As N.H. Ages, Littleton's Getting Younger and Hipper...But How?
Joel Storella’s “Cash Only Vintage” is about the last thing visitors to Littleton, New Hampshire expect to find while strolling along Main Street.
The quintessential New England town is known for being home to the world’s longest candy counter and the author of Pollyanna...but vintage Ralph Lauren sweatshirts and highlighter colored ski suits? Not so much. But those are just two of the many 80s and 90s gems you’ll find at Storella’s vintage clothing store.
If you haven’t heard, by the way, the 90s are back.
Storella said many shoppers are “totally caught off guard” when they stumble into his Littleton store, often telling him his business would do really well in some of the hipper, major cities. But he’s not too sure about that.
“I think it’s doing so well because it’s here,” he said.
Entrepreneurs like Joel Storella are the most sought after quantity in New Hampshire right now.
It’s no secret the state of New Hampshire is in search of talented, young professionals. Gov. Chris Sununu now has a “millennial council,” there are local advocacy groups devoted to making the state more attractive to twenty and thirty somethings, and southern New Hampshire towns are trying to build new, Main Street-inspired developments from scratch.
In many towns - especially in rural areas - the aging population is growing rapidly and the number of school-aged kids is declining. Littleton is one of those places, but lately, it seems to have figured out a way to attract new people that could help turn the tide.
But just over a year ago, he thought maybe it’s time to move back home to the North Country.
“It’s just you know, kind of this calming feeling. You drive through the Notch and it does feel like a belonging,” Storella said.
Click the map to explore some of the trendy businesses in downtown Littleton:
The Secret Sauce
There isn’t any data on just how many young business owners are in Littleton or surrounding towns. But anecdotally, the list is long. A young pastry chef recently left Nashville for Littleton to start Crumb Bums bakery. It’s hard to miss the massive expansion of Shillings brewery on the Ammonoosuc River.; A 20-something just bought an inn in nearby Bethlehem.
So what is going on up here?
Ingredient #1: The People
Jessica Bunker leads the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce, and she helped this reporter come up with four big factors that have contributed to the area’s recent growth.
“The question always is, 'What’s the secret sauce up here?' There’s a buzz, there’s this vibrancy that’s coming in,” Bunker said. “And the big secret I think, it’s out, it’s the people up here.”
The idea is unquestionably cheesy, compounded by the fact that just across the street from the Chamber of Commerce office is an eternally smiling Pollyanna statue.
But this strong community bond theory checks out.
Storella said when he first opened, all the other shop owners came in and introduced themselves. And they often sent their customers down the street to check out Cash Only Vintage, something Storella said “means a lot.”
Littleton is the type of town where people buy coffee for the stranger in line behind them (this actually happened to this reporter) and Main Street diners are as full of regulars as they are tourists.
Littleton and the surrounding area is by no means perfect. Opioid addiction is a big problem, and while some parents spend hundreds of dollars on their kids ski team gear, others can’t afford Girl Scout uniforms.
But there are a lot of people putting in extra hours in hopes that this area succeeds.
Ingredient #2: The Amenities
Rusty Talbot was in his thirties when he uprooted his family from Washington D.C. to open the North Country Climbing Center in Lisbon, NH. He looked all over the country, but appreciated the tight-knit feel of the North Country. Before long, his New Hampshire resume included several of the local chambers of commerce, the rotary club, the Colonial Theater board and the Pemigewasset Search and Rescue team.
Another big reason he sought out the North Country sums up factor number two:
There’s a lot of stuff to do around Littleton, including a growing art scene, hiking, ice climbing, and mountain biking.
“I know people who can go down to the Seacoast and be surfing in the morning, and then be skiing in the afternoon and then be fat biking by headlamp in the middle of the night,” Talbot said. “And that ability that we’ve got, this huge range of activities in such a compact area is really unique."
If transplants ever need an urban fix, it’s easy to get it: Littleton is right off route 93, making it easier to access cities like Boston, Burlington or Montreal.
Ingredient #3: The Price Tag
Beyond a tight knit, engaged community and access to fun stuff, Littleton is also a relatively cheap place to live and work. Local realtors estimate commercial rent in Littleton is nearly half what it would cost for a similar space in Portsmouth or Hanover. Littleton also has its own water and electricity company, which offers tenants lower energy costs.
Lower costs mean it's easier for business owners like Joel Storella to not only start up, but to take risks.
“That’s where I’m always at -- what’s the next thing?” Storella said. “My goal is to expand, to get more space and kind of offer more of a lifestyle aspect than just clothing.”
Ingredient #4: Lots of Types of Businesses
The final factor in the blueprint to Littleton’s growth is a diversified economy. It used to rely heavily on manufacturing, like the shoe factories that lined the Ammonoosuc River. But by the 1970s, much of that history had faded away, and with it, hundreds of jobs.
The town decided to invest in a new industrial park a couple minutes drive from Main Street, and Greg Eastman, president of the Littleton Industrial Development Corporation, believes it saved them.
“We think the industrial park as its grown through the 1970s through today has been the economic backbone of our local economy,” he said.
On the one hand, the park opened up jobs for a variety of skill sets. It currently employs people who make logging equipment and bug spray, while also hosting the Littleton Coin Company, the biggest business in town.
“It also has created a lot of indirect economy. Our big box stores in Littleton - [it] can be argued whether or not they’d be here or not today. Would there be have been an economy here to support them?” Eastman said.
Eastman’s theory is that the industrial park helped revive Main Street and increase tourism, leading to more jobs downtown, which in turn helps keep places like Walmart and Home Depot on the other side of town, and so on and so forth.
But while Littleton continues to benefit from its diversified economy, tight-knit community, range of extra-curriculars and affordability, it also faces the same obstacle as every other small American town: millennials aren’t always predictable. Sometimes twenty or thirty somethings move to New Hampshire for entirely different reasons.
Nick Storella has lived in both New York and Los Angeles, but decided he was done with the city lifestyle and wanted to move back to his native Bethlehem, New Hampshire.
“I moved back because I was looking for somewhere to move that wasn’t a hectic city. This just kind of came on whim because it was zero stress, if I didn’t want to stay, I could just leave,” Storella said.
This Storella is cousins with Joel of “Cash Only Vintage.” Nick Storella took over his family's antique shop and updated it with apothecary projects like pine scented candles and beard oil. Today, it's an Instagrammers dream.
“I could make more money doing this somewhere else, I think, but maybe wouldn't have as much free time. Money isn’t as important, time is.” he said.
More time for Storella means more visits from his wife and daughter, who on a recent blustery, winter day, popped by the store and played dress-up with some California-made beaded necklaces.
When Joel Storella decided to move back to New Hampshire, it was in part because he saw his cousin Nick - someone he admires and respects - make the jump first, and build a good life for himself.
So family bonds, more free time, or a desire to just get up and move for a different speed of life...sometimes, the factors that get a twenty, thirty or forty-something to move to New Hampshire, they’re things that no chamber of commerce or city official can control.