As the Highway Department’s electronic billboard warned drivers:
I was expecting such strange things in the air, you simply can’t picture it. How could they possibly build these? Shimmering overhead, maybe flashing, too. Better than UFOs, most likely.
It took Trader Joe’s forever to get to New Hampshire. Now the other half of the Albrecht corporate identity in America has finally arrived, with a new store in Dover.
The nearest TJ’s, for the record, is in Newington, one town to the south of us, with its mall, cineplex, power plant, big industrial park and airfield, and a slew of retailers serving both Dover and Portsmouth.
If you’re familiar with the German-based Aldi discount supermarket chain, you know it’s spartan about low prices, boasting that it undercuts Walmart. Rather than a choice of brand-name products, the shelves present mainly storebrand items – still in the cardboard shipping box. You put a deposit on a grocery cart, if you need one, and you have to pay for a grocery bag, if you didn’t bring your own. And, despite the frugality or stinginess, there are customers who rave about its specialty chocolate and coffee. And those who complain.
The name Aldi stands for AL-brecht DI-scount. And, oh, yes, the owners, Germany’s richest family, have been feuding, providing plenty of gossip. By the way, the cart rental means you take it back to the store for your quarter, saving the company the expense of hiring someone to retrieve it from the parking lot.
The local Aldi doesn’t sell alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets.
The grocery business has always been competitive, with thin profit margins. Success has depended on volume, for the most part, and niche loyalty, where possible. There’s little room for error.
Regionally, the Market Basket chain dominates. It has the lowest prices overall, wide variety, locally responsive product selection, fierce customer and employee loyalty, and a 1950s’ New England identity. We’re grateful it survived its own Greek family feud and continues with its enlightened leadership.
Meanwhile, the other two players in town pitch themselves toward stylish, but they’re almost never crowded. You might stop there if you don’t want to face the crowd at Market Basket or prefer closer parking, but there’s definitely a sense that they’re not where the action is, despite the corporate decor.
Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford is owned by the Ahold Dehaize group in the Netherlands, which also operates the Giant, Food Lion, and Stop & Shop chains in the U.S. It feels sterile.
Shaw’s Market operates jointly with Star Market out of West Bridgeport, Massachusetts, and is owned by Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s. Its tone is somehow greener or more intimately lighted. Do we really care if it’s the official grocer of the Boston Red Sox?
In Dover, Hannaford and Shaw’s sit side by side north of the hospital.
Intriguingly, Aldi chose to tuck its new store in across the street. Rather than building, it could have taken over the former Staple’s site a bit up the street, closer to both the freeway and to Market Basket. We’re curious about the corporate thinking here.
Our guess is that Aldi figures it can pick off at least one of the two rivals that share its traffic lights. Hannaford has a satisfactory pharmacy, one that my health plan pointed me to. Shaw’s turns out some fine baguettes and the tortilla chips are superb. So we’d miss either one.
For perspective, the Shaw’s in Newington recently folded, unable to keep up with its neighboring Market Basket and TJ’s.
Aldi is closer to downtown Dover than Market Basket, and for some prices, it’s coming in lower. But is that enough to cut significantly into No. 1?
For now, I’m viewing it more as a convenience store with low prices. A gallon of milk is a dime or two cheaper than anywhere else … for now.
The Port City is hemmed in by water on three sides, and it’s running out of room to grow.
While the waterfront and beaches are part of the city’s tourism and residential appeal, the demand on downtown real estate has been going up steeply. Literally.
Not all that long ago, Portsmouth was a sleepy little New Hampshire city with a hippie edge and a lot of historic Colonial houses. Unfortunately, the city fathers had jumped on the urban renewal boom in the early ’60s, nearly demolishing one old neighborhood that was instead miraculously transformed into the Strawbery Banke living history museum. Visit it, if you can.
The side opposite the downtown wasn’t so lucky. Much of it, an Italian neighborhood of large Victorian houses with impressive interiors, was razed to make room for a small mall that never took off. It instead became a forbidding asphalt graveyard for private parking surrounding some kind of small bunker.
At least that vacuous mistake and eyesore is finally gone.
I’m not so sure about the replacement, though.
In what seems like one fell swoop, a monolithic set of five-story buildings has popped up to form a forbidding wall along the north side of the downtown.
It has none of the variety and charm of Congress and State streets that run parallel to it just a few blocks away. It’s largely not pedestrian friendly, preferring instead to maximize every square inch of rentable space, and despite its visual unity has a cookie-cutter quality that bears no kinship to the rest of the district other than brick. Where are the quirky touches that abound so close at hand in the earlier eras?
