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Light streams through the rear window of the Water Street Bookstore overlooking the Squamscott River in downtown Exeter. It’s a crisp morning, and already the shop is abuzz. 

Two visitors have come to see the store’s owner, Dan Chartrand, a fixture in this river town since opening his shop doors 32 years ago. Stories abound.  

“When I was 14, I sat on the floor and read comedy books here for hours,” says one. “My brother dated a girl who worked here,” says the other. 

And so it goes. It’s hard to resist the warmth and sense of belonging that the bookshop invites, a mirror to the wider appeal of this tightly knit river town.

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Water Street Bookstore owner Dan Chartrand is a self-described “amateur urbanist,” a man who has devoted his professional life to serving the Exeter community.

Relatively small with a population of 16,000, Exeter stands at the confluence of the Exeter River as it flows into the tidal Squamscott. It’s a former mill town, the site of renowned prep school Phillips Exeter Academy (est. 1781), and an architectural treasure with carefully restored 19th- and 20th-century buildings and canopies of maple trees shading pathways bounded by picket fences. 

It’s a town often described as quintessential, charming and quaint. Talk to locals, and one gets at the heart of things, at the threads woven into the fabric of a community where a lot has happened. 

Soft-spoken and given to literary flourish, Chartrand speaks of a human landscape that brings people together. In geographic terms, Exeter is wedged into the Seacoast and Piscatagua River region. “You’ve got intimate human scale and a lot of different uses crammed together in a relatively small space. There’s a patchwork and a harmony of uses, and people working really hard to be respectful of everyone else.” 

Centered in the heart of Exeter’s downtown, Chartrand has dedicated his efforts at the bookstore to creating vibrancy in the community. “Early on, we decided not to have a mission selling stuff,” Chartrand says. “We pitched it at a higher level. We wanted to be about building community, about weaving people together. That’s what we do. Booksellers, authors, our readers, our patrons. Our mission is to build a diverse and vibrant community around the written word. That’s our piece of the puzzle.”


The family-friendly Alewife Festival celebrates the return of the alewifes every May.

Daryl Browne, owner of Soleil’s Salt Cave on Water Street, agrees that a deeply rooted community spirit was a big part of the reason he decided to open a unique health and wellness destination in Exeter in 2017. 

“Right off the bat, the owner of Exeter Jeweler’s across the street selflessly mentored us during our first years,” Browne says.

With Amtrak running in and out of Exeter, Brown’s business attracts visitors from miles away. “After relaxing at the salt cave, our guests want to carry on their experience. People here are all in, all helping each other, because we can only do as well as others do. We’re all connected.” 

A sense of tradition and history

Standing outside the Exeter Town Hall, the train whistle is a reminder of Exeter’s rich historic past. “It’s amazing how much life is jammed into this town,” says Chartrand. Abraham Lincoln stood near this spot when visiting his son Robert, a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. George Washington drank ale with the Folsom family at the restored Folsom Tavern. Amos Tuck is said to have formed the Republican party in Exeter. And there is the celebrated delivery of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Community decision-making is still centered in the middle of town, not on the outskirts. 


Phillips Exeter Academy is an Exeter staple that reflects the community’s obligation to educate all youth, whether privately or through public education.

“The town meeting is still a part of local government in Exeter, so municipal affairs are run by everyone who chooses to participate,” Chartrand says. “And that’s kind of a sacred responsibility. There is a storybook charm to Exeter. But it doesn’t happen by accident.” 

He draws attention away from the town’s impressive selection of cafés and boutiques. “This sidewalk is important,” he says. “Before 2015, it was all asphalt. Hot, sticky and generally undesirable.” It’s an example of how the community works together, regardless of differences. 

He refers to the late Harry Thayer, former editor and publisher of the Exeter News-Letter and longtime veteran of the Exeter Fire Department. “Harry and I disagreed politically, but we came together on a plan to renew the sidewalks. We knew it was the right thing for the town. It changed the downtown. It unified it.” 

A walking town

It’s only a quick stroll from Water Street through Exeter’s tree-lined neighborhoods to explore Front and Lincoln streets with ever-expanding choices for specialty shops and dining. Detour off the main thoroughfares, however, and one discovers the community’s dedication to the outdoors. 

