On a dog day this summer, I paid a visit to Oak Bluffs. With midsummer traffic, it’s a bit of a jaunt from West Tisbury where I now live, but Oak Bluffs is on the water and West Tisbury center isn’t, and getting a glimpse of boats and a harbor seemed a cooling and inviting prospect. My Saturday afternoon stroll along the harbor and Circuit avenue brought back many memories.
I spent childhood summers at East Chop cycling down to Oak Bluffs to the library, which occupied the corner building where Conroy’s Apothecary is now. I would fill my bicycle basket with boys’ adventure stories such as Don Studley in the Amazon and similar titles, which I’m sure whetted my appetite for travel, something I have indulged in ever since. Sometimes I would walk across the Downs to Oak Bluffs admiring the orange tiger lilies that filled a mini-valley there. Then, when I reached Our Market, I would jump delightedly from rock to rock above the little beach that was where the marina is now. I would walk up behind the Wesley House. There were always delightful bread-baking smells emanating from the kitchen. I would pass the house where the Adams sisters lived and occasionally catch a glimpse of one of them with a long skirt carrying a basket. They were little people and had been in Tom Thumb’s wedding.
As I walked by, guests would be rocking in dark green rockers on the Beatrice House porch in County Park. I would reach Circuit avenue by going through the arcade, often stopping at Pearson’s Drugstore (Sharky’s now) to have a thirst-quenching Lemon Blend at a glass-topped table.
There were all sorts of enticements on Circuit avenue. There was, of course, Darling’s Old Popcorn Store — For Twenty Years the Best — selling not only pink (wintergreen) and white (vanilla) and brown (chocolate) popcorn bars for me to crunch on my way back to East Chop, but also saltwater taffy. It was endlessly fascinating on a summer’s day to watch the taffy being pulled by big red machines. It was then wrapped and put into white cardboard boxes labeled “Darling’s” in red and green. Darling’s saltwater taffy was the equivalent of today’s Chilmark Chocolates. And there was LaBelle’s Bakery where I could see doughnuts being fried.
On the other side of Circuit avenue, Clayton Hoyle sold everything in his dry goods store. Of interest to me were blue Keds to wear on sailing adventures on my brother John’s 15-foot catboat Ted. Of interest to him was the fishing tackle he could use when we went sailing. The Ted had been built by Edgartown master boat builder Manuel Swartz Roberts and was kept moored in the harbor near the old Wyoming House, a dilapidated building at the foot of Massachusetts avenue that had long been abandoned and, of course, was haunted.
On the same side of Circuit avenue as Hoyle’s, somewhere near today’s DaRosa’s, John T. Hughes informs me was Clem Studley’s store. He had a treasure trove of firecrackers to select from before the Fourth of July. I liked punk and a little paper house that one could set on fire out in the street. Horrors!
Then, as now, there was Phillip’s Hardware. My father had worked there as a boy (though I don’t know if it was called Phillip’s Hardware then). And there was Garland’s Red and White Grocery Store and Keating’s Drugstore. If I had had Lemon Blend at Pearson’s, on my way back from my library excursion I might buy ice cream at Keating’s. At the foot of Circuit avenue, both the A&P and the First National had less expensive groceries than the Red and White. I went on this nostalgic kick after having a ginger ice cream cone — a flavor that you rarely find anymore — at Ben and Bill’s. Another favorite stop during my Oak Bluffs adventures was Kliglers’ fruit and vegetable stand near the arcade. Whenever I buy a pink and gold peach I am reminded of Irving and Frieda Kligler. Their peaches were always sweet and perfectly ripe when you bought them. They required none of the ripening of today’s peaches, which come from so far away that they tend to rot before they ripen. Those peaches were the perfect fruit for an East Chop porch breakfast, sliced and served with sugar and cream. More important in the history of the Vineyard than the Kliglers’ peaches, I suppose, is the fact that without Irving Kligler’s efforts there might never have been a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He was indefatigable in his efforts to consolidate the Island’s high schools.
There was also Sone’s Japanese Store on Circuit avenue before World War II. It was a wondrous store for browsing and every so often I would use my allowance to buy a miniature paper flower that would open when I put it in water. Someone once bought me a beautiful Japanese doll and a silk kimono. Sadly, the doll was too fragile for an American child to play with and was not long-lived. Even sadder, however, was the fact that suddenly the summer after 1941, there was no more Sone’s Japanese Store. The kindly Sones had a second store they owned in St. Petersburg, Fla. It was shut down by the government (though only briefly), but the Sones were forbidden to leave St. Petersburg until the war’s end. They never reopened their store on the Island.
Circuit avenue has different shops now of course, but as I ambled down it that day, savoring my ginger cone, I was surprised to find that the shops were not really so radically different from those I remembered. Its gift shops have always tended to offer souvenirs. There were never designer clothing and sporting goods stores vying with Edgartown’s, nor jewelry stores like Edgartown’s Priscilla Pearls, its pearls magically made from the scales of herring caught at Herring Creek near South Beach.
Nowadays on Circuit avenue, there’s a clothing store with an owner from India and The Glimpse of Tibet selling both clothing and gifts. There’s a Black Dog store filled with mugs and T-shirts and stuffed animals. The Secret Garden sells cards, books, jewelry and souvenirs. Craftworks and Laughing Bear — the former with some handmade local items — are the grandest of the gift shops. There’s a candy shop at the foot of the street, where there always was a candy store, and there’s a Murdick’s Fudge shop, but they are nothing like Darling’s. There are more restaurants than there used to be, but fewer wonderful bakery smells. There are of course those Back Door doughnuts you can line up for at night in the Reliable Market parking lot.
You can still hear the music from the Flying Horses at the foot of Circuit avenue. Happily, ice cream can still be found, in ice cream stores rather than drugstores. Down at the Steamship Authority wharf, fog rolls in over the water some nights and you can hear the West Chop foghorn bellowing and the clanging of bell buoys. When I lived at East Chop, those sounds would put me to sleep at night.
I wish there were still rocks edging the harbor and that tiny sand beach where fishermen pulled up small boats, but I know times change. Happily, I was able to forget that while walking up Circuit avenue cooling off from the summer heat with wisps of sea breezes. I was back in the summer resort world of my childhood that afternoon.