The shops less traveled

Holiday shopping options off the beaten path

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By KEN TRAINOR

Tired of the malls and the mega-chains? Dissatisfied with the isolation and impersonal nature of e-commerce? Sick of the same-old same-old when it comes to holiday shopping?

Time to leave the well-worn path and peruse some hidden treasures:

The Economy Shop, for instance. It's been around forever (since 1919, 1924 in this location), and though a lot of locals know about it, the place still qualifies as a "best-kept secret." Even those in the know don't always see it as a viable option for holiday shopping.

Located at the corner of Grove Avenue and South Boulevard, it looks like a weathered Victorian from the outside, but inside, it's a virtual department storeâ€"a very, very compressed department store. Probably not an option if you suffer from claustrophobia or clutterphobia, but if you're a bargain hunter, it's practically Nirvana.

Three floors hold no less than 16 different mini-departments, which generate proceeds benefiting six longtime local charities and social service providers (Day Nursery, Infant Welfare, Family Services, Hephzibah, Senior Citizens Center, West Sub Hospital). The place is staffed by a small army of chipper volunteers (mostly older women), led by President Cathy Lund (not an older woman), who conducted a fast-track, dizzying tour of the facility.

Among the items noted on the fly at last Thursday's sale:

$12 glass ornaments, marked down to $4 (except Thursday was half-off day, so they only cost $2 each).

A "Coyote Gulch" poster signed by the artist, Elliot Porter, framed, for $100.

A mink coat, appraised at $500 by Abrahamson's (They're holding a silent auction and the winner will be announced at the Dec. 15 sale).

A Hummel figurine for $60.

A set of eight stoneware dishes, two platters, four cups, and eight small plates for the grand total of $4.

In the Accessory Room, you can find gloves, designer evening bags, silk scarves, colorful hat boxes (from $2 to $5), even wigs. The Men's Room (no, not the men's room) is filled with racks of high-end suits. Spaulding's has an annual sale where you can turn in your suit and buy a new one at discount. Spaulding's then sends the used suits over here. They also had a red velvet smoking jacket (46 regular) for $25.

All the art in the hallway is for sale.

Not everyone comes here because they're poor or love hunting for bargains, said one perky volunteer. Some come for environmental reasons, she said. "They believe in recycling."

If you're looking for toys, try the basement, which also holds furniture, such as a Duncan Fyfe-style dropleaf dining room table for $60 and matching bureau for $50. A vintage, hand-stitched quilt top (grandmother's flower garden pattern without the quilting) for $100.

In addition to TVs, curling irons, computers, stereos (including turntables), sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, golf clubs and the like, they also have an entire bookstore (hardcover Da Vinci Code for $10).

There's even a warehouse with "dollar racks," the last stage before the extras head to homeless shelters in the city. A lot went to Madden Mental Health Center in Maywood last fall to help Katrina victims, Lund said. Here you can find wheeled luggage for $5 and woven baskets for 50 cents.

"It really is an amazing place," Lund said. "I knew a professional woman who bought all her clothes here and never told anyone. She was always getting compliments."

On the way out, as if on cue, a shopper interjects, "I can't believe what I just got."

And there are two more opportunitiesâ€"this Saturday, Dec. 10, from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., and Thursday, Dec. 15, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 

Afri-Ware, sandwiched between Fire and Ice Cafe (formerly Edy's Ice Cream) and Maico Hearing Aids at 948 Lake St., is not so much a gift shop as a mission. Owner Nzingha Nommo speaks softly, yet passionately about this cultural oasis and what it stands for. The shop is filled with scents of incense and oils and natural body and hair care products like fig butter, mango body butter and her customers' favorite, sweet peach butter ($17.50 each). Indigo flowers and herb shampoo with sea moss costs $9.

People shop here for Christmas, she said, but Kwanzaa items are becoming more and more popular each year. The seven-candle kinara with wooden umoja cup and woven straw mkeka mat sell for $48.95 as a set. Books or handmade gifts are exchanged typically during the seven-day celebration, and Nommo offers materials to make your own necklaces and bracelets (beads, shells, sea beans, twine, etc.) A wooden Sankofa bird from Ghana (holding an egg in its beak to represent the future) goes for $15.

The shop offers a trove of T-shirts, some featuring images of Malcolm or Martin or Emmett Till, one with the defiant message, "Danger: Educated Black Man," but the biggest seller by far, she said, is the one with Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding up black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. "It says so much about pride, and it was so courageous," Nommo said.

Her "non-black" customers are growing, she said. One peeked in and asked, "Can white people shop here?" Indeed they can, Nommo said. "The richness of Africa transcends all barriers. It was the beginning of civilization. People are curious." Part of her mission is to begin setting black people straight about their own culture. "It has been so misrepresented," she said. To do that, she offers "a little bit of everything. I try to catch you wherever you are in your cultural journey."

