Like much of small-town America, traditional main street businesses took a hit as a result of the rise of shopping malls in the 1980s and the introduction of online shopping. But in recent years, due in part to the pandemic, people have gained a greater awareness of how shopping locally benefits the economy and provides unparalleled personalized service that you just can’t get at big box stores. As a result, more people are rediscovering the charms of Main Street America—and of towns like Butler, PA.
Like its Pittsburgh neighbor, Butler has strong roots in steel, and it was also a railroad town. Butler was also the birthplace of the Jeep, produced by the American Bantam Car Company. And while Butler’s rich history is important to the community, at the same time, it is moving forward with the times.
Where Old Meets New
Situated on Route 8 less than an hour from downtown Pittsburgh, Butler’s Main Street is chock full of retailers, from longstanding anchor businesses to newer, eclectic shops that draw in shoppers of all ages. And not just from Butler—though the city of 13,000 supports local businesses, many consumers from Pittsburgh and other adjacent counties help keep Main Street businesses afloat.
“Prior to Covid, Mainstreet USA was making a very strong comeback from the last crisis (9/11), and that process has started again. It is on the way back up,” said Jordan Grady, executive director of the Butler Chamber of Commerce.
Miller’s Shoes is likely the oldest store on Main Street, having opened 129 years ago. Jim Chiprean is a third-generation owner of this family-run businesses. He said that the secret to his store’s longevity is a combination of personal service, community relations and faithful customers.
“Butler is very lucky. We are the county seat, and anything that happens in the county goes through the City of Butler. That is what makes Butler a destination, from a government center to the historic things in the county, it centers around the city,” Chiprean explained.
Another long-term business is Cummings Candy & Coffee, having opened in 1905. It is still on Main Street, though in the intervening years, it has opened three other locations throughout Butler. “We specialize in hand-dipped chocolates, roasted coffee and fresh pastries,” said owner Barry Cummings.
Alongside long-established businesses like Miller’s Quality Meats, Don Paul Jewelers, and the Monroe Hotel, which was built in 1898, new restaurants and businesses regularly pop up in Butler; recent additions include Downtown Bagel House, Mico’s Kitchen, and Springhill Suites.
Jeff Geibel, a financial advisor with Edward Jones who spearheaded the nonprofit revitalization initiative Butler Downtown, noted that more businesses are learning toward a hybrid model by starting their businesses with online sales and then opening a storefront on Main Street. “We’re seeing more of those business models popping up,” he said.
As a Butler native who has seen his town’s ups and downs, Nick Fazzoni intentionally chose his hometown to open Butler Brew Works five years ago.
“The experience I used to have going downtown as a child is way different from when I set out to start the business. Over the years, some of those businesses eroded, the family presence downtown disappeared, and Butler lost a little bit of its shine,” he explained. “I really wanted to do my part to bring Butler back to where it is, so we set out to put in a really nice brewery downtown. We wanted to be a cornerstone of new downtown growth.”
Butler natives Patty Schorr and her husband, Kevin, own Mystique Moon Antiques & Artisans, which opened 3-½ years ago. As an illustration of how old often meets new in Butler, the business is located in the former Alands Toyland building, an iconic toy store that brought joy to many area children over the decades. As its name suggests, the space houses goods from 40 antique dealers and local artisans.
“Butler is a great little city with some really cool and amazing stores and restaurants. It has a great vibe. There is no better place to have a store than on Main Street USA,” said Schorr, adding that their business plans to expand into an adjacent building.
Part of the charm of Butler’s shopping district is that, with one exception, is it not dominated by big box stores. “Almost all of the businesses are proprietorships and small businesses in nature,” said Cummings. “People come to Butler for that small-town feel that can only be achieved in a city our age with an old-school Main Street set-up. It is walking-friendly, and there are many options for dining and having a handcrafted beer.”
Like everywhere else across the country, Butler’s businesses were hit hard by the pandemic, but with the help of local support, a good number made it through. “I think the community is to be credited for keeping most of the small businesses alive,” said Fazzoni.
Investing in the Area
In addition to the Main Street shops, Grady said that the city is unique because there are also very large organizations that anchor Butler and the surrounding countryside, such as Butler Health System (BHS), NextTier Bank, Armstrong Cable, Center for Community Resources, the County of Butler, and Butler Technologies. In all, he said that there are more than 100 businesses that call Butler home.
Butler Memorial Hospital, part of Butler Health System, is one such anchor. Founded in 1898, BHS now has more than 3,000 employees and is the largest employer in Butler County.
Jana Panther, Butler Health System’s director of public relations, said that the hospital is invested in the people it serves and supports them with high quality, low-cost services close to home. “Our community health assessments have driven much of what we have brought to this community over the years, including the heart program, cancer program, women’s services, family support/therapy and the establishment of the Community Health Clinic,” she explained.
From Cruise-a-Palooza to Christmas in July
Besides its anchor businesses and plentiful shops, Geibel said that the city’s regular events serve as a major draw to the area.
“Events are a big thing in this city—the Bantam Jeep Festival, for example, brings 15,000 people to Main Street for the Jeep invasion on a Friday night,” said Geibel. He added that monthly Foodie Fridays and ‘Christmas in July’ are other events that draw folks to town; on those dates, many businesses keep their shops open late.
Grady agreed that these events help bring in visitors. “Main streets survive and thrive with foot traffic,” he noted.
“Butler a great little city with many business owners who want to make a difference in providing unique and awesome places to visit,” added Schorr. “We offer great restaurants, breweries, and unique shopping, and we have fun events to look forward to each year, such as Cruise-a-Palooza, the Italian Festival, Witches Day Out and much more.”
Grady said that newcomers to Butler would be taken aback by the old architecture, which he said can be a breathtaking sight. Plus, the city is well situated.
“Route 8, a major state route with a high traffic volume on a day-to-day basis, runs right through it,” he said. “You have a little bit of everything you can experience in a city—entertainment, shopping, food, beautiful buildings—so it’s a unique experience, to say the least.”