Earlier this week, on a sunny, warm May afternoon, Main street in Edgartown resembled a ghost town.
Although year-round places like Edgartown Hardware were doing a moderate business, well over half of all businesses were closed while several storefronts were empty.
Go back a few decades, though, and the scene was quite different.
As recently as the 1970s, Main street was home to no fewer then three year-round grocery stores, a department store that sold brand-name clothing and two pharmacies that stayed open until 9 p.m. — an almost unheard-of hour in Edgartown in this day and age.
If you were to go back a bit further in time, to the 1950s, the Edgartown street boasted pool halls, barber shops, fruit stands, a dry cleaner, a hat store and a cobbler — which, for anyone born after the Nixon administration, refers to someone who makes or repairs shoes.
“It was a happening place, everything was open year-round,” said lifelong Edgartown resident Robert Carroll, who was born and raised in his family’s home on South Summer street across from the Vineyard Gazette. “You could walk down Main street and get just about anything. It was all right there.”
Former longtime selectman Fred B. (Ted) Morgan Jr. said he can remember a time when Main street was more of a thriving year-round retail center then a seasonal tourist destination.
“It was such a vital place,” Mr. Morgan said. “You could go there in January or February and there were people everywhere talking and carrying bags of groceries.”
Although you can still buy a paintbrush, see a movie or buy certain clothing items all year along Main street, it has been a long time since you could buy groceries, get a haircut or fill a prescription. There are still a few places to grab a cup of coffee or have a drink in the winter, but clearly there are fewer choices than 20 or 30 years ago.
The town still boasts several stately churches, although St. Elizabeth’s church now closes in the winter while the United Methodist Church, housed in the Old Whaling Church across the street moves its services into a smaller area downstairs during the winter months.
Town hall is still on Main street, and the police and fire stations are fairly close by as they always have been, but the most essential and beloved of municipal institutions — the main Edgartown Post Office — moved from the downtown to the Triangle some 20 years ago.
To many Edgartown residents, losing the downtown post office opened a wound that has yet to heal. A post office annex was opened on Church street where you can mail a letter or buy stamps, but most of the post office boxes are at the main office at the Triangle, and the annex never earned the affection of its predecessor.
“I think moving [the post office] drove a stake through this town. It basically divided the town into two sections,” Mr. Morgan said. “That post office was more than a place to get your mail, it was a gathering spot, it held the town together.”
Former selectman Edith W. Potter said losing the downtown post office changed the face of Main street and downtown Edgartown.
“You always saw people you knew at the post office,” she said. “You could stop there and find 20 people standing around chatting. It was the unofficial center of town.”
The relocation of the post office and other vital businesses can be described as the Edgartown version of the Wal-Mart effect that is occurring to Main streets across the nation. On the mainland, this phenomenon occurs when large retail stores and chain restaurants are located away from the town center to prevent problems with parking and traffic while also preserving the historic character of the downtown corridor.
And while Edgartown residents aren’t flocking to upper Main street to grab a Big Mac at McDonalds or buy a DVD player at Best Buy, they are straying out of the traditional heart of downtown — that is, lower Main street — to check their mail, rent videos and buy essentials such as medicine and groceries.
“I love Main street in Edgartown, and I always will,” Ms. Potter said. “But I don’t think anyone disagrees it was a more vibrant place 20 or 30 years ago.”
In speaking with a cross section of Edgartown about Main street and its role in the community, it quickly becomes evident that it is a source of both affection and frustration for many people.
While most people are eager to speak about the days when Main street was the heartbeat of the community, those same people are reluctant to criticize what it has become.
Like a heartbroken ex-lover, many people are afraid to speak ill of something that was once a big part of their lives. Instead, they will readily expound on what is still alive and special about Main street.
“It’s still a wonderful place . . . there is so much history everywhere,” said Carol Fligor, owner of the former Fligor’s department store on North Water street, just off Main street. “You can walk by St. Elizabeth’s and the Whaling Church and the [Edgartown] courthouse and just marvel at it all.”
Arthur R. Railton, an Island historian and former editor of the Dukes County Intelligencer, said Main street is unique in that it has largely remained unchanged for the past 50-plus years. While many year-round businesses have left, most of the buildings essentially stayed the same.
“If you went back to the turn of the [century], I don’t think Edgartown would look all that different. The main difference would be the lineup of automobiles, and of course there would be a lot more empty [parking] spaces because there was less cars,” Mr. Railton said.
Mr. Morgan said Main street has one shining attribute that can never be tarnished: Edgartown harbor.
“Where else can you stand at the top of Main street and look down the road past all these shops and historic buildings and see the ocean? Our Main street leads you right down to the town harbor. We are so lucky to have that,” Mr. Morgan said.
“There is this great connection with nature that is part of the downtown dynamic,” agreed Mr. Railton. “The ocean and the harbor have always played an important role in defining Edgartown. I don’t think that will ever change.”
The town harborfront is now undergoing a major overhaul with the construction of the new Boathouse project at the foot of Main street, which among other things, will feature a members-only club on the second floor, a fine dining restaurant, several private dining rooms, a large sitting room with fireplace and cathedral ceilings, and a new dock area with several classic boats for member use.
Local developers Gerret C. Conover and Thomas E. LeClair also plan to relocate the dinghy docks and build a series of improvements in the waterfront, including street lamps, benches, awnings, flower planters and a new brick walkway that will frame a large portion of the harbor.
Mr. Conover said part of the plan for the Boathouse is to enhance the harbor and emphasize its role as the hub of the Main street and the town. He said a retail store on the ground floor of the project and a restaurant will be open during the shoulder seasons and possibly year-round, and space will be available for things such as weddings and town functions.
“So many of these staples of our community have already left downtown, which has created this vacuum that has been filled by seasonal businesses,” Mr. Conover said. “We always felt that an anchor business along the harbor might put some life into Main street and the [rest of] downtown. We hope we can start something.”
Plans to spruce up the rest of Main street and the downtown area are being headed by two groups: the town beautification committee and the Edgartown board of trade, which was revived and reconstituted four years ago.
In a short period of time, the beautification committee has installed new planters, benches and lamps, and has worked to improve the aesthetics of the downtown while preserving its historic charm.
Meanwhile, the board of trade has revived townwide events like the Fourth of July fireworks, launched new endeavors such as the sand castle contest at South Beach and the Martha’s Vineyard food and wine festival, and breathed new life into old traditions like the Christmas in Edgartown festival.
Christina Cook, a board of trade member and owner of the Christina Gallery, said the board would love to see more year-round businesses come to downtown. But she noted that the current trend is for more seasonal businesses to open, which is largely driven by the economics and demographics of the town.
“There are a lot more people in Edgartown who own two or three homes who only come here for a few months. We would love to see more businesses stay open year-round. But it’s hard because a lot of businesses lose money in the winter and just can’t afford to stay open,” she said.
“Main street,” she said, “has changed over the years.”