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Rediscover the Joy of Holiday Shopping in North Central Massachusetts
When you buy a sweater at a department store, does the sales clerk truly appreciate your business? Have you ever walked the entire length of a shopping mall without seeing one item that was truly unique? Do you find shopping online convenient--but devoid of charm? When you wrap up a plastic gift card, do you feel as though you've been cheated out of the joy of selecting the ideal present?
In North Central Massachusetts, 21 small business owners (see map) have banded together to offer shoppers an alternative to meaningless modern shopping rituals. When they host their annual Country Roads Christmas (December 3 and 4 in 2016 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day), visitors are treated to a warm and friendly holiday shopping experience featuring free refreshments, special discounts and children's activities and rewards at each stop. Plus, if you visit all 21 participating shops and complete a stamp card, you'll be entered to win a variety of prizes. The grand prize, which includes a... 6-pound lobster dinner for two and overnight stay, is valued at more than $1,200.
Sure, this is a shopping promotion. But Country Roads Christmas is also a journey through the alluring countryside that lies just about an hour west of Boston, as well as to a New England you may not realize persists in the 21st century. Fourth-generation farmer Al Rose, who owns Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, Massachusetts, with his wife, Nancy, says that Country Roads Christmas was conceived not only to encourage support of local businesses but to hearken back to "old New England roots." Participating small business owners meet and plan for the two-day event year-round, forging relationships that strengthen their own operations and the community.
Country Roads Christmas is "meant to be just the opposite" of the typical holiday retail madness and the "hustle, bustle of Christmas," Rose says. He recalls how touching it was when shoppers at his farm store spontaneously broke out caroling one year: "That does not happen in the mall," he says.
I had the privilege to meet many of the proprietors who collaborate to keep the spirit of Christmas past alive on a preview tour of their diverse and distinctive stores, and on this photo tour, I'll introduce you to some of these hard-working New Englanders and their wares. Most are open during regular hours or by appointment year-round, but the Country Roads Christmas tour is truly the best time of year to visit and discover them all.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
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On the Common, Templeton, Massachusetts
No single photo could do a smidgen of justice to the floor-to-ceiling collectibles, antiques, gifts, bling and decorative accents that overwhelm the senses from the moment you step inside Country Mischief. "I collect everything. We've just grown and grown and grown into craziness," says Gail Whittle, who co-owns this uber-eclectic and enormous shop with her husband, Glenn. Built in 1770 and used as a boys' boarding school in the 1820s, the building also houses the Mischievous Chef restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Saturday and Sunday brunch, which makes this a perfect spot to start your Country Roads Christmas tour, whether you dine fireside or seated in what was once the students' three-seat outhouse! Just when your shopping senses are overstimulated by the ornaments, dolls, old hardware fixtures, buttons, baubles, curtains, shabby chic furniture and other remarkable finds in... theme room after theme room, you just may learn, as I did, that Country Mischief has a second shop down the road! If you hope to see other stops on the Country Roads Christmas tour, do as I did: Vow to return to Country Mischief again.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
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200 Popple Camp Road (Route 101), Petersham, Massachusetts
Step into the studio of Sylvia B. Brown, and suddenly, every wallet, handbag and briefcase you've ever owned will seem like a poor approximation of what fine leather goods should be. Sylvia's devotion to her craft, which she has honed for four decades, is immediately and intensely evident at Petersham Leathers. "I like handling the material," she says of her hands-on approach to transforming soft, fine leathers into artful creations sure to evoke envy. From leather journals and belts, which make perfect gifts, to skirts, jackets and boots, Sylvia offers leather treasures at a variety of price points. Be forewarned, though: Her designs are so in demand, "I'm having a hard time keeping up," she admits. But if the perfect leather item is not in her showroom, custom orders are gladly accepted. Visit at a quieter time than the Country Roads Christmas weekend, and you may have... the privilege of observing a skilled artist working at the craft she loves in the picture-perfect setting of a former dairy farm.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
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Smith's Country Cheese
Smith's Country Cheese
20 Otter River Road, Winchendon, Massachusetts
At Smith's Country Cheese, milking begins at 4 a.m. each morning: You'd be hard-pressed to find a fresher source for your holiday cheese needs! Dave Smith, who owns this family farmstead and award-winning cheese producer, tells me he and his family jumped into the artisan cheese business at the right time. Chefs and diners have increasingly embraced farm-fresh products, and "no matter what happens to the economy, people eat," he says. The foodies on your gift list can all be satisfied here with a variety of award-winning cheeses, from the best-selling Smoked Gouda to creamy Havarti to spreadable Gouda in 10 flavors. You'll be able to sample cheeses before you decide and assemble your own gift pack for shipping or to take home.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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7 Central Street, Baldwinville, Massachusetts
Nouveaux Riches--if you know your French--is the perfect name for this two-floor antique store housed in an 1850s bank building. If you're a fan of television shows like American Pickers, you'll get a kick out of exploring all of the diverse antiques Elaine Clark has assembled in this befitting space. Why wrap up new toys, when you can delight a child this holiday season with a classic game or plaything from the past: perhaps one that reminds you of your own childhood? Nouveaux Riches is also a source for vintage clothing and jewelry if you'd like to make a statement at holiday parties, for nostalgic holiday decorations and for antique furnishings and accents for your home.