Most of the wood carvings come from Ghana, including the large "unity sculpture," an eight-headed interlocking wonder that supports a glass top or holds a large bowl. It sells for $300. The smaller three-headed one is $20. Large African drums go for $175.

The most popular kids book is Princess Briana ($17.99) about a black girl coming to terms with the dominant society's entrenched notion of what is "pretty." Nommo also carries a line of black dolls from Brazil ($15) which customers love because "they assist us in loving ourselves."

Because hair is such a big issue for African-Americans, she's hoping to become the "natural hair care product headquarters," as an alternative to the chemical-based "straighteners" that so many black women use.

She started Afri-Ware as a bookstore 10 years ago, but quickly realized "books weren't enough."

But they're still important, she said, and a good place to start the journey to reclaim black identity is the Carter G. Woodson classic, The Mis-Education of the Negro. She's also partial to the writings of OPRF grad Anthony Browder, such as his collection of essays Independent Study. "It's a portal to African culture," she said.

She also carries a collection of African and African-American cookbooks. "A small embrace is how it begins," she said. "We try to offer any branch of the tree that people want to climb on."

 

Off the beaten path certainly describes Unique Freaque, located in the basement of the house immediately south of the main post office on Kenilworth Avenue. Though signs point the way, it's hard to believe they get much foot traffic. But it's safe to say you can find things here you won't easily find elsewhere.

Like bathmat purses (suction cups included, in fact prominent), which run from $32-$40. Or duct tape pursesâ€"that's right, colored duct tape, surprisingly attractive and probably indestructible ($36-$54). Or handmade wands from Quantum Druid Artifacts ($15-$60) for Harry Potter fans or flamboyant conductors, or both. One made of Fiddleback Maple and Gabon Ebony ($54) purportedly combinesâ€"or perhaps imparts when waved over some subjectâ€"the mystical characteristics of "Art, Strength, Resonance, Power, Luck, Energy, Healing and Cleansing." May sound hokey says Alice the clerk, but she's seen the results.

The store has survived in this unlikely location for four years now, though the owner, Katherine Sutherland, has to work a day job selling real estate in the northern suburbs to support it. "It's been a struggle," she said. The store's atmosphere is worth the visit, with muscular torsos of mythical figures supplanting the pillars and an intriguing central floral floor design.

Alice dons one of their more unique items, a "body bracelet," made of glass beads, wood and metal pieces which she loops over one shoulder. The baubles dangle on her opposite hip, extending all the way to her knee. Other intriguing items include Wood Art (bowls and goblets) by Jon Wolfe of St. Charles (the white oak cup goes for $36) and brightly painted ceramic fantasy heads with titles like "Startled Viking," "Jeeves the Multicolored Butler," and "Turtle Man" (the turtle sits on his head) for $30 each.

Hours are 11-7, Tuesday through Friday; 11-5, Saturday; and 11-4 on Sunday.

 

Most of the tourist spots in Oak Park have attached gift shops. Locals generally know about the Gingko Tree Bookstore next the Wright Home & Studio or the Hemingway Museum Gift Shop in the Arts Center (Oak Park Avenue at Ontario) or the Visitors Center just north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue, which combines a little of both (plus items from various shops in the Harrison Street Arts District). Many shoppers forget about these when plotting their holiday shopping strategies, but one of the most overlooked is the Pleasant Home gift shop (currently open 10-7 every day till Dec. 11, then Wednesday through Sunday from Dec. 12 to 23), which features items you can't find elsewhere. Like Ephraim Faience Pottery from Wisconsin ($68-$228). The company makes only 500 pieces from each design, then they break the mold, turning them into collector's items. Volunteer Coordinator Carol Garman said they get calls from all over the country from people searching for particular pieces. Welcome mats made of heavy coir fiber and sporting art deco designs sell for $38. Twelve-inch diameter concrete reproductions of the quarter-sawn oak medallion motifs from the Great Hall at Pleasant Home are also available. You can get them with your name, your home address or the word "Peace" for $50.

You can also find gifts for kids here, including Tiffany stained glass design coloring books for $5.95. The pages can be detached and hung in the window. Or classic children's books by Peter Newell (The Slant Book comes in the form of an angled parallelogram).

 

Any of the shops on Harrison, of course, qualify for the offbeat shopping experience list, but the Brown Elephant Resale Shop, 217 Harrison, is certainly a good place to start. Take the Economy Shop, put it in a big, open hangar-style building, and you've got the Brown Elephant. And like most of the other places listed here, your shopping supports a causeâ€"in this case the Howard Brown Health Center which provides services for people with HIV/AIDS.

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