On the eastern bank of the Squamscott, there are the powder keg trails, so-called for the unassuming brick shed used by colonials to store gun powder during the Revolutionary War. It’s an easy walk that offers views of the Exeter townscape and rowing crews from Phillips Exeter Academy. On the other side of the river, the pedestrian-friendly Swasey Parkway is a favorite. And pathways lead through the Academy’s athletic fields to wooded trails along the Exeter River.

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You never know what joy you will find in Exeter — including resident seals hanging out along the river.

A local since 1979, Martha Walsh and her husband, Jim, briefly left Exeter, but both felt the ache to return. “I came home when we came back here. I was driving to Exeter to go for a walk, but now I’d think of something I needed to buy in town and just to go for a walk.”

Walsh walks the river paths with an eye toward spotting a pair of bald eagles, one of the many infamous wildlife “town locals” nesting in mill chimneys and pines. 

“It makes your day special. I might walk down Swasey Parkway for three weeks and not see anything, then one day coming out I see a group with cameras saying, ‘The eagle’s here today. The eagle’s here today.’” 

It’s a place where strangers greet strangers and marvel together. “The time I really loved was when I saw the eagle in the tree, and I was walking out telling everyone. I told a young woman walking with her mother who had never seen an eagle in her life.”

Last summer brought a harbor seal sunning on the rocks and on the boat dock of the Phillips Exeter boathouse. “Everyone would gather around String Bridge and
post online about ‘the seal in Exeter.’ It’s a joy to welcome others into all of the delight that this town offers and to see that they get it too.”

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The Town Hall has been a hub of many historical moments like Abraham Lincoln’s visit in 1860.

Spring brings the return of the alewife, a bait fish that locals celebrate with the Alewife Festival, one of the many reasons the community finds to gather. In 2016, the town voted to remove a river dam and restore the natural “fish ladder” that allows alewife to swim upstream. With the booming return of this tiny fish, Walsh delights in the arrival of great blue heron. “You’ll see one or two the first week,” she says, “then six, and the next week 12. Birders stand near the water with binoculars, and people just come from all over the Seacoast and beyond.” 

A community fabric

Exeter community life intermingles with historic prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, the equivalent of a college campus wrapped around downtown. “Some people hear Exeter, and they think only of the Academy,” Chartrand says. “There’s not many institutions that have as much history as it has, and it’s part of the fabric, but it’s not the entire fabric.” 

Leslie Haslam moved to Exeter with her husband, John, in 1982. One of the couple’s two children went to Exeter High; the other went to Phillips Exeter. Haslam says she made lasting friendships at both schools through arts, sports and ongoing community work. “We’re not in each other’s business, but there’s a cohesive whole. It doesn’t mean we all agree, but we care about each other.” 

Now retired, Haslam worked as the director of adult education in Exeter for nearly 40 years. 

“During the pandemic, we saw our public school system grow and evolve. It was a shift into an unknown world and a time of immense difficulty for students, parents and teachers.”

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The town removed the Great Dam in 2016 to restore the natural flow and beauty of the Squamscott River.

Haslam saw the community come together to support each other. “It’s not without challenges and controversy, but there is a level of commitment and dedication in Exeter that is pretty remarkable,” she says.

“It’s how this community takes multiple strands and weaves them together. Things start in one place and find their way.” There’s now a “Fill the Fridge” cooking class offered through the adult education program. Participants polish their culinary skills with a professional chef while creating meals for the community food pantry. 

After more than three decades owning and operating the Water Street Bookstore, Chartrand says there’s still more work to do. “We’re only a little way into our mission. The conversation is just beginning.” 

Managing Editor Emily Heidt’s “Must Stop” Picks in Exeter

It was the community that drew me to live in Exeter seven years ago, and it’s the community that has kept me here today. It’s impossible to single out a few of my favorite spots to visit (as they are all worth your time), but the following new places deserve a friendly hello, and I know they would love to do the same for you. 

Flamingos Coffee Bar
55 Lincoln St. A

Art by Alyssa
154 Water St.

Island Vibes Café
97 Lincoln St.

The Big Bean (Exeter)
63 Water St.

Water Street Marketplace
81 Water St.

STREET (Exeter)
8 Clifford St.

Categories: Our Town