January 28, 2020
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Samantha Smith has brought her Branford hometown Gather, a space located along the Branford Green where unique events, programs, and projects are popping up. She hopes Gather will also help build community connections and inspire others to stay curious and live what she terms a “passionate, intentional life.” Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound

Samantha Smith has brought her Branford hometown Gather, a space located along the Branford Green where unique events, programs, and projects are popping up. She hopes Gather will also help build community connections and inspire others to stay curious and live what she terms a “passionate, intentional life.” (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

At Gather, Smith Offers a Place for Community and the Curiosity Factor

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At Gather, you never know what will pop up. That’s the tag-line that summarizes this unique, community-driven, changeable event and gathering space conceived by Branford native Samantha Smith.

Located at 1048 Main Street in Branford, Gather came to town in the spring of 2019. With projects and programs that have been underway since June, Gather has been steadily gathering fans of its ever-evolving offerings of exhibits, pop-up vendors, author readings, wine tastings, and more. All of it is done with an eye toward building community connections at this gathering point along the Branford Green, and inspiring others to live what Samantha terms a “passionate, intentional life.”

While Samantha also uses the location as a flexible, private office space for her national company, Samantha Smith Productions, “I thought I could also use it to pull some of my passion projects together,” she says. “I love events and I love gathering people, and I’m at a time in my life when I also want to be able to give back to my community.”

Samantha grew up in Short Beach and graduated from Branford High School (BHS) with the Class of 1984. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and, working for The Gap, helped start Old Navy, before founding her own event planning company for the corporate world in 2003.

Her career took her away from Branford for more than 30 years, but the timing was perfect in terms of finding her new Branford business space.

“I took over the old Waiting Station, which meant a lot to me,” says Samantha, who used to catch her school bus at the Waiting Station’s original coffee shop, in Short Beach. “When I came back, this space had been vacant for a couple years, and I thought, ‘Why not an office downtown?’”

To blend the concept of building Gather in with her new office space, she worked with the experts at Madison-based Handlavet Handmade Furniture and Custom Woodworking. The result: beautiful, movable fixtures done in natural woods—from wall dividers to long tables—that can create ever-changing layouts of flexible space.

As a result, the shop’s original, elongated envelope of white walls and high, stamped tin ceilings (also painted white), can easily transition to meet whatever needs might be popping up at Gather on any given day.

Outside Influences

Samantha’s parents were closely tied to New Haven’s arts and foodie scene. Her late dad was an artist and cultural arts supporter and her mom, Annie Smith, owned the former Annie’s Firehouse Soup Kitchen. Growing up with that kind of exposure gave Samantha an early appreciation for the richness of life waiting to be discovered in cities like New Haven and others she went on to know and love, including San Francisco and New York.

Returning to Branford, “one of the things I’ve found out is that there are a lot of people from this area that don’t really go to New Haven,” she says. “So I wanted to bring that kind of stuff here. I’m curious, by nature, and I want to bring some of that curiosity here. But I also want it to be a place where the community can gather.”

For Gather’s first project, she created a Branford-centric art show by first flipping through social media and searching out photos posted with #branford, then pulling pictures people had taken. She notified the photographers, printed their photos onto wooden tiles (each about the size of a standard photo), then mounted the collection on the wall for a special exhibit at Gather.

“We sold them, and all the proceeds are going to the Branford [High School] tennis team,” says Samantha. “And members of the team who wanted to also worked the show for community [service] hours.”

For another offering at Gather, she put her passion for the Mexican spirit mezcal into play, bringing in an expert from The Wine Thief of Madison to run a special tasting seminar. She also brought the expert back for another evening on “how to make a cocktail.” As one might have guessed, both events were well attended.

In June, coinciding with the timing of the Branford Festival on the green, she invited local vendors who don’t have their own shops to join Gather’s summer pop-up shopping experience. She brought in others for a fall pop-up held this past weekend. There are plans for book readings, book club gatherings, a night dedicated to learning how to choose a great bottle of wine, some kid-friendly fun to help parents out on an upcoming day off from school, and more.

Staying Flexible

Just about everything that goes on at Gather can be found at @GatherBranford on Facebook (including a great video of that cocktail-making seminar). Gather’s hours and days of operation vary based on what’s on the calendar.

“I don’t want to open a store and be open every day. That’s not my vision,” says Samantha.

In fact, been there, done that—and then some.

“My background is in retail,” she says. “I was with The Gap, and I was one of the people who took the bus ride across the country to decide what the next concept in retail was going to be, and out of that came Old Navy.”

Some of Gather’s plans for the upcoming holiday season include a “sip and shop” night on Thursday, Dec. 12, a community open house during the Branford Town Tree Lighting and Parade, and weekends and other dates in December when Gather will be repurposed into a shop offering holiday merchandise curated by Samantha, together with some unique consignment items.

“I’m a big fan of upcycling,” she says, pointing to a table filling up with stocking-stuffer sized vintage and unique holiday gifts.

“These are things that we’re finding at tag sales and flea markets and [made by] local villagers in Mexico,” says Samantha, who has an office in Mexico as well as San Francisco.

In a nod to the New Year, she’s currently working on an idea to offer a vision-board workshop or two at Gather.

“A lot of these are projects I’m passionate about, and then also listening to what the community might say, and what they might need,” says Samantha.

Inspiration is arriving daily. After a conversation with an elderly neighbor let Samantha in on the neighbor’s life story as a very accomplished woman, Samantha was inspired to ask the question, “How do we, as women, give back?” which may turn into a centerpiece for an upcoming event. Recently, she was also musing about how “we’re on Pinterest all the time—what’s the hot thing people are making? Maybe we should pick a couple of those cool things and bring it to life.”

Samantha was living in San Francisco when she first experienced the pop-up culture, spawned by chefs looking for a creative outlet outside of their own restaurants.

“Chefs stopped wanting to cook [the same food] in their restaurants every night. So they would find a restaurant that was closed on Tuesday night, and they would ‘pop up’ to cook. And so your great Italian restaurant that you’d go to is now cooking Peruvian food,” says Samantha.

Speaking of food, she says, Gather is a great spot to host a catered dinner party. Whether it’s a fundraiser, a celebration, or a night of information sharing, Samantha envisions local organizations, from non-profits to businesses, using the space for these types of gatherings.

On Sept. 27, Shoreline Chamber of Commerce helped celebrate Gather with an official ribbon cutting ceremony. While the new Branford venture displays the name “Gather” on its storefront and door, for now, the Waiting Station’s former coffee shop sign will continue to hang above, too, says Samantha.

“My son is always asking me about taking the coffee shop sign down,” says Samantha, who has two sons. “But for me, that was part of the magic about this space, and it’s also been a way for me to reconnect with the community. So I’m actually okay with taking it slowly.”

Samantha says the curiosity factor—on her part and the public’s—will be the engine that drives Gather, and keep it changing.

“In a year, it could be something totally different,” she says. “I’m perpetually curious. I was raised by curious parents, always learning. So I’m trying to bring something not readily available on the shoreline and, for right now, I want it to be organic. I want the community to be curious and to figure it out on their own. I don’t want to push it on them. I want to pull people in from their own natural curiosity.”

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