culture was a desire to see things that were different, too. That popular culture should be challenging as well as entertaining.”

(Kinzel) After the movie, filmgoers leave the Savoy and disperse into a sleepy capital city. The hard work under the capital dome and the big legislative debates of the winter seem miles away.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel.

To suggest a sound for a future segment of the Sounds of Vermont, please visit the feedback page for this series.

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