AMHERST - Push open the door of the Amherst Cinema Arts Center and inhale a tantalizing aroma. It's not your usual theater popcorn smell.
And it's not your usual concession stand. The popcorn popper is behind an antique bar with a brass foot railing. Toppings include nutritional yeast, sour cream and onion, and cheddar cheese.
"The corn isn't genetically modified, and it's popped in olive oil," cinema manager Beth Moore Roberts tells us. The sodas are natural, and the ice cream sandwiches are from Flayvors of Cook Farm in neighboring Hadley. Even the cows that provide the milk for the ice cream are local.
The Amherst Cinema Art Center is a nonprofit theater dedicated to screening independent films selected on merit and because they inspire and inform. According to Carol Johnson, the theater's executive director, Amherst Cinema is among a growing number of nonprofit art centers with films at their core.
This stretch of the Connecticut River Valley is particularly rich in cinephiles. It boasts five college campuses, among them Hampshire College, whose graduates include filmmaker Ken Burns.
Since opening in November, Amherst Cinema has hosted a number of interactive programs involving professors showing classics and student films. It has also worked with the community, screening "The Triplets of Belleville," an acclaimed animated feature about a lonely boy who grows up to ride in the Tour de France, and "Who Killed the Electric Car?" during Amherst's annual Spring Bike Week.
But first-run films are its bread and butter. On a recent Thursday the choices were "Sicko," "Waitress," "La Vie en Rose," and the lesser known "Once," a winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"La Vie en Rose" was showing in the 200-stadium seat main theater, and Edith Piaf's distinctive voice resonated in Dolby sound.
Amherst Art Walk, the first Thursday of every month, was in full swing as we emerged from the show. The neighboring Gallery A3 was hosting a lively reception and next door, Tabella, a tapas restaurant, was beginning to fill.
As Sandy Ward, a friend from nearby Holyoke, steered us into Tabella, she said: "I would never have discovered this place if I hadn't come to see a film, but now we're hooked."
According to Barry Roberts, owner of the Amherst Cinema building, the films are bringing 2,000 people a week downtown.
Roberts, a local contractor, remembers watching films as a kid in the 600-seat, single-screen Amherst Cinema, which closed in 1999 after a long decline. He is generally credited with shepherding its replacement to completion.
"A community group had a grand plan to build a performing arts center on this site," says Johnson, "but the timing was wrong. The market tanked. Fund-raising was difficult."
As the auction date for the old theater neared, Roberts was asked to buy it, just to hold it for a few months until the nonprofit group could raise funds to pay him.
"Three, four, five years went by, and they couldn't do it," Roberts recalls. In the meantime the community group refocused its vision, from live performance to film.
"This whole valley just loves film," Johnson says.
Not only did Roberts build the 6,500-square-foot movie complex at cost, he continues to lease it to the nonprofit center for the cost of maintenance, insurance, and taxes. Meanwhile, fund-raising proceeds apace with public and private donations.
Although it has been expanded to accommodate three screening rooms, the new theater occupies just the rear quarter of a long brick building, constructed in 1875 as a livery stable. The rehabbed building echoes its original lines, complete with cupola, albeit with an extra floor of office space. It now houses Gallery A3, Tabella, and two boutiques along with the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and, most prominently, Amherst Coffee, a spacious cafe generally recognized as the new center of town.
"Some people are here seven hours a day," says barista Martin Mahoney, scanning a roomful of people absorbed in conversation, books, and laptops.
Christina Tree, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.