Discover unique, thoughtful gifts at a variety of local shops
By Judith Kirkwood
I'd forgotten how delightful and stimulating a day of shopping could be when you wander a city’s downtown hub, the sunshine warming your face and smells from the corner café reminding you it’s nearly lunchtime.
On a recent excursion to Appleton’s historic heart of commerce and beyond, to several other specialty stores, I was reminded of how thrilling it is to be singled out for personal service by the owner of an establishment thoroughly familiar with inventory. Equally gratifying are those few moments chatting with salespeople about product lines, business and life—a concept known as conversation that is largely absent from shopping these days. Local entrepreneurs are not so rare as to be endangered, but they are unique enough to be treasured.
Appleton’s College Avenue is full of specialty stores in a downtown that stretches over nine blocks, from the railroad tracks to Lawrence University. Sparkadoodles, at the westernmost end, has a wicked sense of humor. The first thing I see is a display of rubber duckies with horns—Devil Duckies ($6). I thumb through “The Perfect Husband Handbook: How to Iron Your Own Damn Shirts,” which offers up ways to win, woo and wow your wife. Regretfully I realize it’s probably too late—after 30 years of marriage—for my husband to practice the author’s advice. If I had posted this message from Spark-adoodle’s magnet collection years ago, “Everyday I Give My Family Two Choices for Dinner—Take It or Leave It,” maybe I could have avoided several thousand extraneous meals?
“I like finding the coolest, newest items and trying to figure out what people would want to buy for a friend,” says under-30 owner, Courtney Hentges, pointing me toward a wall-mounted gumball machine ($32). I understand where the store gets its humor from when she shows me her current favorite item—a Voodoo toothpick holder ($6). This is a great place for reasonably priced, cute and funny gifts that I would be tempted to keep for myself. Whereas Sparkadoodles is newish, two shops in the next block are veteran downtown businesses.
Coventry Glassworks, in the downtown area since 1981, sells not only stained and etched glass, available
hanging in the windows or by commission, but also has artwork by nearly 200 regional artists in every
conceivable medium. I like the wonderfully clever paper art gift bags ($16) by Maxine Nobbe. They make buying
a gift to put in the bag seem superfluous. And I wanted to dig into the bins of colorful swirly marbles; I had
forgotten how adorable PeeWees are. Starting at five cents apiece, they would look fabulous displayed in a
glass jar or bowl. With a huge workshop offering lessons in leaded glass and beadmaking, Coventry is not just
a store; it’s an organic creation infused with an artistic sensibility.
A combination costume and magic shop, Abracadabra is open only in the afternoons with extended hours during the holidays. The costumes occupy more space than the tricks, but it’s the magic that interests us. While owner Ron Lindberg, who goes by “Rondini,” is out performing as a professional magician, Joe Jandacek, a self-confessed “magic geek,” is manning the store. We giggle each time the phone rings and he says “Abracadabra.” My husband performed magic at birthday parties when he was a child, so he and Joe have something in common. We like how Joe tells kids, “The magic is not about the tricks, it’s about you.” He explains that magic is a timeless language and that the cups-and-ball trick was performed as far back as ancient Egypt. Listening to Joe, I realize that shopping at smaller, specialty stores is not just about finding unique products in a low-key setting, or even about supporting local, independent merchants: It’s about stories—a human connection. Joe shares his insight about Harry Houdini, Appleton’s native son magician, and offers us a perspective on Houdini’s life and times. “No bond could hold Houdini, which gave people hope during hard times. His message was ‘You can cast off your shackles.’”
Which reminds me: I am free to shop this gorgeous Saturday afternoon!
Angels Forever–Windows of Light caters to an eclectic variety of spiritualities, everything from Christianity to Zen Buddhism. The inside entryway is guarded by almost life-size statues of an Egyptian goddess, a Buddha and hundreds of trinkets and tchotchkes. The store is known for having the largest collection of sterling silver jewelry in the region, but it’s just as easy to get lost in the books, especially with the sound of crickets emanating from a hidden speaker. My favorite things in the store are scarves for belly dancing—gauzy affairs loaded with jingly coins (starting at $21).
