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North Conway

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The mountainous terrain, thin soil and hostile climate around North Conway never supported large scale agriculture. The only industries which ever located here were timbering and railroading and they shut down a long time ago. There's no college. So from the beginning this evolved as a recreational capital for skiing, fly fishing, hunting, hiking, backpacking and mountaineering. As might be expected, such a town is heavy with outdoor equipment stores. It also has a few other stores which have become very special.

Shopping in North Conway is easy. The entire business district consists of one long street, basically highway 302. The old downtown centers around the railroad station, and the newer stores are strung out a mile further south.

If you add a chocolate shop and a few antique and gift shops, you could spend a whole day shopping in North Conway. It would be an ideal way to spend a rainy day between hikes.

Zeb's General Store White Birch Books International Mtn Equipment L. L. Bean R.E.I. Eastern Mtn Sports Christmas Loft
Even if shopping is not your thing and it never rains during your trip, you MUST stop at Zeb's General Store, across the square from the railroad station. You could spend several hours here, but you should spend at least one. Zeb's is full of wonderful items : 75 kinds of Mustard, including Dipping Mustards and the special Pretzels to dip in them; Aisles of Honey, Relish and Maple Syrup; Apple Cider, Apple Butter and Spiced Apples; Soaps and Candles and Pickles; old fashioned homemade Ice Cream; Coca Cola in those little 1940s bottles; Jellies and Salsas; locally made Candies; Barbeque Sauces, Marinades and Soups; and a list of other items too long to include here. Inside Zeb's you're deep in Nostalgia for 1800s and 1900s Americana. The store is a lot bigger than it looks; it goes back quite a ways and has an upstairs. Nothing here is made overseas. It's mostly from New Hampshire, but there are some items from Maine and Vermont.

White Birch Bookstore is a lot better bookstore than you might expect in a small rural town. It's much bigger than this photo suggests and has quite a broad selection. There's a solid Children's Section, a good New Hampshire and Natural History collection, a very good Mystery Section, and a good Graphic Novel collection. They've created dynamic displays and offer excellent customer services. There's even a Banned Books Section if you want to read the books school boards, town councils and library boards across the country are pulling off their shelves. This is a cozy little place but it's dangerous because if you're a book lover you'll find it hard to pull yourself away and may end up spending way more time here than you intended.

Juat off Station Square, the International Mountain Equipment store is a solid outfitter of climbing gear with a whole section of related books, maps and magazines. A major climbing school operates out of here. The staff is experienced and knowledgeable. They offer all the top brands plus some foreign brands you rarely see. Even if you're into hiking and not climbing, it's interesting to browse here for half an hour or so just to see what the climbers are doing these days. Some of the items, like water bottles, clothing and packs, can be used by hikers and backpackers.

L. L. Bean is an iconic New England brand which was founded in 1912 in Freeport, Maine, just an hour east of North Conway. This is a different kind of place, an outlet for returned and/or damaged items, closeouts and sales. Some of the returned items have been used, and some are actually monogrammed. A visit here is very hit or miss. You can find great bargains if you find an item you've been wanting for a long time but couldn't afford. However, you may visit on a different day and find nothing at all which interests you. The discounts also vary. Sometimes they're steep, as much as 40%. Other times they're only 10%. Most customers, local or visiting, drop by periodically just to check. Once or twice a year they get lucky. It's a beautiful store, however, very modern, with wide aisles and attractive displays.

This is a serious REI store, a MUST stop for outdoorsmen of all types. It has a hard core following : REI is a coop and has 53,000 members in the Mt. Washington Valley, second only to its Seattle membership. This is more than a store, although you can buy almost any piece of outdoor grar here. But you can also rent equipment here. And REI offers clinics and guided trips for hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, skiing, climbing, paddling, cycling, mountain biking and fly fishing. For someone visiting from elsewhere, not familiar with the area, these guided trips can be a great opportunity, especially the hut to hut trips, as REI takes care of the reservations and shuttles you to the trailhead. Membership is a very good investment, as you get discounts on purchases and trips, then a dividend at the end of the year. REI stocks its own equipment plus top items from other major manufacturers. If you're used to paying WalMart prices REI prices may seem a bit high, but this is much better equipment, built to last, often long enough to hand down to children and grandchildren. One of REI's great strengths is its staff. These are knowledgeable people who spend their days off engaging in the outdoor activities they're advising you on. We've been to a number of REI stores across the country and we think this is their second best, behind only the flagship store in Seattle.

Eastern Mountain Sports was founded in Wellseley, Masachusetts to promote rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering. At first the company imported gear from Europe. Then it began making its own. Today, EMS has 66 stores nationwide. It has branched out into general hiking and backpacking. It built a solid reputation for customer service and a loyal following in New England. Unfortunately, this changed when EMS was bought out. Now their customer service has deteriorated, and instead of the former return policy, they now give you an EMS gift card. As EMS has begun stocking merchandise made in China, their quality has declined. You can still find good buys here, but you have to shop carefully, inspect everything, and assume any purchase is final. EMS now stocks most of the major brands.

We've stopped at Christmas stores all over the country and think The Christmas Loft is the best. Like all of them, it offers tree, house, porch and yard decorations. But it's an experience just to walk through this place, all atwinkle with snow and Christmas lights. As you enter, you walk through a covered bridge into a recreation of 1980s downtown North Conway. Each doorway leads you into a separate themed room.

There are rooms for Harry Potter, Disney Cartoons, Star Wars, Halloween, Peanuts, Grinch, A Christmas Story, Nutcrackers, Charles Dickens, etc. There's one section for Music, with intricately made band instrument tree ornaments. You could easily wander around in this place for two hours just looking. You can have anything shipped home from here or sent to someone as a gift. Almost everyone buys a Moose and Covered Bridge to hang on their tree back home.

This is Christmas Overload. We saw children with their mouths hanging open gaping at all the scenes. But we saw plenty of adults with the same reaction. If you're not careful, you can get lost in here, wandering from Hogwarts to Sleepy Hollow to Tatoine.

One longer "road trip" you might consider is the 90 minute drive over to Freeport to the L.L. Bean Flagship Store. This is a destination in itself, a day long expedition. The drive over is beautiful, the last half of it along the Gulf of Maine. And once you arrive, you can lose yourself in this store. You can find good bargains here, but more importantly you can find cutting edge out door items of all kinds : boots, clothes, tents, bags, pads, stoves, utensils, raingear, coldwear, packs, canoes, skiis, snowshoes, and every other possible item needed to head into the wild. The store covers five buildings. It's open 24/7 except Christmas Day. The sales people are knowledgeable. Customer Service is extravagant; they'll call you back days later with an answer. The place is like a museum, with a 3500 gallon river aquarium and displays of history and wildlife. There's a Cafe where you can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.
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