Pie for the People: Bill Dwight Brings Community to the Counter

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 1, 2017, by

“Renaissance man” doesn’t begin to cover the big, burly, 6-foot-5 guy behind the counter at Florence Pie Bar. With a résumé that includes being a truck driver, a bouncer, a video-store clerk, a clown/magician’s assistant and the current president of the Northampton City Council, Bill Dwight’s latest venture is a foray into genuine human connection as much as it is into sweet and savory baked goods.

With its rustic charm, it’s easy to see why someone might want to work at the Pie Bar. The place is small, with seats for no more than 20 people, and it’s filled with wooden furniture and a lot of natural light from the front windows. String lights line the display cases, which feature everything from peach pie to goat-cheese scones to Buffalo-chicken handpies. On each table are fresh-flower arrangements, which are done by Dwight’s wife, Lida.

But what business, exactly, does a local government official have peddling pies?

“It’s ludicrous, but he loves being behind a counter,” Lida said. She’s much shorter, a silver-haired professor of English at Holyoke Community College and former obituary writer at the Gazette who calls her husband Billy. “And I think there’s a nice vibe. It’s pretty in here, it’s nice, people eat stuff they like. What could be so bad?”

For his part, Dwight, 62, said, “My jobs, they’re all serendipitous.” He grew up in Holyoke, leaving at 16 to go on what he called his “post-adolescent odyssey of pain.” He moved back when Lida was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at UMass Amherst, settling in the Valley and having one son, Eli, who’s now 31.

Along the way, Dwight became good friends with Maura Glennon, who owns the pie shop — he officiated her wedding. She started talking about opening the business soon after he finished his 25-year stint as a clerk at the now-closed Pleasant Street Video, and so he offered to lend a hand.

“Since he’s such a friendly host, I thought it would be a good idea,” Glennon said. “Having a good friend there at the beginning every day to help support the learning curve was really helpful and comforting.”

Dwight enjoys the work. “I know a lot of people in the area who’ve done customer service and hate it, for good reason,” Dwight said. “I, on the other hand, it’s my social exchange with humanity. It works for me.”

The job is certainly social. If you watch Dwight for 20 minutes, it seems like he knows everyone who walks into the store — in truth, he only knows most of them. But he treats every customer with the same genuine interest and respect, opening up the way for them to have a more meaningful conversation about everything from Northampton’s status as a sanctuary city to an outlandish entry in the most recent police report.

“We don’t have deep and profound exchanges — we haven’t identified the source of life or explored deep existential issues,” Dwight said in his typical dry, self-deprecating way, “but we do have human moments.”

Once in a while, customers welcome Dwight into an emotional part of their lives: Someone might come in with a new baby, for instance, or want to celebrate a personal milestone or remember a loved one who recently died. These are the moments that resonate with him and keep him grounded and in touch, he said.

“It’s a community gathering spot, and the catalyst is essentially the pie,” Dwight said. “It’s a reason for people to come and talk or to come and hang out, or just to sit and eat with other people.” Dwight recognizes this energy as similar to what he felt while working at the video store. He said that video stores went out of business because now almost any movie is available online, but he believes that wasn’t totally the point of the video store.

“What you lost, and what people bemoaned after the fact, was the human exchange and the contact. They literally miss that part,” he said. “It’s the process of walking into the video store and chatting about movies you saw or chatting about the crazy person who accosted you on the sidewalk or what the Red Sox did. It has an ambient impact.”

While most of the customers who come through the Pie Bar are pleasant, there have been a few sour encounters. Dwight recalled a woman who came in soon after the Pie Bar first opened, braving the long line, only to stand at the front and announce that she didn’t like pie. “And I said, ‘Okay, I haven’t got much to work with here, so we have soup, we have quiche.’  She said, ‘I don’t like any of that stuff,’ and just stood there.”

As a customer-service veteran, this didn’t phase Dwight, who sent her off with a snarky quip. “I’m given a fairly wide latitude,” he said. “I’m just the old guy at the pie bar, so there’s a liberating aspect to all of that.”

Even with his full graying beard, gruff voice and occasional outdated references — while talking about the long lines that the Pie Bar had when it first opened, he said that it was “like Filene’s Basement” — Dwight hardly comes across as “the old guy.” Likewise, he’s more than just the pie guy: He’s still the president of the City Council.

“It still sounds weird saying that,” Dwight said. “There’s assigned to me, by that word, a certain kind of a gravitas that doesn’t really exist, and my whole thing about serving as a councilor was to demystify the position, to say, ‘Look, I’m no better or worse than you.’ ”

He’s open about his colorful past — and somewhat winding path. He was kicked out of three schools growing up and didn’t graduate high school at 18. When he got his GED at age 57, it was a local news story. This past May, he was the keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony at Mount Tom Academy, an alternative high-school program in the Valley. “I didn’t do well in school,” Dwight said simply. “I didn’t school well.”

Working at the Pie Bar also helps with his demystification. People sometimes come in to talk to him about city issues; say, for instance, they’re upset that their road hasn’t been repaved in eight years. Dwight said that his spot  behind the counter — and the comfy, informal setting — helps people approach him instead of wondering whether or not an issue is important enough to call their councilor. “If they’re getting a piece of pie, and it’s a problem that’s always been sort of eating at them, then they on impulse would be able to say something.”

Even someone as social as Dwight still needs a break, though. In his free time, he said, “I hide. I have a place in Hawley that’s completely off the grid — I mean no electricity, no cellphone service, no running water. I go up there with my wife instead of doing drugs.” (If you’ve never heard of Hawley, that’s exactly the point — it’s a town of 337 people north of Plainfield.)

And he doesn’t bake at home, if you’re wondering. “People ask me if I make these pies and my stock response is, ‘No, which is why it’s edible,’ ” he joked. He does cook, but he and Lida both described a sort of “pie saturation” that comes with working at a place where you can have all the pie you want.

(His favorite pie, though, is rhubarb. “Not strawberry rhubarb, rhubarb,” he said seriously. “Unadulterated rhubarb pie.”)

At this point in his life, Dwight feels like he’s just about done it all, and he doesn’t have a next job in mind, he said: “My son has this cute little line. He says, ‘You better hurry up and find something to retire from soon.’ ”

He laughed. “In an obit,” he added, “it wouldn’t be all that impressive; it just looks like an eclectic guy who really couldn’t settle down on one particular thing, but for me, it’s been very emotionally fulfilling and satisfying. I’ve got lots of people beat in that. I’m perfectly happy in that.”

That’s pretty obvious in the chatty way that Dwight moves through a typical afternoon at the Pie Bar. After a few minutes of observing him, a thirty-something man in a button-down shirt and khaki pants sitting alone with a slice of pie piped up and asked, “Are you the owner?”

Dwight started to shake his head, but the man continued, “The way you conduct yourself, you’re so open, you seem like the man in charge.”

Dwight laughed and said, “Not the man in charge — just a man with nothing to lose.”