We can all agree that the past year has been a pretty difficult one—this being the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. This time last March, I was packing up my office in Saratoga Springs and moving into my home office in Troy, where I’ve been fairly sequestered ever since. There’s no question that reporting news about sickness and dying and businesses closing and fun being canceled, day in and day out, took its toll on my psyche.
But now I share with the collective relief that is starting to emerge thanks to the multiple vaccines that are available now. That joy recently reached a crescendo when my wife and I traveled to Sharon Springs, NY. There, I witnessed what a post-COVID future might look like.
Having grown up in Saratoga, I am embarrassed to admit that, before our recent Sunday there, I’d never set foot in Downtown Sharon Springs. A couple of times, I’d enjoyed the greatness that is Dairyland, an old-fashioned ice cream shop along Route 20, on the way home from visiting Cooperstown, but that was as close as I’d come. For the uninitiated, Sharon Springs is a tiny village in Schoharie County with a population of less than 600, and much like Saratoga, it has a history of health and grand hotels—and horses, if you count the ones on the farms dotting the area—having been a spa destination for the likes of the Vanderbilts back in the day. But whereas Saratoga saw a resurgence later in the 20th century, due to urban renewal and of course, the comeback of Saratoga Race Course, Sharon Springs never really bounced back. Remnants of the bygone era can be found downtown: The American Hotel, built in the 19th century, has a front porch that rivals that of the Adelphi and nine cozy rooms to choose from. (Though the hotel will be reopening on April 2, its owners have put it up for sale.) Across the street, you can find the Black Cat, a cafe that serves as the town’s “Starbucks,” per the owner, and offers up a number of delicious hot and cold beverages, as well as breakfast and lunch delights such as the Thanksgiving Everyday sandwich, which features turkey, stuffing and cranberry between two slices of grilled white bread. (Good during any season, as I quickly found out.) There’s also the 12-room gift shop, Cobbler & Co., which sells antiques, boardgames, jewelry, gardening items and various other sundries. And a storefront that looks as though a Wizard of Oz–style tornado picked it up from Manhattan’s SoHo district and deposited it there. That’s the Beekman 1802 Mercantile, which has its own backstory worthy of a paragraph or two.
About a 10-minute drive from the shop is where couple Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a bestselling writer, and Dr. Brent Ridge, a former media executive, decided to put down roots in 2007. There, the couple bought a 219-year-old farm, which sits on 60 acres of land. Neighbor “Farmer” John Hall, a goat farmer, had been looking for a place to raise his 80 goats, and he soon moved them onto the couple’s farm. Hall relocated there as well soon after, and during the Great Recession of 2008, he, Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge began producing soaps and cheeses to help pay down the mortgage. That artisanal product business quickly morphed into Beekman 1802, a lifestyle brand that sells goat-milk-based products such as body creams, face creams and lip balms. Then things started hurtling forward quickly: From 2009-10, the couple were the focus of a reality TV series, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, following their new life upstate and the creation of their business. It lasted for two seasons. The couple then appeared in Season 21 of CBS’ The Amazing Race in 2012, winning the reality travel series and its $1 million prize purse. The couple used the prize money to pay off the rest of their farm’s mortgage and bought a building in downtown Sharon Springs that would become the mercantile.
The merc, which greatly resembles fictional couple David and Patrick’s shop, Rose Apothecary, from the multiple Emmy Award–winning Canadian comedy show, Schitt’s Creek—last year, Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge even transformed their storefront into it and even sell Rose Apothecary–branded items there to this day—is truly a sight to behold. When you walk inside, you’re greeted as “neighbors”—what the couple calls its customers—and aside from the high-tech hand-sanitizer dispenser you’re asked to cup your hands under and temperature checker you have to step in front of in order to enter the store, you’ll find yourself forgetting, at least for a few minutes, that there’s a deadly pandemic going on outside. I admit the shop had nothing that piqued this 41-year-old dude’s interest, but my wife was immediately taken by the walls of beauty products and other artisanal products, and I couldn’t help but pick up on her sunny vibe (a steady stream of young and middle-aged women came through the front door while we were there, some with husbands and children in tow, many snapping photos outside the shop as if it were a historic landmark). Everything about the experience was light and happy.
My wife and I were really there for the main event, though: a tour of the couple’s goat barn and a chance to pick up and cradle a baby goat. Upon driving up to the farm and donning a pair of disposable gowns, per New York State law, we were astonished to learn that most of the baby goats in the pen were just days old—one little guy in the corner had been born the previous day—and we both had the chance to hold young “Seely,” one of a set of triplets. (Farmer John, who was there to answer any questions, told us he had named the little one after a character on Bones, which he’d been binge-watching in his farmhouse.) We also got to “meet the parents,” too.
The baby goat tours are just one part of an initiative by Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge to spread kindness throughout the tiny village and the surrounding region during COVID. Beekman is also hosting ticketed “kindness workshops” ($75), as well as inviting local photographers and other artists to “capture the beauty” ($25) at the couple’s farm. It’s also hosting a pair of events at nearby Slate Hill Flower Farm, where guests can enjoy the lavender harvest later this summer ($35). (All of the events have been so popular that they’ve sold out within mere days of being posted to the Beekman website.) The couple has also teamed up with the Canajoharie Central School District for a “Kindness Week,” in late January and early February, during which they helped raise funds for area schools, who haven’t had the means to fundraise during COVID. They also recently teamed up with Syracuse-based Corso’s Cookies to send thousands of cookies to Ulta Beauty stores across the nation, including one in Schenectady, where Beekman is headquartered, as a “thank you” for doing business with them (Beekman inked a deal with the national beauty product chain last summer to sell their products in its stores). And the couple has even set up artistic block letters spelling “KINDNESS” outside their shop and signs throughout the town with a similar message on them. The other businesses seem to be in on the “secret.” After all, nothing spells business like a little warmth, kindness and a smile (I’m assuming handshakes are on the way out).
So, look, if you’ve been feeling down in the dumps and have lost your way a bit over the past year, I’d suggest trying an afternoon in Sharon Springs as a way to get out of your head. Get yourself a Thanksgiving sandwich, an ice cream cone and pop your head into the mercantile. Maybe even snuggle a baby goat. It’s simply the best.