No shirt? No shoes? No problem. Welcome to Essex.
On most days, rain or shine, Bob Coviello, owner of Main Street Antiques, can be found working on any number of chairs, tables, and odds and ends in his narrow parking lot right off Main Street. For the last 30 years, Coviello has been buying, selling, and refurbishing antiques, much like the 35 other dealers in town. “In this business,” he says, dressed in sandals, shorts, and a tank top, “you never run out of things to fix.”
For the thousands of tourists who flock to this old-fashioned village, antiquing is somewhat of a sport. And come here they do, from all walks of life, looking for rare finds or maybe just a stroll down memory lane to a time when sweat, a person’s word, and penny candy were more important than emails and conference calls.
“Essex is a small community where everyone knows each other; it’s quirky, but it doesn’t change,” says Coviello, who also serves as the chairman of the Essex Merchants Group. “You’ve got millionaires and laborers working together. We fight change better than any other place I’ve ever seen.” There’s no doubt that the residents of Essex love their town; the pride runs deep in their voices and in their businesses. After all, more two-masted wooden fishing schooners were constructed here than in any other place in the world. That is, until the early 1900s, when engine-powered ships became all the rage. But holding onto the past is something Essex does well. Harold Burnham, owner of H.A. Burnham, Boat Building & Design, is the 28th Burnham to operate a shipyard in Essex since 1819. His devotion to the craft is something of a legend in town as his workshop, with piles of cut trees sitting idly in the yard, gives tourists a close-up look at the ancient craft of boatbuilding.
For residents like Doug Low, Burnham’s craft, the lure of antiquing, and the slow pace of everyday life in Essex are all part of why he moved here from Detroit in 2007. That, and the two most often-asked questions in town: When’s high tide and when’s the next train to Boston? “Five to eight days a year I run the air conditioning, but otherwise, it’s great,” Low says.
Great, indeed. With the sun beating down on your face and the fresh salty air wafting up from the marsh along the meandering Essex River, it’s hard not to feel a little intoxicated by the romance of Essex, especially when driving down Main Street past classic restaurants like Essex Seafood, J.T. Farnham’s, Periwinkles, Tom Shea’s, and Woodman’s. When it comes to fresh seafood, especially fried clams, this narrow strech of road along the Essex River is the global epicenter-and the birthplace of the fried clam, thanks to Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman back in 1914.
But there’s more to Essex than just great food, shopping, and views. “There’s a great entrepreneurial spirit here,” says Diane Robinson, owner of Silly Goose, the lone toy store in town and a gathering place for kids who flock here with their parents or grandparents to spend an allowance or two. “It has a real backbone of people who work off the land and with their hands. This is always where I wanted to end up.” This is a notion that seems to echo throughout in town, from the antique dealers and the bartenders to the clam diggers and vacationers, who value not just the serenity of this seaside destination, but its old-world charm as well.
Date of Settlement: 1634
Date of Incorporation: 1819
Zip Code: 01929
Total Area: 15.9 square miles
Medium Household Income: $59,554
Schools: Essex Elementary School
Notable Residents: Rufus Choate, Evan Dando, Jonathan Knight, Edward H. Saltzberg, Arthur Dana Story
Blogging for Clams
Social Media Director Vanessa Woodman wants your opinion: “Bib or no bib?”
In the 96 years since Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman invented the fried clam and the Woodman family began serving it, much has changed in the restaurant business. But for Vanessa Woodman, the fourth generation Woodman to be involved in the business, change has come in the form of zeroes and ones. As the director of social media marketing for Woodman’s of Essex, she is responsible for the restaurant’s online branding, meaning she’s the face behind the Facebook fan page and the editor for the restaurant’s blog.
“The simple questions get the best responses,” says Woodman of the company’s Facebook page. She says posts like “Bib or no bib” and “Butter or lemon” really get people engaged with the site and with the idea of driving to Woodman’s for a meal.
Woodman only recently took on this role for the restaurant, having previously lived in Mexico for two years as an English teacher. These days, when she’s not on Facebook, she’s overseeing video shoots, which are eventually posted to the blog, and helping to boost the company’s placement in Internet search results. “If we’re not coming up first in a Google search, we’re losing that market share.”
The next step for Woodman is to help promote the restaurant’s catering division, as well as assist with potentially expanding into Boston or Plymouth (Woodman’s recently opened a location in Litchfield, NH). But first, she’s enjoying a little time in the spotlight as a character in the film Grown Ups with Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, and Salma Hayek. “They spent four days shooting here at the restaurant,” she says. “I play a customer just chatting and getting a drink, and my dad plays the manager. That was really fun.”
The top spots in Essex for shopping, eating, and relaxing.
Andrew Spindler Antiques
Less an antique store and more a personal collection of rare artifacts procured over the years by Spindler, this small antique shop sells only the finest items, from an early American wrought iron fishing spear ($395) to an 18th century Os de Mouton upholstered sofa ($18,500). 163 Main St., 978-768-6045, spindlerantiques.com.
Essex Shipbuilding Museum
A tour through this museum takes you back to when hammers and elbow grease made this town what it is today. Check out the tools they used and photos of the old boats that were built right here starting in 1668. 66 Main St., 978-768-7541, essexshipbuildingmuseum.org.
Essex River Cruises
It’s hard to think of something more entertaining on a hot summer day than a scenic party boat cruise down the Essex River, followed by a private clambake on a secluded beach with plenty of cold beverages and a game of beach volleyball. Yes, it’s all possible. No, we’re not making this up. 35 Dodge St., 800-748-3706, essexcruises.com.
The White Elephant Shop
They come for the bass guitars, the old albums, the Coca-Cola vending machine that still dispenses bottles, the candy, the books, and the stuffed moose head. But more so, customers flock to this antique shop for the unexpected. 32 Main St., 978-768-6901, whiteelephantshop.com.
If there’s one thing Essex is synonymous with it’s the fried clams that this restaurant invented in 1916. Be sure to get here early because the line can wrap out the door and down the street on any given weekend. 121 Main St., 978-768-2559, woodmans.com.
For some of the best BBQ around, this smokehouse is the hands-down winner. Live music, eating contests, and a beach volleyball court out back make this local juke joint the place to be when the sun goes down. 233 Western Ave., 978-768-0000, farmbargrille.com.
Silly Goose Toys
Owner Diane Robinson has one of the best views in town from her second-floor home looking out over the marsh and the Atlantic Ocean. But her favorite view is from behind the register on the first floor looking out over her toy store. That’s because kids love her toys and parents love the great service without all the fuss. 166 Main St., 866-771-0282, usillygoose.com.
The George Fuller House
Owner Kathleen Tilden will make you feel right at home at this downtown B&B where she serves a delicious eggs Benedict. Be sure to reserve the top floor suite with its own deck and unbeatable views. 148 Main St., 978-768-7766, cape-ann.com. -Jack Morris, photos by Robert Boyd