And the 2014 Best of the Vineyard Lifetime Achievement Award Goes To...Circuit Avenue

I have enough barnacles on my bow to know that one of the oft-unacknowledged gifts of advancing age is remembrances of times gone by when things were always so much better. These days, I can fully establish my Oak Bluffs credibility with the younger set simply by sitting back and reminiscing about Circuit Avenue back when it was not only undeniably the best street on the Vineyard, but the hub of a community.

In the late 1950s, when my parents became summer residents of the Island, the Wigwam sold newspapers from Boston and New York that would be held with your name on them for pickup after church on Sunday. The Walmsleys, who were our neighbors, operated the bakery that sold hermits and freshly-made jelly doughnuts next to the post office. Mr. Frye, who lived across the park, operated the cobbler’s shop where shoes could be repaired or shined. Not one, but two drugstores offered their services, and there was nary a T-shirt store in sight. Those places and the ever-reliable Reliable Market anchored the street and kept it going.

Circuit Avenue wasn’t only a commercial main street, however; it was the Island’s hot spot, offering worldly recreation that brought folks from up-Island and down. Preeminent were the Strand and Island theaters. Sad holes at the city’s entrance today, they were then bustling movie houses that offered first-run films often before they played my local theater off-Island. A visit to the theater was always accompanied by some popcorn from the copper kettle at Darling’s candy store next to the Island Theatre. Though Darling’s was my favorite and kept the sugar flowing at one end of the street, Hilliard’s, in a white cottage that looked as though it had been transported from Hansel and Gretel’s forest, was closer to home and to the library that was my daily haunt.

Circuit also offered a range of eating options both upscale and down home. The best of Oak Bluffs dining for many years was Munro’s Boston House. Located mid-Circuit, it was the steak house – a summer special occasion spot. The Boston House was the first place that I ever saw a salad bar. I recall being amazed at the abundance, including all of the watermelon rind pickles I could eat. I remember dining there one summer with my Uncle Jim, who wowed one and all by appearing in Bermuda shorts worn complete with a blue blazer and knee socks! Circuit was our main drag and we dressed for it. 

There were sublime cheeseburgers at Nick’s Lighthouse mid block. Nick’s later moved to the spot that had been Unicorn, which, along with the Moon-Cusser Coffee House, was one of the town’s 1960s coffee house/folk music venues. The location subsequently became the Oyster Bar, Balance, and then the Oyster Bar again before morphing into a bank branch. Giordano’s, then as now, signaled the street’s entrance and offered red sauce Italian and fried fish and shellfish that remained for years my Italian food standard.

Later years brought Marvin Jones’s Lobster in the Bluffs, where a New England lobster boil was the specialty and everyone who was anyone (and a lot of us who were not) turned up to savor what became the taste of summer. The restaurant was a point of pride for many in that it was black owned. Other black-owned businesses have come and gone: Frye’s cobbler shop, Carousel clothing store, Deon’s Caribbean restaurant, and L’Elegance. But Cousen Rose Gallery remains a constant: since 1980, Bostonian Zita Cousens has been advising collectors, introducing artists, and hosting weekly openings that have made the gallery a community hub. More recently, Roger Schilling’s C’est la Vie added Afro-Gallic fillip to the strip and has become a must-stop shop.

These days my treks to Reliable Market, Phillips Hardware, and Mary’s Linen Store (for last-minute pillowcases and beach towels) remind of me of Circuit’s long catering to residents, while Craftworks, the Secret Garden, Laughing Bear, and Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium are newer constants. Each summer I look to see what new venues have sprung up, and by the time October brings sales and closings, I’ve made my way up and down Circuit Avenue more times than I dare count and patronized them all. 

I’ve been known to flash my AmEx card on the Island’s other main streets, but my true allegiance remains with Circuit. It’s still the best.