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Much to see along bustling West Main Street

By SHARMA HOWARD Special to the Times

Publication: The Times

Published August 02. 2012 4:00AM

Quintessentially New England, the Union Baptist Church is the iconic topper that seems to preside over West Main Street in Mystic - its steeple stretches into the sky majestically, impervious to the times or the bustling cache of commerce that teems at its feet.

The church first met Main Street in 1861, but its inception actually was the culmination of joining two churches together - one church being moved by a team of oxen to be placed in front of another.

Oxen played a critical role, too, in opening Mystic's drawbridge in the 1800s, pulling aside a section of the bridge. Today, the bascule bridge, which opened in 1922, is a unique feature of Mystic, one of the last remaining bridges in the country lifted with counterweights.

Mystic, always a tourist destination, was still a bedroom community in the 1970s, with the Mystic Seaport attracting a healthy dose of tourists. But it quickly become more famous and consciously quaint. And since 1987, when the megawatt smile of Julia Roberts beamed at the town as she came to film "Mystic Pizza," Mystic has been a permanent fixture on the national scene.

The real Mystic Pizza restaurant occupies a spot at High and West Main streets, where the street's steep hill is beginning to mellow.

The movie, set in a pizza parlor inspired by the restaurant, chronicled three small-town girls coming of age while working as waitresses (the actual restaurant was too small for the filming and could not afford to close for months). "A Slice of Heaven" T-shirts like Roberts wore in the movie can be purchased at the restaurant. The fame of the movie still lingers, and the restaurant displays photos of Julia Roberts as well as other stars.

Across the street, at Bank Square Books, one of the region's last remaining independent bookstores hosts its own brand of celebrities - local authors. The store is cool on a hot summer day, and the crisp, lemony smell of fresh, high-gloss paper can be detected. Well organized and welcoming, the store has been a draw for many years, surviving the ups and downs of the book business.

For less cerebral pursuits, downtown offers a bevy of boutiques, gift shops, several furnishing shops, a coffee shop, galleries, jewelry stores, and ice cream shops. It can take hours to poke around all the stores, which sell unique, mostly high-end fare.

If the luxuries of the past lure you, then stop by The Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company. Rare gemstones can be turned into unique pieces by jeweler and owner Matthew Hopkins. The store also features a touch of the exotic, such as a Narwhal tusk, or an Italian marble statue.

Every inch of the small store holds troves of treasures, including fine silver and paintings as well as estate jewelry. Jewelry from the famed house of Tiffany appear in cases in mint condition.

Another shop carrying estate and contemporary jewelry is NL Shaw, where pieces from the 1790s to present can be found.

At Dexter & Co., jewelry, charms, watch repair and original sterling silver pieces created by owner Thomas Dexter can be found. Dexter has a signature "wave" bracelet line that also includes earrings and rings.

If a visitor is searching for a treat, the place to stop is the charming Mystic Sweets and Ice Cream Shoppe, close to the drawbridge. Inside, cherubs float on the celestial colored walls and customers can indulge in handmade treats - from Belgian chocolates to fresh ice cream, sorbets and smoothies. Fun boxes of candy line the wall, such as wax lips, Pez, hot balls and candy buttons.

Simply put, said owner Rita Lara, if it's not sweet, it isn't in the shop. People can also outfit themselves like a princess or at least someone rubbing elbows with royalty by visiting Peppergrass & Tulip, temporarily moved from its location on 30 West Main St. Fascinators, those whimsical head pieces that came to attention at the royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William can be found there. These dashing head pieces are so popular that the store owner, Mary Ellen Grills, said sometimes she re-orders every week.

An outfit to match can also be found at the store, which has a focus on vintage-inspired clothing, jewelry, décor, and gift items.

One can lose track of time poring over the unique shops of West Main Street, so the visit is a leisure activity, one that always will be aided by a rest in the Mystic River Park, which is across the drawbridge. There, one can soak in the serene river views, sit on park benches, and see the various ships go by. Public restrooms are situated there, as well.

The streets are now a bit wider thanks to the nearly complete streetscape project that includes new sidewalks, repaved road, new streetlights and granite entranceways into the businesses. Some finishing work was being completed last week.

While merchants are generally pleased the project is behind them, West Main Street still is home to what is termed the "infamous green wall" which has been erected to hide the devastation left behind by a fire that burned down the historic Central Hall 12 years ago.

Central Hall was built in 1863 and was once the largest and most elegant building in town, according to the Mystic River Historical Society. The first floor housed shops, the second offices and apartments, and the third was divided into two halls where roller skating, lectures and social meetings took place. It has caught fire multiple times, one particularly bad one being in 1910. But the fire in 2000 destroyed the building completely.

Aside from this green wall, where this once proud building seemed to hover above the river, West Main Street in Mystic looks much like it did in 1900.

West Main Street has preserved a period of time by the integrity of its architecture, while merchants have capitalized on it by offering the unusual to discerning customers. Add surrounding attractions like the Seaport, and the picturesque Union Baptist Church serving as an iconic symbol of early New England, and the stretch of West Main Street is irresistible.

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