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Unique character, seaside charm make Niantic a fan favorite

By Tom Verde

Published October 01. 2013 1:31PM   Updated October 01. 2013 1:35PM
Tim Martin photo
The View at The Inn at Harbor Hill Marina in Niantic.

While it may not look like a time tunnel, the two-mile stretch of road from I-95’s exit 74 to the heart of downtown Niantic does transport travelers to an earlier era.

Perhaps it’s the gazebo on the town green. Or maybe it’s the fifties-era movie house right there on Main Street, as opposed to anchoring an archipelago of big-box stores in the middle of some tarmacked nowhere. Then again, it might be bevy of locally-owned, small businesses – restaurants, antique shops, bakeries, and book stores – that remind visitors of what small-town America used to be like, and could be again.

“Niantic really is just the classic, little New England town,” said Rita Rivera, communications manager for Niantic Main Street, a local business organization. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”

If you don’t believe Rivera, ask the nearly 10,000 people who voted for Niantic as the state’s first “Fan-Favorite” town during an online competition sponsored by the Connecticut Office of Tourism this past summer. Or better yet, go see for yourself.

From its charming, tree-lined Main Street, to its enviable geography, right on Long Island Sound, to its host of tourism attractions (a terrific children’s museum, quiet beaches, a classic bayside boardwalk), Niantic offers much by way of simply being what it has always been: a humble village within the town of East Lyme.

“It started out as a fishing village and grew from there,” said East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica, who also happens to own one of the town’s landmark businesses, the Flanders Fish Market. Located just a few miles inland, in the neighboring Flanders section of East Lyme, Formica’s business is emblematic of the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that adds to Ninatic’s unique charm.

Noting a “for rent” sign on a ramshackle, two-story house on Flanders Road (aka, Route 161, the road that leads to downtown Niantic) in the fall of 1983, Formica and his wife, Donna, decided to gamble on opening a fish market on the first floor, simply because “there was no fish market around for miles,” as he put it. The idea was to offer fresh, quality fish and clam chowder. But when a customer came in and asked for fish and chips – an obvious, albeit absent, menu item – Formica momentarily scratched his head, then kicked into action. Reaching for a piece of flounder from the fish case, he tossed it, along with some sliced chowder potatoes he’d been peeling, into a small, borrowed frialator, and ‘voila,’ as the French say: the fish market’s signature dish was born. Business boomed, and nowadays the Flanders Fish Market serves approximately 425 customers daily, in an expanded, 8800 square foot restaurant, complete with a full bar and banquet room with facilities to hold cooking demonstrations.

Another Niantic institution, with similarly modest origins, is the not-be-missed Book Barn, a treasure trove of used books, spread out among three locations: the main store, at 41 West Main Street; the Book Barn Downtown, at 267 Main Street; and the Book Barn Midtown, in a small alleyway behind the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, 291 Main Street. While all three are great for browsing, it is the main store that stands out as one of the most colorful and eccentric used book stores in the state, if not all New England. Sort of a cross between an open air book fair and a theme park (where the theme is literacy), the Book Barn encompasses several outbuildings and makeshift kiosks across 2.6 acres of an old farmstead, 1.5 acres of which are now occupied by used books. The main building is the eponymous barn, built in 1840, which was an antique store back in 1988 when current owner Randi White and his wife Mo set up shop in the bottom floor of the three-storey structure.

“We started out with a couch and three bookcases full of books,” said White. The couple eventually bought the entire property and transformed it into a playground for bibliophiles, with an inventory of some 400,000 to 500,000 used paperbacks and hardcovers, stocked by genre in the nooks, crannies, and rafters of the creaky old barn and piled high in various, amusingly-titled shacks and shanties throughout the property. There’s the “Haunted Book Shop” for mysteries, “Ellis Island,” the store’s “book immigration station” where new arrivals are bought and sorted, and “The Underworld,” a shed full of haphazardly stacked, unalphabetized paperbacks: “Welcome to Hades” reads the hand-painted warning sign at the entraceway. In addition, there are gardens, fountains, a Hobbit house, and play areas for children (park ’em in the “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish Shanty” playhouse while you browse.) Remarkably, White keeps track of all this creative chaos (sort of) without the help of a computer, which he vows he will never use, either to catalogue his inventory, or sell online.

“We are in the book business, not the shipping and receiving business,” says White. “I want to see my customers, and like talking with them. We are trying to bring back the art of reading here.”

That focus on customer service is one of Ninatic’s commercial hallmarks, says Dave Labrie, owner of the Inn at Harbor Hill Marina, a charming bed and breakfast, with 16 guestrooms, and a beckoning porch full of rockers overlooking Niantic Bay.

“We are known for our hospitality and service,” says Labrie, who also serves on Niantic Main Street’s board. “I like to direct guests to many of the region’s well-known attractions, like Mystic Seaport and the Aquarium, which are just a short drive away. But they also enjoy learning that there is a beautiful downtown within walking distance, with shops, restaurants, a movie theater. We have so much here, and just what people want.”

Of course, like many old New England villages, Niantic wasn’t always quite so appealing.

“When I was growing up here, there was the movie theater, Constantine’s [now the Main Street Grille], a few bars, and the Dairy Queen, and that was it,” recalls Joe Couillard, who now manages the movie theater where he whiled away some of his teenage years, for lack of anything better to do.

“But that’s all changed now. Niantic has really changed, for the better,” says Couillard, who you might say has celluloid in his blood. His grandfather was a projectionist at the Waterford Drive-in and the Capitol Theater on Bank Street in New London (both now closed). Those were the days when the Niantic Cinema was a “second-run” movie house, says Couillard, screening films that had been released in the major theaters months earlier. Today, the Niantic shows first run features on several of its five screens, yet is locally respected for reserving a screen or two for lesser-known, independent films.

“Woody Allen movies are a staple, and we also showed some movies that went on to be big, like ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and ‘Das Boot,’” says Cuillard.

In many ways, Niantic itself is like those films: a sleeper whose intrinsic value is known to those with a keen eye and discerning taste, ready and waiting to be discovered by members of a wider audience, who, like their online counterparts, may just vote for Niantic as a fan-favorite town of their own.

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