The Puritans arrived in Chebacco in 1634, which after multiple name-changes became the current town of Essex, MA. With a long, if quiet, New England history, it’s fitting that there are more antique shops per square mile here than anywhere else in the country. Combine the shopping activity with some of the best clams in the country, and you have the perfect place to spend a summer day. Lined with shops selling historical wares from all time periods, Main Street (Route 133) is the locus of activity, with stores featuring merchandise in varying price-ranges; you can easily go from rummaging through stacks of colored-glass juicers to finding a desk used by a Founding Father.
If you step into a shop at random, it will most likely be in the upper-price range. Vintage Louis Vuitton trunks selling for thousands of dollars, Chinese paintings brought back by mariners, plate dishes from the cabinets of 19th century Beacon Hill society—the sort of things you might see in museums are all here. With plenty of (obviously) wealthy shoppers lolling about, it’s easy to imagine these pieces ending up in North Shore mansions, and the majority of shops seem to cater to this clientele.
However, that doesn’t mean that cheaper finds don’t exist! Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques and The White Elephant are two of the best “cheap” antique shops in Essex—and they’re packed with all sorts of treasures. Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques is conveniently located near Woodman’s of Essex, and has an entire house and barn filled with fun and quirky items. The barn contains stacks of bulky wooden antiques—snowshoes, furniture, crates—while the house features trays full of wooden printer’s letters, vintage Shakespeare, sewing paraphernalia, postcards, and plenty of glassware.
The White Elephant is further down the road (next to an quaint, but mosquito-infested historic cemetery), and is the more-famous option. Situated in a huge building, The White Elephant is clearly organized, with wider aisles and glass cases on the lower level, rooms full of books, and an upstairs with more books, kitchen goods, and larger items (such as a huge “High Wheel Bicycle” hanging from the ceiling). Fairly priced, a quick online search reveals comparable prices or even impressive deals. The cash register has a glass case filled with smaller items, and a large table is covered in “penny-candy” type sweets.
Just visiting two or three antique shops can take half of a day; when you’re hungry, there’s nothing better than hitting one of the seafood shacks along the marshes of the Essex River. The “tourist-y” thing to do—or what you really should do, if you haven’t already—is to eat at Woodman’s of Essex. If you’re there in the summer, you will encounter lines. With every type of seafood plate, they’re most famous for their clams and clam-chowder. They’re overly-expensive and cash-only, but that’s never been a deterrent to visitors. Farther down the road, J.T. Farnham’s is another local option that engenders the debate: which is better, Woodman’s or Farnham’s? With a similar menu, J.T. Farnham’s is slightly cheaper by a dollar or two, however, parking is limited, and the police troll the bridge looking to ticket illegally parked cars. Also cash-only, they only have one register compared to Woodman’s two, so despite fewer customers, you might end up waiting just as long.
Essex’s historic houses, salt-marsh views, and classic restaurants provide a picturesque way to spend a day. With the thrill of finding a unique item or two, the fun of wandering through overflowing basements, and the general camaraderie that exists as you meet the same shoppers wandering shop to shop, Essex is an enjoyable place to visit.
The White Elephant 32 Main St Essex, MA (978) 768-6901 www.whiteelephantshop.com
Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques 136 Main St Essex, MA (978) 768-7282
Woodman's of Essex 121 Main Street Essex, MA (978) 768-2559 www.woodmans.com/
JT Farnham's 88 Eastern Ave. Essex, MA (978) 768-6643