There is one exception.
Downtown Dover, ten miles to the north, is undergoing growth of its own and seems to be avoiding this kind of monolithic development, even while going to five stories. Whether we can avoid something similar on the riverfront project on the other side of the Cocheco is another question.
In both cities, these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for defining the larger community. What does this say about Portsmouth?
I know where I’m getting the candy rocks and gummy fish to decorate my gingerbread lighthouse this Christmas. And it’s also a great place for guys to find great little gifts for the significant other in their life, something that usually confounds us. It’s even a fun place to take her on a stroll around town. (Think cheap date.) You can sit in air-conditioned comfort while savoring the yummy ice cream. Or even keep a bunch of kids happy.
We’re hoping Lickees & Chewies Candies & Creamery catches on. It seems to have its act together, blending several types of economically marginal stores into one.
Key to everything is its location, across from the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire and above Noggin’s toys on the ground floor of the historic Cocheco Millworks downtown. The one drawback is that the entry is on the other side of the building, away from those two kid magnets.
But once you’re inside, you’ve entered a whole different world. It smells richly mysterious, largely from the chocolate bakery. There are maps with pushpins where customers indicate where they’ve visited from, and there are metal rings on strings you can swing toward hooks in the wall if you’re feeling playful.
There are more classic games in the sitting area, which includes a large round table suitable for a birthday party, actually. Or just resting or looking at the views out the window.
So one part of the operation is the ice cream counter, with an emphasis on creamery. But remember, this place is loaded with candy, as in toppings.
Then there’s the old-fashioned candy store itself, with about every brand you can imagine. The entrepreneurs don’t proclaim their organization or knowledge of the field, but it’s there – Southern candies in this part, German in that – even before you get to the saltwater taffies. Many of the smaller wrapped bits haven’t been a penny apiece for sometime, but that’s its groove anyway. After all, the idea is to fill your own bag.
Yet another part is the fine chocolatier. This is where to find a gift to impress, maybe even a new client. And there’s plenty of room to grow to the side.
They make the most of the historic textile mill space. The ceilings are tall, with bare wood posts. The lighting is warm, tasteful, with some German Black Forest kinds of surprises befitting a fairy-tale atmosphere in the evening.
It’s been here a year already, but I’ve just discovered it. I’m definitely anticipating getting back before Christmas.
Since my indoor pool pass is good year-’round, I don’t spring for an extra pass to use the city’s outdoor pool each summer. Instead, I get to go there for free during the final two weeks of the season, when the indoor pool is closed for annual maintenance and upgrades.
The outdoor pool, though, can be a glorious experience. Here are ten points to consider.
- Though a Massachusetts native, Jenny Thompson calls Dover her hometown. She’s among the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, having won eight gold medals among her 12 despite numerous setbacks. On top of that, she became an anesthesiologist is Boston and now works as a pediatric anesthesiologist up the road in Portland, Maine.
- It’s the only 50-meter swimming pool for miles around. The closest neighbor is the Raco Theodore pool in Manchester, New Hampshire, an hour to our west. The only one to our east is at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, three hours up the Interstate. And to our south, it’s the Beverly, Massachusetts, YMCA on Boston’s North Shore or, further south, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge or at Hanscom in Lincoln. In other words, ain’t many of ’em around.
- It feels endless. A half-mile is eight laps, meaning round-trips up and back. I love hearing the rippling banners overhead in the distance, meaning I’m getting close to turning back in the other direction.
- It has a 10-foot-high diving board. Kids love it. Insurance companies hate anything so risky.
- It’s heated, except on the hottest days. Evaporation cools the water. Somehow, though, it seems to warm enough once I’m in it but still refreshingly brisk. Talk about a fine balance.
- Overhead, contrails of jetliners heading into Boston’s Logan airport often come a minute apart. That’s in addition to some gorgeous clouds I love to watch on my backstroke, along with the occasional bald eagles in the distance.
- As I just said, keep an eye open for bald eagles soaring in the distance.
- The Seacoast Swimming Association, which drew Thompson and her mother to Dover in the first place, is its biggest supporter – as they also do for the city’s smaller indoor pool through the rest of the year.
- Big swim meets take place here. Why not? From a distance, it always looks like a mob scene.
- The pool is 41 years old and has maintenance issues. Which leads to the next matter. Efforts are under way to replace it with a 10- to 22-lane indoor 50-meter pool. Dr. Thompson is solidly behind the effort and promises to come down often to test its waters.