Antique lovers will also want to be sure to visit Country Antiques, 250 Ward Hill Road, Phillipston, Massachusetts, 978-249-7517. Nancy MacEwen's adorable little shop reflects her eye for quality, her keen sense of trends and her... desire to encourage a new generation to purchase and cherish antiques. Also Steeple Antiques--a 25-dealer shop in an 1853 church at 137 Patriots Road, Templeton, Massachusetts, 978-730-8549--joins the Country Roads Christmas tour for the second year.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
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The Kitchen Garden
The Kitchen Garden
268 Baldwinville Road, Templeton, Massachusetts
From its origins as a roadside produce stand, Joyce Dossett has grown the business her parents founded in 1988 into one of North Central Massachusetts' most beloved bakeries and shops. The Kitchen Garden carries flowers, plants, produce and New England-made gifts including maple syrup, toys, candles and cookbooks. "I just love it," says Joyce, who could hardly contain herself waiting for her turn to show me around her shop. "I see family, old friends. I make new friends. My New England heritage is important to me," she says. Her family has lived in the area since 1886; her grandfather had an ice route. It's her Scandinavian heritage, however, that often attracts new customers who've heard tell of her delicious Finnish coffee bread with cardamon seed, made from her great grandmother's recipe. During the holiday season, "I make Finnish coffee bread until I can't stand anymore," Joyce says.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
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Country Folk Gift Shop
Country Folk Gift Shop
162 Baldwinville Road, Templeton, Massachusetts
Housed inside Templeton Furniture, the business her dad started 40 years ago, Deb Duguay’s Country Folk Gift Shop is your Country Roads Christmas stop for whimsical home accents, hostess gifts and holiday ornaments and decorations you'll enjoy unpacking and displaying year after year. Be sure to browse both gift shop spaces and the furniture showroom, too. Even if you’re not in the market for furniture, you'll appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the American-made pieces the store sells.
More gifts await at Back in Tyme (formerly Krafter's Krossing), 58 Rice Road, Templeton, Massachusetts, 978-939-8572, and quilters will want to see the selection of fabrics and supplies at Heather Croft Quilt Shack, 633 Patriot Road, Templeton, Massachusetts, 978-939-1207. Valley Florist, Greenhouse & Gift Shop, Lower Parker Street Gardner, Massachusetts, 978-632-2950, will participate in the Country... Roads Christmas tour once again, and the Petersham Art Center, 8 North Street, Petersham, Massachusetts, 978-724-3514, joins in the fun for the second time in 2016.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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Route 2A, Phillipston, Massachusetts
A Country Roads Christmas tour in New England wouldn't be complete without a place to purchase a live Christmas tree. Whiting Farm is that place, and in addition to finding the perfect pine to grace your home, you'll be able to purchase fresh green wreaths and kissing balls. Nancy Whiting, whose husband inherited land adjoining Harvard Forest that had been in his family since the 1700s, says visitors "really like to choose and cut" their trees. The farm's gift shop is also filled with homespun gifts that will make recipients feel as though you’ve gone out of your way to choose something unique.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Down to Earth Nursery
Down to Earth Nursery
450 Royalston Road, Phillipston, Massachusetts
The mother-son team of Avis Donahue and David Woodin has made the petite Down to Earth Nursery a must-visit stop on the Country Roads Christmas tour. Avis is meticulous about plant and flower selection and known for her arrangements, all made on-site. The nursery sells nearly 200 kissing balls during the Christmas season, with orders placed as early as September. But it is David's clever birdhouses, cabinets, chairs and other woodcrafts that truly make the shop a distinctive destination. His work "sells as fast as he makes it," says Avis: a desirable problem for any craftsman to have.
Also visit A Thyme and a Place, 52 Gardner Road, Hubbardston, Massachusetts, 978-928-1300, offering unique home furnishings and decor items for decking your halls.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
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Hartman's Herb Farm Bed & Breakfast
Hartman's Herb Farm Bed & Breakfast
1026 Old Dana Road, Barre, Massachusetts
Lynn Hartman and her family have nurtured their farm since 1975, and they offer the same loving care to customers who flock here for herbal wreaths and farm-grown seasonings; to guests at their five-room inn; and to couples who choose to marry here. From her start selling potted herbs at markets, Lynn's business has exploded: "We're like the 7-Eleven of herb farms," she says: open seven days a week year-round. From stocking stuffers for the cook to dried arrangements, Hartman's Herb Farm will help you spice up your gift-giving.
There's more! Two shops join the Country Roads Christmas Tour for the first time in 2016: The Country Store in Petersham at 2 North Main Street, 978-724-0000, and Plain View Farm Alpacas in Hubbardston at 130 Gardner Road, 978-820-1199.
Spreading the Country Roads Christmas tour over two days will make visiting all 21 shops more manageable, so you... might also consider booking lodging at King Phillip Restaurant and Motor Inn, 35 State Road, Phillipston, Massachusetts, 978-249-6300, which is also a participating tour location. Here, you can also toast your shopping accomplishments by a warm fire and enjoy a hearty meal.
High Tide Seafood Restaurant and Dairy Bar, 2291 West Street (Route 122), Barre, Massachusetts, 978-355-6715, also joins the Country Roads Christmas tour for the first year. Stop in for some tasty sea fare to fuel more exploring and shopping.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary lodging, meals and products for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Ethics Policy