Portsmouth is a city in Rockingham County, New Hampshire. Portsmouth is a historic seaport and popular summer tourist destination. Portsmouth is the third oldest city in the USA and is only 60 miles from Boston
Photo Credit : DenisTangneyJr./iStock
Learn more about how New Hampshire’s Main Street businesses are caring for their customers in our “Support Local: Go the Extra Mile” series, which includes regular e-newsletter articles as well as regional videos. Sponsored by the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism.
While the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire boasts 13 miles of breathtaking shoreline, it also is home to one of the state’s most charming cities: Portsmouth. Visitors descend upon this historic port city on the Piscataqua River in every season to enjoy its many arts and culture offerings and its acclaimed dining scene. The walkability of the downtown combined with an assortment of unique, independently owned stores also makes Portsmouth a shopper’s paradise.
For the youngest of shoppers — as well as the young at heart — G.Willikers! Books & Toys has been delivering fun for more than 40 years. “Our parents opened the store in 1978 when they saw a need for more specialty stores in Portsmouth,” says Bob Breneman, who co-owns the shop along with his sister, Jody Breneman. “At that time, there was no strong retail in the downtown area, but it was going through a revitalization, and our parents saw that it was up-and-coming.”
Up-and-coming soon became established and thriving. Before the pandemic, Portsmouth’s streets were bustling with shoppers, restaurant-goers, and those simply looking to soak in the hip, energetic vibe. “When you looked outside our storefront windows and saw dozens of people walking about — that was a really positive feeling,” says Jody.
Even with a thriving downtown, however, small retail stores like G.Willikers! do have their challenges. “Online shopping has clearly changed how people shop, and we’re certainly feeling that,” says Jody. And those challenges only increased this year with the arrival of Covid.
Like many small business owners, the Brenemans quickly adapted to a new way of doing business. “Right away we began offering curbside pickup,” says Bob. “The way we work now has really changed.” This has included using Instagram and Facebook to showcase toys and books in the store, and essentially creating personal shopping experiences by putting together orders, taking and sending pictures to customers, and swapping out items to make the final purchase just right. They’ve even FaceTimed with customers to help them shop virtually.
“We had to learn a new way to communicate with our clients, but it was actually very exciting,” says Jody. “We had so many customers send us pictures of their kids with their new toys and books — it was really wonderful.” During the early days of the pandemic, Bob also created a hopscotch court outside the store on the sidewalk to create a little safe fun for passersby. “We had young people and older folks hopping down the street — it really helped everyone see that it was going to be OK,” he says.
For the Portsmouth retail community, making sure everything is OK also means business owners stepping up to support each other. “We’re liking and sharing posts of other stores on social media and trying to support any conversations about how we are all handling this situation,” says Jody. This camaraderie has even included pointing some customers to other retailers. “There’s another wonderful toy store in town, and the feeling is, if we don’t have something [in stock], let’s keep the customer in Portsmouth,” says Bob.
As stores were slowly allowed to reopen last year, the Brenemans worked to ensure that G.Willikers! customers were safe and comfortable yet still able to enjoy their experience. Visitors are now greeted by signage indicating the store’s maximum capacity, as well as a hand sanitization station and free masks for those who need them. Plexiglass dividers have been installed at the checkout station. Inventory is being kept slightly lower than usual to make more room in the aisles. “We have a very open space and offer chairs six feet apart for customers who may need a break,” says Jody.
A bright spot during this difficult time has been the community support that G.Willikers! has received. The Brenemans have seen a large increase in gift card purchases, along with steady contributions to the store’s “moose money” jar at the register, which was set up to hold the dimes the store donates when customers opt not to use a bag. Every few months, the proceeds from the jar are donated to a local charity. “I’ve seen a customer slip as much as $10 into the moose bank,” says Jody. “The feeling from our customers is ‘We’re doing OK, how can we help you?’ And that is very much what this community is all about.”
Thinking of planning a visit to the Seacoast Region? Here is a sampling of locally owned businesses that are open and ready to welcome you! Find links to travel resources at visitnh.gov/seasonal-trips/getting-here.Gus & Ruby Letterpress, Portsmouth
Tugboat Alley, Portsmouth
Attrezzi Fine Kitchen Accessories, Portsmouth
Water Street Bookstore, Exeter
Quicksilver Fine Jewelry & Gifts, North Hampton