In “Land’s End,” novelist Michael Cunningham’s must-read book about Provincetown, he writes,
Provincetown is, has always been, an eccentrics’ sanctuary…It is the only small town I know of where those who live unconventionally seem to outnumber those who live within the prescribed boundaries of home and licensed marriage, respectable job and biological children…Among strollers and shoppers [on Commercial Street] on a summer afternoon, it is not unusual to see, within a fifty-foot radius, all of the following: a crowd of elderly tourists who have come for the day on a tour bus or have disembarked from a cruise ship anchored in the harbor; a pack of muscle boys on their way to the gym; a vacationing mother and father shepherding their exhausted and fussy children through the shops; a pair of lesbians with a dachshund in a rainbow collar; two gay dads in chinos and Izod shirts pushing their adopted daughter in a stroller; a dread-locked and ostentatiously tattooed young woman who works at the head shop; a man dressed, very convincingly, as Celine Dion; elderly women doing errands; several closeted schoolteachers from various parts of the country who come to Provincetown for two weeks every year to escape the need for secrecy; several weary fisherman coming home from their stints on a scallop boat; a bond trader with three-hundred-dollar sandals up for the weekend from New York; and a brigade of furious local kids on skateboards, seeing how close they can come to the pedestrians without actually knocking one over, a stunt that is usually but not always successful.
Throughout “Land’s End,” Cunningham perfectly and lovingly captures Provincetown in all of its strange and glorious beauty. And I couldn’t help but think of the above description chronicling the rich and vibrant street life found on the town’s main drag as I walked along Commercial Street for an afternoon of window shopping and practicing the underrated art of loafing around.
Now, first let me discuss the limited scope of this blog post. The rich gallery scene, the vast cultural offerings, and the incredible night life will be not be included here. Each deserves its own space – and I will be sure to get to them soon. So, let this blog post act as just a dip of the toe into the ocean of things that can be said about Commercial Street.
Norman Mailer wrote of Provincetown, “There could be no other town like it. If you were sensitive to crowds, you might expire in summer from human propinquity. On the other hand, if you were unable to endure loneliness, the vessel of your person could fill with dread during the long winter.” Besides making me look up the definition of propinquity, I love Mailer’s quote from “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” because it speaks to the mercurial nature of Provincetown – the quickness with which is can move between two extremes.
Though Provincetown was officially settled by the English in the early 1700s (the town was then known as Province Lands) and was settled by the Nauset tribe long before that (the town was then known as Meeshawn), there were no proper roads until 1835. Before that, most people used the waterways of the surrounding Bays to get around. According to the Provincetown Museum’s website the building of Commercial Street was a controversial one:
Many residents protested the building of a road, saying it was a senseless extravagance. Nancy Paine Smith in The Provincetown Book tells the story of one man, a doctor, recently moved to town, who felt differently and proposed a street or boulevard sixty-four feet wide. He was soon voted down for proposing such foolishness. The doctor offered a compromise of thirty-two feet, but this proposal too was voted down as just more foolishness from a foreigner. Twenty-two feet was finally chosen as a size that was wide enough for all general purposes, and twenty-two feet is the width of Commercial Street today. Once the street was laid out, extravagant citizens began to talk about the need for a sidewalk. It is said that the debate [about building a sidewalk] lasted for a week. Finally, after a very close vote, the sidewalk was built. Some people were so incensed they refused to walk on the sidewalks. It is ironic that many people today still refuse to walk on the sidewalk.
And the history of senseless extravagance can still be found among the shops along today’s Commercial Street. From feathered boas, to incredible paintings; from obscure Italian kitchen products to antique Chinese pickling jars; from assless leather chaps to used art books – the goods on sale in the shops on Provincetown’s main street tend to be of the non-essential variety (most of the hardware stores and grocery stores are found off Commercial Street). But this is what makes window shopping (or actual shopping if you are one of those rare creatures with some disposable income these days) so much damn fun.
One of my favorite shops is Wa, located at 220 Commercial Street. Opened by Tom Rogers in 1996, Wa is a beautifully curated refuge filled with chinoiserie and other wonderful items from all over Asia.
Though most of the best stuff is way beyond my budget, I always stop in the store to check out their old, wooden Buddhas, their red-lacquered furniture, and their many other treasures. When I do buy anything there, it tends to be gorgeous little bowls (around $15 to $20 each) that make perfect homes for all the stones I’ve picked up on the beach.
Another shop filled with a wonderful selection of hand-picked curios is Southstream Design (located at 200 Commercial Street) – run by Christian Sonderstrom, an interior designer with a strong eye for the beauty of found artifacts. It is a small place, but chock full of items for the home and garden. He also carries really expensive, really beautiful hand-woven scarves.
After stopping into store after store full of desirable items that I can’t afford, I stop by Cabot’s Candy (276 Commercial Street) where a couple dollars will get me candy fix strong enough to knock away my recession blues. Cabot’s Candy has been around since the 1920s and, as a child, it was my first stop whenever I found myself in Provincetown. They have an incredible variety of salt water taffy, fudge, and penny candy.
And should you be visiting Cape Cod and find yourself in need of cheap souvenirs to bring the folks back home, a box of salt water taffy and a couple of starfish and shells could be just what your wallet is craving. Original? No. But is it a solution to an annoying obligation? Yes.
Another of my childhood haunts was Shop Therapy (346 Commercial Street). Covered in psychedelic murals and stubbornly keeping the hippy aesthetic alive, Shop Therapy is the place for cheap sunglasses, cheap incense, cheap clothing, and, all other things necessary to making you look like you’ve just come from a week at Burning Man. When I was a kid, Shop Therapy prominently displayed a vast, colorful, and creative variety of bongs and other marijuana-related accessories, but now all that is offered is a small selection of what the guy in the store called “tobacco pipes.” It is hard to process that the Just-Say-No era of my childhood was more lenient about this stuff than they are today, but Shop Therapy has tangoed for decades with the federal drug paraphernalia laws and, you know how it goes – they fought the law and the law won.
So, with its bong business gone, Shop Therapy must survive on vulgar bumper stickers and Guatemalan sweaters. And, let me tell you, I think they’re doing fine. It was, by far, the busiest shop I visited that day – filled with swarms of out-of-town teenagers drawn to the counter-cultural, gently subversive products they’ve been selling for decades.
Of course, any trip down Commercial Street is full of unique sights. Here are some more pictures from my day of browsing.
As I made my way back through the crowds on Commercial Street, with two martinis bolstering my ‘everything-is-beautiful’ state of mind, I overheard a gravely voiced man say, “Here it is, such a beautiful day and everyone’s wasting it walking up and down Commercial Street.” And, I guess he had a point. Perhaps we all could have done something different, better, more enriching with our day. But isn’t that act of being wasteful, in itself, part of the joy of frittering away the afternoon in mindless, ebullient communion with a crowd so diverse you’d think New York’s East Village had transplanted itself to a small sliver of asphalt pressed up against Cape Cod Bay?
Fredrick Law Olmstead said, “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.” And, sure, he might have been thinking about walking in the woods and not about window-shopping amongst seven foot tall drag queens, but, still, what he says applies to the crush of Commercial Street as well. It is a place to be with people, to check out the scene, to relax, and to reenergize. And, plus, isn’t it nice to be on a street where the people rule over the cars, where the outsiders are the insiders, and everyone feels welcome?
And where even the traffic cop, with his graceful twirls and artful movements, transforms the quotidian into the transcendent?