The sea and sky were a wondrous shade of deep blue. I suspect my toes were also deep blue as I walked in the sub-zero winds along stretches of vacant sand at Popham Beach State Park. Mother Nature made it clear that my weekend in Maine would not be about lackadaisical beach strolls or hiking. The previous day featured drizzle, snow, and the kind of ashen sky that prompted me to hum Radiohead songs.
Shut down by weather, I abandoned the beach, sought shelter, and began investigating how this once-gritty industrial shipbuilding city had the nerve to start marketing itself as “Maine’s cool little city.” I was worried that cool here would be defined by unironic monogrammed fanny packs, salt-stained Ugg boots, and a bar with a new karaoke machine. I took a deep breath and started my weekend journey at Bath’s Saturday morning farmers’ market.
I’m not easily charmed (unless owl figurines or Pez candy is involved), but my beef jerky soul softened walking under strings of lights casually draped from the beams in the rustic building that houses the city’s winter farmers’ market. There was something unintentionally hipster about the scene. A pair of sisters sold cheeses and soaps made of goat’s milk. A bearded fellow in plaid offered his homemade bread and fresh-off-the-farm meat, and a demure young woman sold beewax candles, wool accessories, and eggs. I wanted to tell these folks they should think about driving to Brooklyn, N.Y., and peddling their wares at quadruple the price. If they labeled their goods as artisan, they could quintuple it.
I bought the goat soap and was moving in on the maple syrup table when I started chatting with local architect Wiebke Theodore. She explained that this farmers’ market wasn’t taking place in some random barn. We were in Bath’s 114-year-old Freight Shed and a booster group has been raising thousands to repair it through moonlight dinners by the Kennebec River, grants, and crowdsourcing. When they started, the roof was in shambles and weeds were sprouting from the planks in the floor.
The plan is that the shed will eventually be equipped with a kitchen for cooking demonstrations and perhaps take on a new life as a rowing club, marina, or bike rental center. Theodore even brought me into the restroom to proudly show its improvements.
Behind the shed, a group called Maine’s First Ship is constructing a full-size replica of the first ship built in North America by English colonists.
It was hard not to get swept up by all this civic pride. Residents love the place so much they held a live trivia game show that weekend called “So You Think You Know Bath?”
“I think of it as Little Portland,” said Timothy Goad, owner of River Bottom Video. Yes, Bath has an independent video store and, contrary to what you’re thinking, it’s super hip and very popular.
When the computer system of Goad’s video store crashed last December, the town rallied to help save the little business by raising money for a new system. Goad said he felt like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Goad’s Portland comparison may be a bit premature. Portland, which is a 30-minute drive from Bath, has a population of more than 66,000, about eight times Bath’s. But there are people in their 20s and 30s moving to Bath for the inexpensive real estate and beautiful beaches. There are some architectural and historical similarities between the cities, but Bath feels like an escape from the buzzy scene of Portland.
However, Carolyn Lockwood, director of Main Street Bath, is quick to remind me that Bath is developing its own scene. The city has new businesses coming in, such as Salt Pine Social, an offshoot of the nearby Brunswick restaurant El Camino. Any city with a restaurant called Salt Pine Social is moving into a new stratosphere of lumbersexual chic.
There are great places to eat in Bath — I recommend the contemporary cuisine at Solo Bistro — but it doesn’t have dozens of restaurants. It does, however, have an oddball performance hall called the Chocolate Church. The venue, which sounds like the title of a Prince song, was once an 1840s Gothic Revival style church. The night I visited, Ryan Montbleau was playing, and it was the first time during my weekend visit that I saw people out past 10:30 p.m.
Jon Merry, the gent clad in plaid who was selling goat products and homemade bagels at the farmers’ market, moved back to the area after training as a chef and working in kitchens in Boston.
“I lived in the city and I did all of that,” he said. “But there is a quality of life here and a pace that I enjoy.”
I indulged in that languid pace by wandering around downtown Bath. Rows of cute shops were thankfully preserved in the 1960s when the city rejected a proposal that would have turned its downtown into an outdoor shopping center. If the weather wasn’t so miserable, I would have spent less time combing the aisles at Reny’s, the beloved Maine department store, and more time taking a self-guided architectural tour to see homes dating to the 18th century.
The weather and the season hindered more than my beach time. It was too early to ride the ferry that runs river cruises from the Maine Maritime Museum up the Kennebec. It was also a bit early, and far too muddy, to wander outside the museum, which, aside from its beaches, is the city’s great attraction.
The museum shows how Bath’s growth mirrored the city’s shipbuilding industry. There were once more than 50 shipyards in the region. Bath Iron Works is still the region’s largest employer, and schoolchildren here learn about shipbuilding first hand by making their own boats. If you’re vacationing in Bath, you can take a class for a few nights, although expect to build a small box rather than a boat.
“It’s kind of nice to have so many people come in during the summer,” said boatshop manager Kurt Spiridakis. “But it can be very difficult to get work done. We’re a living exhibit at the museum.”
It’s Kate Meyers’s job to sell the museum (she’s the marketing manager) but she was also giving me a hard sell on the town. Meyers, 34, grew up here, went away to college, and recently moved back. Like Myers, those new and returning residents are bringing new ideas — sometimes to the chagrin of the old regime.
My own impression of Bath was that it’s a place I’d like to visit again, albeit when the weather is less formidable. I was worried that Bath would be trying too hard to be cool, like when your mom starts singing “Uptown Funk!” but scrambles the lyrics. Bath is a small city with a bit of smart cosmopolitan flair. It could stand a bit more polishing — but not too much, please.
Fine, I’ll just say it. Bath is on the verge of becoming Maine’s cool little city.Christopher Muther can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.