On Long Island, all the natives are talking about Port Jeff

Nan Guzzetta cannot quite figure out why people are coming -- in droves, it seems -- to Port Jefferson. A long-time resident of the north shore Long Island area, she opened Antiques at Traders Cove in the center of the village three years ago. Like many of the permanent residents, she has not fully adjusted to the community's new status as a tourist destination.

For years, it had been an unremarkable harbor-front village, without a beach or many businesses. Except for boating enthusiasts who used the marina, the place was distinguished only as the southern terminus of the Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company's ferry service across Long Island Sound.

What I encountered on a recent weekend was a village of an entirely different veneer, with colors of homespun cloth on New England schoolgirls, textures of an old-time general store, the polish of a well-oiled oak table.Visitors drawn largely by word-of-mouth publicity -- many of them Long Islanders, like me, who thought they knew the place -- are discovering new shops, refurbished historic buildings, pocket parks, landscaped plazas, craft and ethnic festivals.

Last stop on the northern branch of the Long Island Rail Road, Port, Jeff is just under two hours out of New York ($10 round trip, $7.50 if you travel off-peak and return on the same day); by car from Manhattan, the journey takes about 2 1/2 hours (Exit 64 on the Long Island Expressway, then Route 112 north). From Bridgeport, the ferry crosses a few times a day (schedule changes by day and month) from mid-May to mid-October, in 1 1/2 hours. The village is a comfortable daytrip destination, even if you want to take in the museum complex and restored buildings in the other two of the three villages -- Setauket and Stony Brook, a few miles east of Port Jefferson. But if you want to spend a night or two, Harborside Inn on West Broadway, across from the docks, has the only rooms in town ($30-$45). Pick up a map and guide to historic sites and structures a few doors away, at the Village Hall, too big for governing a mere 6 ,000 but built with Long Island Lighting Company tax dollars.

Despite the spate of building and beautifying, long-time Port Jeffersonites cling nostalgically to the heritage of shipbuilding around which the village grew in the early 1800s. They fill restaurants -- seafood and other -- with nautical memorabilia, sell seashells and other oceanic offerings, and cite, as their greatest touristic asset, the one they've had all along: the harbor. Villagers also direct guests into the sloping side streets to see the Federal and Victorian houses, with their hedges and gingerbread, once homesteads of shipbuilders and merchants, the Bayles, Davises, Darlings, and Browns who made Port Jeff an industrial and later commercial hub, and saw it through its post-World War I days as a fashionable resort. Their descendants stayed through the last of the heydays before the depression of the 1930s, the next war, and the development of suburban shopping centers that all but starved what had been an active center.

Only one of the houses is open to the public, the residence of hospital benefactor John R. Mather, now administered by the Historical Society (115 Prospect Street, open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays April to December, and on Tuesdays May to October).

But it is in the historic buildings along East Main, the original commercial core which underwent a major restoration this past summer, and Main, which curves back to the harbor to form the other side of the downtown "U," that Port Jefferson's true appeal rests, behind morning glory picket fences and doors that don't always close flush, but which need to padlocks or iron gates to secure them. Shelves hold unusual and amusing creations of the crafts people who started moving in -- and drawing visitors -- when low rents in the town's turtle-paced '60s and early '70s made it affordable to do so. In romantically dim corners or artfully arranged displays set against exposed brick walls, on unfinished wooden floors, under original beamed ceilings are unique answers to Christmas-wedding-special occasion gift dilemnas.

The proprietors make a conscious effort not to duplicate each other's merchandise -- whether it be crafted, collected, or commercially produced -- and since they all try to have a little something for everyone -- price and type wise -- every emporium will compliment its specialty with an enticing sideline or two. Spiced air welcomes you to Ye Olde Salt Shoppes, where the Hoffrage family runs a Christmas Attic year round -- ornaments from the Old World and gnomes, and much much more. One of the oldest buildings in town, The 1812 House , has been part country gift shop for 30 years. "Long Island's largest antiques row," along East Main, wraps around into Main and Harbor Square Mall, and even the we're-notm -just-a-laundromat Village Washery gets into the act with camouflaging front-of-the-shop showcases.

Charles Kohn Designs in Silver Etcetera; so does Jill Grinnell. The working lapidary, Ecolin, produces fine jewelry, Richard O'Brien Ship & Shore Woodcarving. The Odyssey has its own working kiln; three local women supply and run Beehive Patchworks; The Painted Pony carries American Indian arts and crafts; The Porch, kites; and elder crafts people sell through the Golden Showcase. The cutest ugly soft scuplture infants look real at Hello Dollie, which ccarriers collector quality dolls (starting under $15); Priscilla Puckensnatch reposes among the pillows and other fabric gifts at Swan Creek; while The Little People await adoption (papers provided) at Backstreet Boutique, whose sophisticated sportswear and aloe cosmetics take a back seat to these limited edition imps stealing the scene from the antique doll corner across the floor. "How much is the doggie sweater in the window?" shoppers are likely to ask Joan de Riesthal, the spinner/weaver/knitter/designer behind from Sheep to Shawl Moonspinners, who works with everything from milkweed floss to musk ox down.

If you are not in the market to buy, you can spend hours -- literally hours -- just browsing. Nan Guzzetta prefers it that way, since she would rather rent than part with any item in her unique Traders Cove collection of vintage clothes , toys, and other antiques on view in a perfect historic house setting, and tells customers, "rent an heirloom, buy a memory." She keeps schools and theater groups in costumes and props, brides and their parties in outfits dating from 1830 to 1930 (old-fashioned wedding arranged upon request).

Her fellow merchants welcome the browser as well, sharing tidbits about their hometown or hobbies -- diecast miniatures at A. Graham Vandall's Road Runners, the last remaining shipbuilding in town at Port Hobby, where Charles and Rosemary Catalano have been selling models for children and connoisseurs for 26 years. Charlie Koutrakos, for 57 years of the owner of The Original Elks, can tell a lot about the port -- many of the same people have been patronizing his restaurant for decades, assured of "good food and fast service at the lowest price," says loyal customer Daniel Perry, a villager since 1926.

Downtown dining offers a range to match that of the shops, with warm weather picnics-to-go from Gourmet Living; plantation graciousness at The Carriage House Inne; The Left Bank coffee house quiche; seafood-specializing Mariner, Ferry House, Chandlers Inn, the two Schooners; Greek at Deno's; French at Napoleon's. The reputation of Nine Doors has spread as far as Acapulco, and regularly draws diners from Rockland County for the elegance of service in the intimate upstairs salon (separate facilities for smokers), and coffee and tea-taking, with dessert , in the library of the 1850s mansion.

When not in the crush of summer crowds or pre-Christmas orders, the restaurateurs and merchants gladly chat with out-of-towners, and send them on to other not-to-be-missed shops in the village, enthusiastically describing the wonderful merchandise of their neighbors. It is part of the community spirit that helps explain why all those people are coming to town.

"Many of them live in housing developments, do their shopping at suburban centers, and have no village, they don't know what it's like to live in a community," explains lifetime resident Sandra Swenk, under whose 1971-1977 mayoralty Port Jefferson returned to prosperous times. "They stroll on the docks and are amazed at the size of some of our houses," and are likely to end up at Gramma's Sweets, where old cronies and high school students have been gathering for homemade ice cream, fountain fare, and small-town gossip since 1911. It's a piece of the past behind a black lacquer facade tied with a neon bow, a gift, like the village of Port Jefferson, to all who happen upon it.

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