ROCKPORT — Bearskin Neck is different than your typical seaside town’s main drag. The absence of chain restaurants, big time apparel stores, and street carts is noticeable. The biggest giveaway, however, is that depending on the day of the week, the weather, or the number of people out, the tiny family-owned businesses may close early, open late, or not open at all. Few places have set hours posted anywhere.
That’s just part of the charm. The former fishing outpost is now one of the North Shore’s top destinations, having retained all of its whimsical quaintness through the years, and boasting some of the friendliest people imaginable. The buildings themselves are antiques, often dating back more than a century, and are often so cramped they can only fit a few visitors in at a time. Restaurants, galleries, gift shops, inns, and cafes are packed into nearly every square foot of prime ocean-side space along “The Neck” as its called, which is perhaps most famous for “Motif No. 1,” a red shack sitting amongst anchored boats that is said to be one of the most photographed structures in the world.
“Every year you have to use right here,” Hoi Luong, whose family owns China Gifts International (1 Bearskin Neck, 978-546-3720) says as she points at her head when asked about making the most of her very small space. “A lot of people come every year from out of state. I know them, I love when they come in.” The 1979 store is piled to the ceiling with tchotchkes. T shirts hang down like giant leaves you have to wade through to get at other items like mugs, oven mitts, and signs.
For a bit more breathing room, take a trip to the Bearskin Neck Country Store (40 Bearskin Neck, 978-546-3620). Dating back 65 years, this general store has a bit of everything, but the main draw is a selection of more than 150 candies, including many hard-to-find, retro varieties. A 1913 player piano draws visitors in from the busy street. “We sell what no one else has,” says Ken Demaine, who co-owns the store with his wife, Barbie. “Seventy to 80 percent of the business comes in July and August, but the season has already started for us,” he adds.
If you’re hungry, head to Roy Moore Lobster Co. (39 Bearskin Neck, 978-546-6696). Nestled in an 1800s fisherman’s shack, this place has been serving seafood since 1918. The menu is limited to a few items, but everything is fresh, locally caught, and expertly prepared. A tray of smoked salmon with tartar sauce is heavy on great flavors, and homemade fish cakes and shrimp cocktail are both authentic and delicious. But the lobster, boiled in sea water, is the real standout. Rockport’s signature crustacean is best enjoyed out back, on Roy Moore’s deck. The no-frills approach is working, as co-owner Ken Porter says that on a good day, he’ll sell up to 800 lobsters. “It’s all about quality, reasonable prices, and good service,” Porter says, “and people come here for the event as much as the food.”
For dessert, the Fudgery (4 Tuna Wharf, 978-546-2030) has fudge, taffy, and its famous elephant ears. The shop was prominently featured in 2009’s “The Proposal.” The Bearskin Neck area is loaded with ice cream options, but for a quaint seaside experience, venture to The Ice Cream Store (14 Bearskin Neck). Located in a converted summer cottage, this tiny parlor has a great view of the ocean and doesn’t let its size stop it from serving serious portions.
The Neck also has it share of art galleries. According to Porter, artists began moving in around the Great Depression and the community has thrived ever since, with local shops offering everything from friendship bracelets and handmade jewelry to canvas paintings and paper art. “There’s a lot of competition around here, but I don’t worry about it,” says Mary Kay Carbone, a nurse who sells pottery out of her gallery, Four Winds Pottery (15 Tuna Wharf, 978-546-8946). “Everyone does something different.”
Of course, having so many businesses crammed into such a small area does breed some friendly competition. “Rockport has a lot of small town drama, but we’re all a big family for the most part,” says Cady Whitley, a high school student who works at Shore Thing (41 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, 978-546-7705). “Everyone from the high school works here. If you don’t have a job at Bearskin Neck, people are like, ‘What do you do?’ ”
Whitley described the Neck as “the place to be.” The ocean view from the top of the Neck alone makes it a worthwhile trip and a great way to cap off a day of shopping and exploring.
“Rockport’s so beautiful, it’s very unique,” says Porter, the co-owner of Roy Moore Lobster Co. “The sunrise, the sunset, it’s all just perfect.”
Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.