Mention the city of Salem to someone in passing conversation, and the response will likely be a comment about witches. But these days, there’s more to this bustling seaport than a few black pointy hats and some dusty old brooms. Just point your mouse in the direction of Facebook and search for the Salem, MA fan page, where 14,000 people have turned this online destination into a modern speakeasy.
Joey Columba, the whiz kid behind Salem’s social media frenzy, says he is amazed at the site’s popularity. “I give them a history lesson and a tour of the city that you just can’t get at the museums,” says Columba, who also manages the fan pages for Salem Willows, Pickering Wharf, and Downtown Salem, with a combined fan base of 30,000 people. That’s enough to get the attention of Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We’re on a first-name basis,” he says.
The mayor isn’t the only one loving what’s become of Salem lately. Just step inside the gift shop Roost, where owners Jamie Metsch and Kate Leavy have put their own touch on items for your house. The couple recently moved to town from Portsmouth, NH by way of Ashville, NC and couldn’t be happier. “There’s a feeling in town that this place is about to turn into something big,” says Leavy. “It’s friendly and safe and it has so much possibility. We love it here.”
That’s a sentiment heard throughout town. Whether you’re chowing down on a Cuban sandwich at Red’s, sipping on a Blueberry Ale at Salem Beer Works, or browsing the sci-fi section at Cornerstone Books, the notion that this isn’t your parents’ Salem is obvious. Walking the streets alone at night may have been unheard of just 10 years ago but these days, with a major increase in downtown residential complexes and an influx of residents from places like Cambridge and Somerville, Salem is a robust walking city, where the person standing on the corner is more apt to ask
about your family than for your wallet.
Dinah Cardin, an adjunct English professor at Salem State College and the founder of Art Throb, an independent publication that focuses on local artists, agrees. She moved to Salem from Somerville’s Davis Square in 2003. “Front Street is a little bit like Newbury Street,” she says. “It’s a very walkable city.Â I know a hundred people whose condo I can walk to in minutes.”
But there are some things that transcend culture in Salem. Since 1897, E.W. Hobbs at the Willows has been the pre-eminent popcorn shop in New England. Many of the city’s newer establishments are also starting to create a buzz on their own. Just ask about J. Mode, Crunchy Granola Baby, A&J King Bakery, Living Well, Jaho Coffee, Rouge, or any of the businesses that pop up almost every week. That buzz can also be found in shops like Landry and Arcari, where you’ll find just about any style rug imaginable, or Salem Cycle, where you are still greeted with a smile and (if you’re lucky) a greasy handshake, or even Periwinkles, where they always know your order.
While tourism is still a major source of income for the city, its residents are making a name for themselves and changing the very nature of Salem. What was once a rough-and-tumble homage to witches is quickly becoming a neighborhood where everyone knows your name.
Burning witches, black magic, and a bustling seaport- ?the perfect hideout for pirates.
Take a walk down just about any street in Salem, and it’s hard not to be reminded of the witch trials of 1692. Even the police cars have witches on their doors. But what often gets lost in all the hysteria is the history of this seaport, which at the time of the trials was one of the largest seaports in America. And with a bustling port came pirates.
Alan Dellascio, the former assistant manager and tour guide for 10 years at the New England Pirate Museum in Salem, knows this all too well. The first question usually posed to him is, “Why Salem?” He says that during this time in history, everything being shipped out of the colonies to England was coming straight through Salem, and that made piracy a booming business. Notorious pirate captains like Blackbeard, Kidd, Bellamy, and Quelch were known to have sailed along the North Shore coast in the summer, looking for opportunities to plunder ships or stash their treasure and then return to the Caribbean.
Locals also became involved in the pirate legacy of Salem, says Dellascio. Cotton Mather, a preacher who was a part of the witch trials, would often attempt to console and convert captured pirates in an effort to change their wicked ways. One pirate was captured in Salem but then jailed in Boston. He escaped on numerous occasions, leading many people to believe it to be the work of black magic, but it turned out that the Boston jailer was the pirate’s uncle.
Dellascio also says that some politicians were known for aiding pirates. In 1635, governor John Winthrop was rumored to be friendly with Captain Harding of The Holy Ghost, who had been accused of looting a ship in Barbados. When The Holy Ghost arrived in Salem, Winthrop went to inspect the ship, but conveniently reported it to be empty of captain, crew, and its prized booty.
What to do
Salem’s top spots for pampering, noshing, and shopping.
Don’t let the black straps hanging from the ceiling in the TRX room scare you. This isn’t an S&M parlor; this is the latest in yoga training. And the only thing more remarkable than its clean and inviting interior is the attention paid to the women’s locker room. 29 Bridge St., 978-744-9642, yogasakti.com.
Witch City Ink
If you can imagine it, then this award-winning tattoo shop can put it on your skin. Clean, colorful, and with plenty of breathing room, this shop makes getting inked for the first time or 20th time a breeze. 186-3 Essex St., Museum Place Mall, 978-744-9393, witchcityink.com.
Peabody Essex Museum
What may very well be the cultural epicenter of the North Shore, the PEM regularly showcases stunning works of art and historically significant exhibitions. Dropped jaws are common, as are philosophical debates about life, religion, and why it all exists. 161 Essex St., 978-745-9500, pem.org.
Salem Witch Museum
Get a good scare and learn a thing or two about the hysteria that has put this small corner of Massachusetts on the map forever. 19 N. Washington Sq., 978-744-1692, salemwitchmuseum.com.
Chat up the friendly employees here about wine and beer, and you will probably wind up with a bottle of mead or even some stout-flavored mustard, along with a few knick-knacks for your kitchen, like cookie cutters and mixing bowls. 185 Essex St., 978-745-2900, pmousse.com.
Overwhelmed by massive cosmetics counters? Then head to this makeup shop, where the veteran staff samples products first before the decision
is made to sell them. That means you get the best of the best, as well as a dedication to service and expert advice that is tough to beat. 322 Derby St., 978-740-1044, rouge.com.
Recent renovations and a new menu have made this downtown bistro a favorite stop for noshing tourists and locals alike. 43 Church St., 978-745-7665, thelyceum.com.
When the heat is on and a drink with a few friends is in order, the outdoor patio here is a must. With primetime people-watching along Washington and Essex streets, a cold pint and a few plates of tapas will have you thanking your lucky stars in no time. 231 Essex St., 978-745-2411, rockafellasofsalem.com.
-By Jack Morris, Photographs by Robert Boyd