Outside Tracks

L ong ago, the New Haven colony had outposts down the coast, as far away as what we now call Philadelphia. Today, New Haven’s diaspora goes in all directions, including to the north and slightly west, specifically North Adams, MA, where Andrea Belair and Wesley Nelson run Belltower Records.

The married couple opened the small, lysergic record shop in an old mill building nestled in the Berkshires, about two and a half hours from here. For Nelson and Belair, the journey there began in 2018, when, after years of performing around New Haven in bands such as Estrogen Highs and Procedure Club, they decided it was time for a change. Spurred in part by a new job opportunity for Belair and a desire to be closer to family, they headed north, first to Williamstown, MA, where they cut their teeth at retailing records before heading to North Adams.

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Belltower’s loud orange walls stand out from the neutral, institutional walls in the common areas of the renovated mill building, counting among its stacks everything from a formidable homegrown, Western Massachusetts psychedelic selection to world music records from labels like “Awesome Tapes from Africa.” Attracting a combination of casuals and collectors as well as a steady stream of Mass MoCA visitors—the famous museum is just a cool five minutes away by car—Belltower offers a weird, experimental shape in a square space, the kind of thing that feels like it’d be right at home in the Elm City.

As it happens, they say the decreased cost of living in a more rural area is what makes their record shop possible. “For a very brief moment we thought we could move it down to New Haven,” Belair says, adding that she and Nelson scouted properties on State Street and on Amity Road in Woodbridge. “But it was too expensive.” Having more access to nature has been a boon as well. “I’m from Western Mass. I like forests and mountains and that kind of thing, so I missed that [in New Haven].” Living in the Berkshires has meant forests and mountains in spades, including Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s highest peak.

Naturally, some things have been lost in the balance. “I miss bodegas,” says Nelson, musing on the denser activity and greater walkability of New Haven. Similarly, Belair is nostalgic for East Rock and being able to walk both to work and to shows, especially at Cafe Nine. “I miss being able to go to coffee shops without jumping in the car and driving for an hour, but of course I’d miss that during COVID-19.” Nelson has felt the loss of New Haven’s creative community as well. “A lot of friends I’ve been playing music with since we were kids [are] still there.”

They haven’t entirely left New Haven behind. A few copies of The Bridge & Tunnel Crowd, an independent zine based in New Haven, stood near the register during my visit. New Havener Adam Malec, also formerly of Procedure Club, happened to be visiting the shop as well. Belair and Nelson have in turn visited the Elm City a few times since moving away, with the last trip in June. “I was wanting to visit [New Haven] more regularly, but with COVID-19…” Nelson says, trailing off in the way so many of us have in the past nine months.

Back at Belltower, blue incandescent bulbs are strung across the ceiling, presiding over tapes and albums as local independent music plays in the background. The business has a nice home in the mill building, known as Norad Mill, a brand new multi-retail space built on 19th-century bones. “We heard good things about the landlord, and the price was right for us,” Belair says. Compared to Toonerville Trolley, the long-established store they’d bought during their stopover in Williamstown, the space provided an opportunity for a “fresh start,” as Nelson puts it.

On Instagram, he and Belair post near-daily pictures of new arrivals to the shop, from the appropriately spacey Spacemen 3 to a haul of nine boldly titled blues records arranged into a grid of black and white. The couple say social media has helped bring in more serious record collectors, traveling from New York and beyond to flip their North Adams stacks. Hosting intimate live shows as well—at least before COVID put a hopefully temporary stop to it—Belair and Nelson have built Belltower into a sort of camp guiding like-minded people in from the wild frontier of the Berkshires.

If you find yourself forging northward in search of a new frontier, Belltower is an outpost worth seeking, where you might even find a few of the comforts of home.

Belltower Records
Norad Mill – 60 Roberts Dr, Ste 301, North Adams, MA (map)
Wed 11am-5pm, Thurs-Sat 11am-6pm, Sun 11am-4pm
(413) 398-5569 | [email protected]

Written by Allison Hadley. Images provided courtesy of Belltower Records.

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