Provincetown percolates in winter, too
PROVINCETOWN -- A salty, chill wind sweeps along Commercial Street on a winter day as customers pop into Angel Foods in the East End for steaming bowls of butternut squash soup, meatloaf sandwiches, and paper cups of coffee. In July and August, Provincetown often seems like a nonstop party, but things definitely slow down for winter.
There's a siege-season familiarity as the regulars talk about how they are keeping busy. They are making weekly outings to the Christmas Tree Shop in Orleans or to B.J.'s Wholesale Club in Hyannis, not to mention to the Tuesday matinee at the Wellfleet Cinemas.
"What do we do?" one woman asks rhetorically. "We wait for Jane!" On cue, the letter carrier in padded coat and cap (flaps down against the chill) brings the mail.
The town clerk's office puts the winter population of Provincetown at 4,000, down from 30,000 in the summer. In practical terms, that means visitors can find parking on Commercial Street, even on the prime block where Angel Foods stands across from the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, which opened its prize-winning new facility last spring.
"People knew where the deli was," says Christine McCarthy, the museum's executive director. "But they didn't know where we were. We looked like an old sea captain's house, not a contemporary art center." Part of the design mandate for the new museum called for a large glass wall facing the street so that "people walking by can see the art and people in the galleries." The gallery windows now exude a soft, golden glow that contrasts with the blue-tinged, diffuse ocean light that Provincetown enjoys from dawn at one end of town until dusk at the other.
The magical quality of that light first brought artists to the erstwhile fishing village, incorporated in 1727, and McCarthy estimates that a surprising number winter over. "If I had to guess, I'd say about 300 artists and writers stay here to work in Provincetown over the winter," she says.
The Fine Arts Work Center on Pearl Street does its part to keep the numbers up by bringing in 10 visual artists and 10 writers for residencies from October through the end of April. Each artist gets a weeklong show in the center gallery, and readings by the center's fellows and visiting writers take place more or less weekly in the Stanley Kunitz Common Room, named for the late co-founder of the retreat.
"The solitude of living in a small town on a spit of wild land makes this an ideal place to search inward. The beaches and woods are perfect places for thinking," notes Nancy Pearson, a poet and fellow at the center, in an e - mail. "But P'town is a very unique place because the locals and artists stick together. We mingle at the open art shows and readings. I feel very supported by the community."
Guy Wolf, managing director of the New Provincetown Players, finds winter and spring a fertile time for theater. "All anyone wants to do in the summer is play," Wolf says. "Off-season is our chance to do new, meaty stuff for our core audience." All winter the company has been running a Wednesday play-reading series, and will present the Spring Playwrights Festival from March 31 through April 15. The festival will include several workshops as well as presentations of new short works .
Many shops on Commercial Street stand shuttered with signs proclaiming, "Thanks for a great season! See you in the spring!" But the streets are hardly empty. Workmen stand on long ladders to shingle roofs, repair trim, and re hang gutters on the old buildings. Real estate offices are among the few businesses that always seem open. The Town Hall and public library don't go on hiatus. The Post Office, pharmacy, and leather shop stay open all week.
The Provincetown Book Shop, which has been at the same location since 1937, features an almost exhaustive selection of books about Cape Cod or by Cape authors. Clerk Paul Haines opines that townspeople certainly read more in winter. "We've stayed open year-round for years," he says. "People know we'll be here." Likewise, sugar junkies know they can stoke up at the Provincetown Fudge Factory, which stays open through the winter .
On weekends, Commercial Street almost lives up to its name , as more gallery and boutique owners open for business to capitalize on the modest bump in visitation. Which came first: the open shops or the weekenders? No one seems to know for sure.
Out at the end of MacMillan Wharf, the fishermen who drag for sea scallops laboriously mend their gear and head out for a run if weather permits. When the wind is calm and the sun is bright, dog owners take their pets for walks along the beaches of Provincetown Harbor, especially popular during morning low tide. The Fine Arts Work Center fellows sometimes join locals digging for clams along the breakwater in the West End .
That easy camaraderie continues in the handful of bars that stay open all winter . They are quiet, cozy, and not especially crowded -- and given to promotions to get their share of the reduced winter business. With the room basking in the red neon glow of the "Prescriptions" sign over the bar, the Squealing Pig draws a big crowd for quiz nights on Wednesday as patrons compete for a free dinner , and on Saturdays for live music.
Monday is open mike night at The Mews Restaurant & Café, one of a handful of fine-dining establishments open all season. The Governor Bradford's bar goes the extra mile to serve off-season clientele. "This is the hot spot -- downtown central," says bartender Michelle LaBocetta. And, sure enough, there is a chess set on a table in the window, and a CD jukebox, pool table, and video games in the back. Saturday is drag karaoke night.
Winter choices may be fewer, but in Provincetown there's still something for everyone.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.