Finding Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Can it feel a little precious? Sure. But in a city that has twice rebuilt its downtown from devastating fires and then extricated itself from a downtrodden stretch in the 1970s, there’s resilience behind all that cuteness. And downtown business owners are some of the city’s biggest evangelists.
“It got pretty bad,” said Tom Light, whose family owns Hoyt’s Office Products on Market Street. “I remember you didn’t even want to walk down there,” he added, pointing to Commercial Alley, now an upscale stretch of restaurants and shops. “It’s changed a lot. It’s pretty neat.”
A gritty downtown was hard to imagine as we made our way over to Tree House Toys, where a few kids were peering through the storefront window at a train cruising around a Christmas tree. Inside, the shop was packed with finds (dolls, stuffed animals, and a fun collection of marionette cats–yes, we bought one) and customers.
A few doors down we popped into Macro Polo, where the goods had a slightly lighter feel. Roast-beef bubble gum, no-tear toilet paper, and bacon-flavored toothpaste were just a few of the favorites that kept me and a small army of 10-year-old boys reluctant to find the exit. “Hey, Hayden,” marveled one of the kids to his friend, “zombie fingers!”
Our little toy-store pilgrimage finally brought us to G.Willikers!, a Market Street institution that first opened its doors in 1978. Still family-owned–chances are Jill Breneman or one of her two grown children, Bob and Jody Breneman, will ring you up–the shop is now a destination for parents whose own moms and dads used to bring them here.
On it went like this for two straight days. We’d walk, then stop. We’d shop a little, then a eat a little. We set our own pace, and reveled in the different faces of the city we discovered. We visited Portsmouth Fabric Company on Penhallow Street, a needle-arts mecca awash in racks of fabrics from all parts of the world. On the other side of downtown (and at the opposite end of the pendulum) we poked inside the The Manporium, with its amusing inventory of “Boyfriend Training” flashcards and bathroom putting greens.
In Sheafe Street Books we happened across a small storefront with the atmosphere of a cozy house. That’s because it really is a house: The store is the brainchild of Ken Kozick, a longtime collector and book-business executive, who, when he lost his job with a big publisher a few years back, converted his home’s first floor in downtown Portsmouth into a used bookshop. His living room became the checkout area, the dining room a browsing area with shelves stuffed with rare titles, paperbacks, a scattering of new editions, and collections with labels like “Ye Old New England Stuff.”
“The book business is a bit like subsistence farming,” Kozick joked, looking around his shop with pride.
But what about that old-time holiday spirit? Where was that going to come from? We found it as night descended and the city’s center radiated like a Christmas tree. The old brick buildings blinked with window lights, wreaths hung from the streetlamps, and the buzz of a downtown that’s actually a destination after 5:00 p.m. filled the air.
A different kind of rush awaited us at Strawbery Banke Museum. While the “Vintage Christmas” theme was threaded throughout Portsmouth, it was there, at that rescued and rebuilt neighborhood on the city’s original waterfront, that the whole thing lived and breathed. For three weekends each December (Dec. 1-2, 8-9, and 15-16 this year), this museum of early New England homes opens its doors to evening visitors for “Candlelight Stroll,” a journey through America’s holiday history, from the late 1600s through the 1950s.