The first thing a visitor from New York City will notice about Portland, Maine, is that there are no vacant storefronts. (Grander differences — the omnipresence of ocean air, the relieving sight of a sky that hasn’t been scraped, the easygoing and diverse crowd of locals who’ll gladly take the time to get to know you — come gradually.) The second thing he will notice is that gift shops lurk in every nook and cranny of commerce: a bookstore sells handmade soaps and shot-sized bottles of local maple syrup; a soda shop by the water stocks more artisanal bitters than you’d ever think could exist; a barber shop also sells shoes. (That last one should make him particularly wary.)
You’d have to spend the whole day on foot to get a true grasp of what’s good, in terms of goods, on Congress Street, Exchange Street, Commercial Street and beyond — and if you are visiting, then that’s exactly what you should do. The sheer abundance of what’s available means you’re bound to find something that resonates with you. Grab one of those maple shooters to energize yourself for what’s ahead (and steer clear of the nicknacks sitting next to them). Then take a look at what stuck with us, if you need a little guidance to start you off.
Additional contribution by Jack Seemer.
Portland Trading Co.
Best General Store: The notion of the general store died with the cowboys, but stores like Portland Trading Co. are reviving it with equal parts tradition and modern “maker” edge. Here, that means trendy snapbacks and clean-silhouetted shirts are sold alongside throwback beard-grooming kits and — in a nod to tradition — teepee-shaped incense burners stacked beside “Old West” scents, among countless others. And owner Kazeem Lawal, looking like a grown-up whiz-kid behind a counter stocked with old martial arts and motorcycle DVDs, takes hospitality beyond the stock “How may I help you” with a sometimes voracious (but always genuine) interest in his products, their local creators, and his potential customers. All that’s missing is distant saloon music. (Expect to hear Gorillaz spinning on vinyl instead.)
Best Bookstore: A good bookshop isn’t just one you can get lost in; it’s one that can lead you from one section to the next without you realizing (or caring) where you’re going. At Longfellow’s, you’ll start at the staff picks and end up staring down a sprawling magazine shelf with enough niche publications to convince any skeptic that print lives on. Then, a shelf full of locally made notebooks will catch your eye, and before you know it you’ll find yourself in front of the bookstore-standard community cork board, an armful of new and used selections from their surprisingly well-stocked Spirituality section in tow, wondering how feasible it’d be to move here and spend your hours chipping away at that list of books you’ve always meant to get to.
David Wood Clothiers
Best Traditional Menswear Store: Established in 1978 as a dry goods wholesale distributor, David Wood Clothiers is today Portland’s foremost purveyor of high-end, traditional menswear. Dave Hodgkins, who also oversees Portland General Store next door on Commercial Street (see below), is the well-dressed proprietor here and operates under the philosophy that “while fashion is fleeting, style has passed the test of time.” Ready-to-wear brands at David Wood Clothiers run the gamut of menswear titans, including Hertling Trousers, Pantherella socks and Maine’s very own Rancourt & Co boots. But a big draw is the shop’s own traditional, made-to-order clothing, proving that when Hodgkins and company claim dedication to the collaborative “creation of your [personal] style”, they really mean it.
Portland Dry Goods
Best Casual Apparel Store: Portland Dry Goods is best described as David Wood’s unbuttoned, untucked offspring. Both are distinctly, inescapably Northeastern, but while the former hews a little closer to dear old dad, the former, with its patterned button-downs, outerwear and spacious floor plan (hardwood, naturally), blends New England and newfangled with a forward-focused affinity for heritage menswear and traditional manufacturing. If the goods here learned one thing from Pop, however, it’s how to clean up; all the boots, jeans and accessories on display look equally presentable and rugged, and the grooming goods manufactured by Portland General Store should help wash away the detritus from a day on the shore.
The Tackle Shop
Best Fishing Store: Within a stone’s throw of Casco Bay in the city’s Old Port district, The Tackle Shop is Portland’s go-to hub for nearly all disciplines of fishing (including fly, spin, freshwater, saltwater, ice and bait fishing). Owned and operated by Dana Eastman, who’s known around these waters for his custom rigs and lures, the shop is a trove for anglers in search of Maine’s coveted striped bass, bluefish or any number of endemic species. Don’t know where to start? The Tackle Shop also works in tandem with a number of local guides for custom-tailored fishing experiences in the region.