Finding Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
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.
So stroll we did, down dirt paths, past caroling groups, past a horse-drawn wagon pulling teams of excited kids and bundled-up parents, past a bonfire warming a small crowd of fellow time-travelers. The magnificent Goodwin Mansion, decked in lavish Victorian holiday decorations, drew us deeper into the spirit of the season. We ducked into the Georgian luxury of the elegant circa-1762 Chase House, where a period interpreter was rolling through Christmas tunes on a harpsichord. We split time at the Shapley-Drisco House, where on one side we visited a young girl from the 1790s, while on the other, a pair of 1950s daughters were doing their hair in front of a tree and a small black-and-white television set.
It was an exhausting business, jumping from century to century, and we tucked Calvin into bed early. But we were up early the next morning, on foot and meandering through Portsmouth again, out to the waterfront, through Prescott Park, and down narrow streets crowded with restored 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century homes. In many other cities you’d pay to see this stuff; in Portsmouth this kind of history is just part of a morning walk.
We filled our day by nipping into more shops and then feasting on haddock piccata, cod with salsa sauce, and lobster spring rolls at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Café, a downtown restaurant featuring seafood bought daily from local fishermen. Grace talked for days about its freshness.
But I must confess we didn’t entirely avoid our car. Wanting just a little more of that salt air, one afternoon we headed south a bit, rolling through the coastal towns of New Castle and Rye, before landing in Hampton. In winter there’s a desolate beauty to a summer resort, so accustomed to its crowds and July flair. We hit the beach for a short walk, then hunkered down at Ashworth by the Sea for a simple lunch of grilled cheese and fries. It seemed an unlikely place to clinch the Christmas spirit for us, but there we were: just us and a few locals, with a collection of soft holiday music playing in the background. We lingered at the restaurant, taking the opportunity to be together without the worry of agendas or pressing e-mails to address. “There’s some relief on a day like today,” noted our waitress, Sandy. “It’s slow …” She drew out that last word, letting it work itself out of her mouth with a contagious smile.
For a small family in need of a little Christmas boost, that was a gift we could appreciate.
For more on Portsmouth’s holiday festivities, including concerts, shopping, house tours, and the Strawbery Banke Candlelight Stroll, visit: vintagechristmasnh.org