Last December I was living in the small seaside town of Rockport, Mass., where Santa arrives by Coast Guard boat and is transported down Bearskin Neck in a vintage fire truck so he can light the massive fir tree that sits in all its magnificence on Dock Square.
My stay in Rockport would end before Christmas, but I had to do all of my shopping while I was out there. What did this mean?
For starters, I don’t think people even used the phrase “Black Friday.” Anyway, you have to cross the bridge that separates Cape Ann from the mainland and drive down Route 128 something like 20 miles before you even come to a shopping mall. And the whole point of being on a sabbatical was to avoid shopping malls (OK, that wasn’t the point of the sabbatical, but it was an advantage it offered).
So shopping locally for Christmas gifts was a given. And I didn’t even need to get into a car to do it. I scoured the shops up and down Bearskin Neck and bought socks and sweaters from the Bolivian man who, with his partner, sold a range of beautiful woolens. I bought scarves from the Mexican woman whose colorful store was chock-a-block full of jewelry and clothing and wall hangings and shrines to Frida Kahlo.
At the happy head shop, Soulstice, I bought essential oil and handmade bracelets. I bought exquisite beaded necklaces from Tidal Edge Gallery where Heidi Zander’s oil paintings vie for space with her hand-painted bowls and cards and jewelry.
At the John Tarr store I could get more serious presents and necessities: Woolrich shirts and Teva walkers and Greek fisherman caps and heavy-duty mittens. But at Sand Castles I could get more girlie clothes my daughters like to wear.
The French owner of Provence sold me some brilliantly-hued napkins (a present for myself; it was coming on my birthday after all). And at R Three Sons (and those three sons often worked the shop for their parents) I could find all manner of joke gifts including a bacon wallet, a yodeling pickle and Freudian slippers.
The hardest shop to pull myself out of was Lula’s, a gourmet food store so visually appealing that I have a fantasy of turning my kitchen into just such a space (and stocked with just such fancy comestibles, pottery and linens).
If I got hungry from all this meandering around town, I didn’t have to stop into a Friendly’s or grab a burger at McDonald’s. (As far as I know there is only one of each of these chains on Cape Ann, down in the city of Gloucester. Rockport has a Dunkin Donuts out by the commuter train. And there’s a Burger King on Route 128 some miles away, but it’s on the east-bound side and there’s no access to it if you’re traveling west.)
My culinary options ranged considerably. I was fond of getting a late afternoon coffee and a tuna-and-boursin wrap at the Bean & Leaf. But Hula Moon, with its oil-cloth covered tables and harbor view, served up some mean soups. Flav’s Red Skiff was unbeatable for breakfast—my anadama bread doesn’t even come close to being as good as their anadama bread.
There was Finnish coffee bread, called Nisu at Brother’s Brew and sweet and savory versions of strudel at Helmet’s. Top Dog turned out a variety of wieners, though I am not a partaker. And if it were getting on in the day, Roy Moore had fresh-caught lobsters for a dinner time splurge.
This year, of course, the shopping process is different. As I do every year and will continue to do, I skipped Black Friday. I read books instead, made some root vegetable soup. Felt very counter-cultural and all that. On Saturday I hit some local shops—the Jay Street mall in Schenectady being about as close to Bearskin Neck (without the harbor surrounding it) as the capital area gets. And yesterday I ventured into The Christmas Tree, which is an annual tradition for my daughter Linnea and me.
And now I’m sitting here on Cyber Monday, taking a break from this year’s version of cyber-shopping. (I’ll admit that last year, living in Rockport, I did have to do some online ordering—none of the shops sold Kitchen Aid mixers or bed pillows.)
It’s also true that it’s getting easier to patronize local shops rather than the big giants since many of them are offering online shopping and free shipping (Ten Thousand Villages, Saratoga Olive Oil, for example) and you can find all kinds of artisanal products at Etsy.com. But I miss bundling up in the killer mittens and beret I bought at Butler’s Haberdashery and strolling up and down the streets knowing that, by the time Santa arrived, I’d have all my shopping done.