Downtown shopping offers up plenty of fresh air and exercise. Looking at the impressive 19th- and early
20th-century architecture, I can’t help but feel pangs of nostalgia for how the sidewalks must have
echoed with the tapping of high-heeled ladies dressed up for shopping, and men in fedoras striding to their
offices. Today, a man walks with one child on his shoulders and another by the hand; mothers and daughters
and small groups of women pass by. There are, of course, lots of children in The Building for Kids (formerly
known as The Fox Cities Children’s Museum). I duck into their small gift shop to buy something for my
granddaughter’s birthday. I can’t resist the Velvet Slime ($5), which feels like stretchy
One strength of shopping in the Fox Cities area is access to home decor specialty shops. It’s heartening to find not one, but several of these stores downtown. Chuck Myers, at The Rug Company, feels the loss of a big downtown department store (Younkers left four years ago) but points out that Gabriel Furniture in the next block is a good anchor for his business. “That gives people reasons to come downtown for carpets,” says Myers, who does a lot of custom work with carpets as well as selling ready-made area rugs.
Appleton’s downtown is rich in art venues. Besides Coventry Glassworks, there are Avenue Art, Appleton Art Center and Studio 213, where Cherie Greek rents rooms and wall space to about 32 different artists. My favorite artist room showcases the art of muralist Kendra Hendrickson on the walls. Cherie’s specialty, in the main room, is painting carousel animals—tigers, horses and roosters! The horses are fabulous and tempting. “I tell kids they can feed them, pet them, name them, but they can’t get on them,” jokes Cherie. I like a big metal tiger, which was cast off a wood carousel tiger ($2,400), because he’s sturdy enough that I actually could ride him—if he were mine.
Hey Daisy!, a bright boutique, features great-looking trendy clothes. When I ask if students are her biggest clientele, Sarah Rupiper, co-owner of the store with her mom and sister, says that their target is actually women in their 30s looking for something different. “There are a lot of people who won’t go to the mall. We only get three to six of something so not everyone will have the same outfit.” The contemporary fashions are perfect for my daughter-in-law and they have some great accessories.
Books are always in style and I’m glad to stop in at Conkey’s, Wisconsin’s oldest independent bookstore since 1896, quite an accomplishment given the competition. “The bottom line is that we provide service that’s difficult to replicate anywhere else,” says floor manager Joe Goodfellow. “People still appreciate help in sorting out reading options. I’d like to sample the staff recommendations on a rack behind the cash register, but I’m off to visit a few more stores before 5 p.m.
Two Paws Up owners Alan and Ann Noyce cater to pet owners who are interested in natural and raw food diets for their pets. Baked onsite, bushels of doggie treats are displayed on tables, including Peanut Cracker Bites, Pizza Wheels, Veggie Stars, Liver Hearts and the popular Bark-B-Q Ribs. The Noyces even offer hypo-allergenic treats (no wheat, corn, soy, dairy, egg or yeast) for sensitive pooches. I’m tempted to buy a decorated birthday cake for our dog, Flip, but I have a feeling he’d be more interested in the raw meat and bones stored in the freezer in the front of the store. Instead we get him some mixed baked treats and sneak a peek of Alan’s fall selection of iced pumpkin and leaf doggie treats.
Our last downtown stop is the Outagamie Museum gift shop, where the Houdini posters and books have more significance after talking with Joe at Abracadabra. I’m tempted to memorize the poster, How I Get Out of a Strait-jacket by Harry Houdini, from a May 1918 Ladies Home Journal, just in case I need to wiggle my way out of a tight spot, but there are more shops to conquer.
As a rule, I love museum stores. Stones & Stars, in the Weis Earth Science Museum at the University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley in Menasha, caters to school tour groups. Kids love the “sticky stones,” magnetized iron ore—$3 for all the rocks you can fit into a small pouch. I like the small picture sandstone rocks for $2 and agate bookends. My husband raves about the museum itself, which is like a course in geology. “A great museum is educational nirvana,” he mentions as we make tracks.
We also stop at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum, across from Riverside Park in Neenah. The mansion is a perfect setting for a stunning collection of paperweights and the gift shop represents over 185 international glass artists. The most expensive paperweights, by Paul Stankard, are the Walt Whitman series ($4,500), which have extraordinarily delicate glass wings and leaves, but there are beautiful inexpensive paperweights as well that remind me of cupcakes, chrysanthemums, kaleidoscopes and candy.
Another great find in Neenah is Bill Paul, Ltd., a downtown clothing store in the classic tradition of elegant clothes for ladies and gentlemen. While the site has been home to a clothing store for over 100 years, Bill Paul’s has been here since 1978. The leather couch in the corner reminds me of when I was young and my dad would sit and wait as my mother tried on clothes at a similar store in my hometown, popping out of the dressing room to pirouette for our approval. These “country estate” clothes are more my style than trendy fashions. I’d love to come back for one of their trunk shows.