Literary Boroughs #2: Portsmouth, NH

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the second post on Portsmouth, New Hampshire by Meganne Fabrega. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

As you cross over the Piscataqua River on Route 95 North heading toward Maine, look eastward and you’ll spot Portsmouth, NH, a town known far beyond its borders for its many writers, artists, musicians and craftspeople.

Quick Info:

City:  Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Surrounded by working seaport, Portsmouth teems with stories old and new just waiting to be overheard. From April to November, the streets are filled with visitors, but local writers and readers know the best year-round spots for a good book recommendation and a reliable cup of joe. Resident area writers include Katherine Towler, Toby Ball, Dan Brown, David McPhail, Julia Older, Ted Weesner, Jr., and Tim Horvath. Thomas Bailey Aldrich supposedly set the stage for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote The Story of a Bad Boy in 1870. You can visit his home today at Strawbery Banke, a living history museum located on the waterfront.

Portsmouth has been both center stage and a bit player for a wide range of novels such as Joe Coomer’s Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts, and The Tory Lover by Sarah Orne Jewett. Portsmouth even has its own Poet Laureate program that appoints an outstanding local poet every year to the esteemed post.

Where to find reading material:

Portsmouth is home to the Portsmouth Athenaeum, one of only a handful of membership libraries that exist in the United States today. The Athenaeum is open to the public a few afternoons a week, and is a unique portal to the history of this literary borough with its extensive collection of historic manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. The Athenaeum also houses a small collection of painted ceramics by author Celia Thaxter who often sold her handicrafts, as well as her writing, in order to support her family.

The Portsmouth Public Library was the first public building in the state of New Hampshire to be awarded LEED certification and its light-filled corridors and reading areas are often filled with readers and writers. The library has a Special Collections room on the second floor that is open to the public, a huge selection of magazines and a constantly changing calendar of events which includes art exhibitions, readings, films, drama productions, music, and on Saturday mornings you’ll find the Mah-Jongg group click-clacking away in one of the meeting rooms. When you enter the library turn to your left and take a moment to admire the life-size portrait of Celia Thaxter.

Independent RiverRun Bookstore is alive and kicking right in the heart of downtown, thanks to a community effort which saved the store from closing its doors last winter. The store began 2012 with a new location and a lineup of innovative initiatives including a First Editions Club, Paperback to the Future, and the brand new Piscataqua Press. The shelves are lined with new and used titles, with lots of staff picks ready for reading. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the Demon Bookseller of Fleet Street in her natural habitat.

Sheafe Street Books recently won an Editor’s Choice award from Yankee Magazine for “Best Small Bookshop” and it’s easy to see why. Tucked away on a picturesque side street, the shop offers new and used books as well as collectible titles.

Where to write:

Around the corner from Sheafe Street Books is favorite local hangout,  Ceres Bakery, with its tempting array of fresh bread, daily specials, and thickly frosted cupcakes. Lots of windows and a steady flow of coffee make this an ideal spot for writing or reading. (Their motto is “Eat Something, You’ll Feel Better.”) A strong cup of coffee and Turkish delicacies can be found at Café Kilim heading out of town on Islington Street, or if you’re looking for a midday glass of wine, Cava Tapas and Wine Bar has lunch on the patio all summer long.

There are lots of little parks and strategically placed benches around town that are ideal for people watching, character inventing, reading, and daydreaming. Haven Park, on the edge of the historic South End, has a great view and a very active squirrel community, so you may want to bring along an extra cookie. On the harbor, Four Tree Island is a quiet escape from the crowds at Prescott Park.

If you really don’t like to be disturbed, take a picnic to one of the historic graveyards like Point of Graves Burial ground, with tombstones dating back to the 1600s and tales of ship captains that never returned home.


Jazzmouth is one of the most popular festivals in Portsmouth and celebrates the poetry and jazz of the Seacoast area by bringing big names like Charles Simic and Billy Collins to our fair city. (April)

Writers on a New England Stage and Writers in the Loft bring fans from far and wide to Portsmouth to see authors such as Erik Larson, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, and Andre Dubus III speak about the craft of writing, read from their latest novel, and in the case of Neil Gaiman, answer questions like “Red Sox or Yankees?” (Year round)

The first ever Star Island Literary Festival will be held this summer on Star Island, part of the historic Isles of Shoals located off of the coast of Portsmouth.  The focus will be the concept of islands in literature, led by Katherine Towler, Anita Shreve, and Corwin Ericson. (August 26-31, 2012)

Next post: May 25 | Omaha, Nebraska…

BIO: Meganne Fabrega is a book critic and freelance writer who spent many wonderful days at the Portsmouth Public Library as a child. She tweets as @megfab and keeps house online at