Things to Do in Martha's Vineyard

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Martha’s Vineyard General Stores – Who Needs Walmart?!

BY RICK | 14 September 2009

alleysOne of the things I love about Martha’s Vineyard is the lack of chain stores and especially the dreaded “big box” shops.  Even better, the island is populated with little box stores.  My favorites as a class are the general stores.  They are definitely throwbacks to a bygone era.  Most Americans know them only from period TV shows and movies.  People on the Vineyard are blessed to know them first hand.    Here are my three favorites:

Though it doesn’t have “general” in its name, Chilmark Store has all the essential elements to deserve that appellation.  First of all, it’s at the heart of the community, barely a whelk shell’s throw from Beetlebung corner, the library and the community center.  (Just down the road from Chilmark Chocolates too, but that gets its own blog entry.)  It’s also a community billboard.  Every local event and business seems to be advertised via poster on the walls of the building.

Chilmark Store is all about the food.  Yes, there is a nominal selection of groceries and other sundries, but the pizza and sub counter is where the traffic is.  (It’s also in the parking lot, but that’s another story.)  Pick up a pizza or sub and settle on one of the rocking chairs on the porch.  You can also take your slice of pizza a short drive to Menemsha beach to watch the sunset.  Either way, you’ll fully comprehend the meaning of the Italian motto posted on the store’s porch: “Il dolce momento”, the sweet moment.

On the way to South Beach?  You’ll be passing another primo emporium, Katama General Store.  The operative word for this place is “eclectic”.  What they lack in quantity of selection, they make up for in variety.  Where else would you find frozen Eggo waffles in the same freezer as gelato and ketchup within an arm’s reach of organic local goods?  The most common products are the seemingly countless items emblazoned with the store’s ubiquitous crab logo.

After procuring all of your beach needs – chairs, umbrellas, and toys – from the shop’s ample selection, grab a drink and a snack and settle into one of the tables in the colorful flower garden (sunflowers, bachelor buttons, day lilies, and many more) out front.  When you finally make it to the beach, you’ll know you’ve made the most of your trip!

The granddaddy (or more accurately, great great granddaddy) of them all, however, is also the best of the bunch in this writer’s humble opinion.  Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury is so classic that it’s owned by the MV Preservation Trust.  At over a century and a half and still going strong, it’s not only the oldest retail establishment on the island, it’s quite possibly the coolest.  They proclaim themselves as “dealers in almost everything.”  My only quibble with that slogan is that I’m not convinced about the “almost” part.

Part hardware store, part post office, part tourist trap (not to mention grocery store, garden center, beach supply store, farm stand, news stand and a few other stands), Alley’s may not have everything, but it has everything you need and then some.  I’m talking mini-Ben and Jerry’s, imported Italian pasta, local artist CD’s, 3-D anatomic pig (or for the bovine-inclined, cow) puzzles…  You get the idea.  They have a lot more than you need.  The only thing Alley’s is short on is prepared food.  Not to worry.  You’ll find Garcia’s Bakery and Deli at “Back Alley’s”, the building at the rear of the parking lot.

Alley’s also has the most important feature for a general store: a front porch with seating, including a porch swing!  This place is more than a store, it’s a destination – one that’s worth the trip up-island.

Image of Alley’s General Store courtesty of MVOL.com