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Topless to Tapas in Downtown Portsmouth

Read Robinson's "Brief History of Portsmouth"

Cheap rent and cheap thrills
in the days before designer beer

Pleasant St early 1900s Over the past 20 years, I've rented five offices inside the official perimeter of the Portsmouth Historic District. With commercial real estate downtown hitting over $30 per square foot triple-net, a small businessman has to stay on the move, scavenging for affordable space. That's why you'll never find us at street level.

My company was born in a third floor walk-up apartment on Pleasant Street. There were eight gerbil-sized dormer rooms renting for a total of $235. I paid half the rent and took half the rooms as a parade of roommates marched off to better digs. When the last one bought a fancy condo, I bit the bullet, shouldered the whole lease and opened a business in the first four rooms. I had one employee, no air conditioning, no clients and a $1,500 high-tech typewriter that could hold an entire paragraph in its memory.

Snooping around at the back of the building a year or two later, I noticed an open window, crawled in and found 4,000 square feet of empty space that had once been a sporting goods shop. The landlord rented the whole thing to me, including the entire third floor in which I was already living for a total of $650 a month, and he paid for the renovations. Readers with calculators will quickly note that the lease came to less than $1.50 per square foot, currently the price of warehouse space in Gonic, if you can find any. I subdivided and sublet the office to a group of independent artsy friends for $650 and - shazam! - got a free apartment in the bargain.

I was talking about these very same "good ol days" with a fellow downtown merchant on a glorious August afternoon last week. He was watering his outdoor flowers in the new improved Market Square when a handsome well-dressed couple stopped and said: "You gentlemen look like you're from around here."

Pleasant St April 1998 We did, of course; there was no fighting it. We acquiesced to their request for dining suggestions and offered up a litany of restaurants. Portsmouth is, as the Boston Globe says, the dining capital of the northeast, so the recitation took a few minutes. "Have you tried the tapas bar?" I suggested finally, pointing toward the big new building down Market Street. Suddenly the couple was giving us that look New Yorkers reserve especially for people who try to clean windshields at stop lights.

"TA-pas," I repeated, enunciating more clearly. "You know, it's like a Spanish pu-pu platter. Did you think I said topless bar?"

They laughed with embarrassed relief, apparently surprised to find such suave cosmopolitan gents with a taste for world cuisine in a hick New Hampshire town. Sure we only heard about tapas two weeks ago, but, that's how fast things happen here in Market Square.

Truth be told, back when I was paying those low office rents, there really was a topless bar on Market Street. It was called the Oxcart Pub for no reason other than that there was a figure of a burro with a cart in the window which was otherwise draped from public view. There was another one called The Cave on Bow Street. The waitresses actually wore transparent blouses made out of what looked like low-grade mosquito netting. The establishment sported black lights, loud music, peanut shells on the floor and bathrooms you wouldn't visit without an armed guard. The room was painfully dark, since the windows that opened onto the scenic harbor and tugboats, had been boarded up. The waitresses looked bored, watched TV and chain smoked. It was about as sexy as a college seminar in Human Reproduction.

It was a tough crowd by today's standards. People in the bars used to hurt one another sometimes, but they usually used fists. Today you can find more violence on TV, see more sexy outfits at the mall and hear more profanity in a junior high playground. We didn't know it then, but we were watching the waning hours of Portsmouth, the seaport. Tough bars and cheap offices were the final beachheads. The Port City was evolving from mariners and merchants to boutiques and brewpubs. If Portsmouth stands for anything, it stands for business and the amazing ability to adapt a petite downtown center to a constantly shifting clientele.

Take my first office on Pleasant Street, for example. During my short era in town the bottom floor has been an insurance agency, a video store, a carpet store, a record shop, an Indian restaurant, a saloon and a hair salon. A little suite on the second floor was occupied by a dentist and then a lawyer and now a career counselor. A few weeks after I moved out of the top floor in the early 80s, I went back to find my video room converted to a B'hai Temple. In the old days, George Washington stayed in a tavern across the street. It burned, was rebuilt, burned again. I knew it as the Elk's Club Lodge. Today it's an auction house. I've seen the garage next door become a pottery shop, an ad agency, a real estate office, a cyber café - all gone now.

Like shifting partners in our sexually "liberated" era, the downtown faces change with fast-forward speed. Each new tenant arrives, brimming with dreams, flush with borrowed cash and dizzy with hope. I know; I've been there time and again. Within three years, most small businesses are dead. For all the fuss we make about our historic houses around here, it's the commercial buildings that see most of the action. Some of these great old homes haven't been lived in for a hundred years. Next door, scores maybe hundreds of companies may have come and gone. I'd bet this town can count ten mercantile ghosts to every residential one.

Pleasant St July 1998 And there's no end in sight. Today the Szechuan Taste is Tequila Jacks, The Codfish Aristocracy, once a home saved from North end urban renewal, is Cafe Mediterranean. Ye Olde Post Office building now sells sushi, while the new Post has been replaced by a newer one. The hardware store has become Shalimar Indian Restaurant. Victory Spa is Victory Antiques. Green's Drug Store was a bank, then Federal Cigar, now Starbucks. The stately old Custom House will soon be Shoofly Pie, a kids bookstore. Two venerable former banks in Market Square now sell crafts and clothes. Teddy's Lunch is Café Brioche. Moe's Sandwiches, once next to the old pawn shop is now City and Country. Moe moved a block away to the site of the former travel agency (and his real name is Phil, anyway). The Kearsage Hotel is a deli and place selling running apparel. There's no more Ranger Club, no more Golden Memories, no Excalibur and now even Elvis, the teen club, has left the building.

Nineteenth century journalist Charles Brewster who started this column long before me, was proud to say that he walked around the planet without ever leaving downtown Portsmouth. I'm not far behind him, but sometimes I get lost a block from the office. Things are so different.

And it's the same all over town. A power plant becomes a prestigious office building, a warehouse is now a costly condo, a school becomes a city hall, which then moves into an abandoned hospital building. We are, as Richard Candee reminds us in his book "Building Portsmouth," a city of recycled structures. Rarely do we see a new building, like the ones at 10 Pleasant Street or 100 Middle. They are exceptions to the rules of rehab, refurb, rehash and renovate. That's why, despite all the change, Portsmouth looks so much like it did in 1800.

Pleasant Nov 1998 But looks are deceiving. We are slowly being re-engineered for the future. You can see it when you study the old photos. This is a softer city, despite the return of brick and granite and cobblestone. Sidewalks are widening to accommodate the flow of tourists. Obstructions are being removed -- replaced by information kiosks and cops on bikes. Gutters are gone, wires go underground, trees spring up, antique lamp posts rise, flowers bloom, public bathrooms disappear. Even the minute droppings of our last remaining horses never hit the pavement. Things smell better. The salty air is filled with freshly ground coffee, baked breads, exotic foods.

The only thing that hasn't changed, it seems, is my salary. But the ride is worth every penny. Stay put, Franz Kafka once said. Don't move. The world will come and grovel itself at your feet. That's certainly true in downtown Portsmouth. I don't miss the topless waitress, but I sure loved that old rent.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
Early photo courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Other photos by J. Dennis Robinson

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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