ASHFIELD -It's 7:30 on a Wednesday morning, and Elmer's Store has just opened for breakfast.
A man and his teenage son, dressed for outdoor work, rush in. "A moose is standing in a pasture less than a mile away," they say to the handful of women who have just finished setting up. Two seated customers glance up from their newspapers. They've no doubt seen their share of moose in this rural hill town of 1,800 people in northwestern Massachusetts. A waitress, the cashier, and the owner, being new to the area, show a spark of interest but they can't leave now.
"Missed my chance again," sighs Nan Parati, the owner. The North Carolina native, who lived in New Orleans for 25 years, has seen some rare sights, including Jimmy Buffett up close (she used to work for him) and 8 feet of standing water in her house. But never a moose.
Customers filter in, men in work clothes, women in shorts and sport sandals toting toddlers. The parade grows more diverse as the morning advances. Men with gray ponytails arrive with laptops. Women with expensive haircuts tap painted nails against the pastry case. Like their Subaru wagons and Ford pickups parked outside, these different folks sit at adjacent tables.
But that's the kind of place Elmer's is: a bit of a mix. Locals know the place as both a country store as well as an eatery. But outside the area, Elmer's is probably better known as a restaurant. And that is largely because the breakfasts there are uncommonly good, especially the plate-sized pancakes, made from a recipe wangled from a local farm family that also supplies Elmer's eggs, sausage, and maple syrup. In addition to daily breakfasts ($1.25-$8.95), Elmer's serves Friday night dinners - a choice of one meat entree ($12.95-$15.95), one veggie entree ($9.95-$11.95), or macaroni and cheese ($6.95).
Parati, an artist and entrepreneur who has designed stages and other graphics for such events as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and both of former President Clinton's inaugural festivals, had no intention of going into retail before she bought Elmer's in fall 2005. Weeks earlier, she had been in town visiting a friend, and the clapboard building, a fixture on Ashfield's stately Victorian Main Street since 1835, had stood vacant. She decided to buy it as an investment. But she had no intention of running the business in person. As she puts it, "My life has always been about building the event, not the event itself."
Then, as she was driving back to New Orleans, Katrina hit. "I turned around and came back to Ashfield," Parati says. "Elmer's was where I put my energy."
The venture became the calm eye of Parati's personal storm during the first months of her displacement. "After Katrina I felt crazy, like everyone else from New Orleans," she reflects. (With a capable staff in charge of Elmer's, she recently decided to split her time between New Orleans and Ashfield.)
Before starting the reconstruction of the building, Parati decided to try to ask the community what the new Elmer's should offer. ("I hated it when outsiders would come to New Orleans and decide what it needed," she says.) Through 200 written surveys and an open meeting attended by about 100 people, residents handed her a long wish list, reflecting their hunger for . . . well, for everything. A breakfast place. Groceries, especially "Elmer's cheese," a sharp cheddar a previous owner used to sell. Locally made crafts and an art gallery. Live music. Organic food. Baked goods.
Except for that particular cheese - Parati hasn't yet located the dairy, allegedly somewhere in Wisconsin - Elmer's has met the full wish list and sponsored bonus special events: a pet parade, a street dance, and a Mardi Gras party. But you don't have to wait for Mardi Gras to appreciate Elmer's. The pancakes alone are worth the trip.
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.