My mother likes to reminisce about the joys of Christmas shopping in downtown Baltimore when she could walk from store to store on Howard Street, and buy gifts for everyone in one fell swoop. I was able to have a similar experience many years later when I lived in Chicago, but now that I’m back on the East Coast, I’m confronted with a Christmas shopping dilemma: Where can I still have the downtown experience and find things that I can’t buy in Baltimore? I found the answer just up the highway in Philadelphia.
Often overlooked by savvy shoppers in favor of New York, Philadelphia was recently dubbed, “The Next Great American City” by National Geographic Traveler. This was my chance to discover the charms of the city and get my holiday shopping done (and maybe find a little treat or two for myself).
I figure it will take me two days or so to complete my list of presents, so I check into the centrally located Sofitel Philadelphia, a sleek, modern hotel on the renovated site of the former Philadelphia Stock Exchange. My plan is to check out four hot Philly neighborhoods for the goods.
My first foray is into fashionable Rittenhouse Row, the area between Market and Spruce streets that surrounds the
Sofitel and includes the very chic Walnut Street. The neighborhood features exclusive and funky boutiques for the well-heeled and quaint bars and restaurants, with beautiful Rittenhouse Square, a neighborhood park filled with sculptures, as its centerpiece.
At Knit Wit (1718 Walnut St.), one of many funky boutiques for women filled with black-clad saleswomen and designer labels, I admire a mossy green ballroom skirt by Shumaker, trimmed in lace and lathered in sequins ($860) and gawk at a fur vest by Roberto Cavalli ($930). The fur is rabbit, according to the sweetly energetic sales associate, but the vest is “really for the hot girl because Cavalli’s so fancy,” she tells me.
Not sure that girl is me or anyone I know, I walk farther down Walnut to 19th and the clean, modern space of Town Home (126 S. 19th St.), a “household goods store.” I contemplate burn candles in scents like bittersweet Mandarin Rind and Wild Coriander ($55) for my sister and Chicago-based Vosges Couture Chocolates in flavors like Black Pearl— dark chocolate laced with ginger, wasabi and black sesame— as a treat for my chocolate-loving friend, Louise. The small “men’s section” has lots of photography books, including publications from Playboy, but I’m sure my baseball-obsessed husband would prefer “Greats of the Game” ($35), a historical collection of photos of players, managers and games. I’m also intrigued with the dog perfume from hot dog ($28). Although it promises “fresh notes of fruit, fig leaves and cedar,” strangely enough, it doesn’t have much of a scent. Besides, Murphy and Toby, the labs two doors down from my house, might find it rather silly, anyway.
You ring a bell to enter Sophy Curson (122 S. 19th St.) and proprietress Susan Schwartz ushers you in. The shop opened in 1929, and the décor looks like it hasn’t changed much since the ‘70s. But neither has the service. Schwartz and her assistant pull Lanvin suits from Paris from a back room for well-heeled moms who are looking for “a simple black dress” (“Do you need a sleeve?” one mom is asked) and patrons like Marie, a pert 75-year-old with a straight bob and oversized sunglasses, who has shopped at the store ever since buying her wedding dress there 50 years ago.
“We make house calls to Marie,” Schwartz tells me. “If she needed food, I would bring it to her.”
At neighboring Joan Shepp (1616 Walnut St.), the staff is also very friendly. I swoon over an $848 Viktor & Rolf black cocktail dress, and a slightly more affordable pair of cowboy boots. And as I stand there feeling lowbrow in my Old Navy jeans and H&M raincoat, I break down and ask sales associate Jason Day to put together an outfit for me.
“A skirt, I think,” I say. “Something I can wear shopping. You know, I wear a lot of black.” (Who doesn’t? It’s the new black.)
He thinks for a moment and pulls a skirt from the rack— a $552 Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garçons A-line in brown with faint black stripe across the bias. It’s me through and through. (In fact, it’s not unlike a skirt I bought at the J. Crew outlet a couple of years ago.)
“And something to wear with it,” I press.
Out comes a brown angora and wool sweater from Rick Owen. I watch with fascination as Jason turns the sweater upside down to allow for a different style of collar. For $662, I should be able to wear it at least two ways!
After the temptations at Joan Shepp, I take a break for a snack and glass of wine at Tria, a new café featuring “the fermented products of cheese, beer and wine.” My next neighborhood is Old City, a thriving arts community near the historic district. Not unlike Fells Point, Old City’s life began as a commercial waterfront precinct before an influx of artists, galleries and performance spaces transformed it into an arts community that now has quirky shopping opportunities, as well.
I decide to hoof the 17 blocks on foot and get an eyeful of Philly’s architectural gems, like the beautiful old John Wanamaker’s store (now Lord & Taylor), once the epicenter of Philadelphia holiday shopping. I treat myself to a chocolate-covered pretzel at Reading Terminal Market, Philly’s version of Lexington Market, before arriving at Old City’s Third Street, an almost Dickensian, narrow lane chock-full of art galleries and boutiques. Many are closed on Mondays. But not Vagabond (37 N. Third St), where I am greeted with a smile and a kiss by Kodiak, a handsome blue-eyed husky.
Vagabond is delightful, not only because owners Mary Clark and Megan Murphy allow their staff to bring their pets to work, but because of the store’s balance of whimsy and practicality. Yes, you can get velvet scarves, silk camisoles and designer cocktail dresses— I seriously consider a beautiful slinky black number lined in pink silk by Molly ($198)— but you can also get handmade sweaters by Clark’s Stellapop line, and … yarn. Both owners used to knit while tending shop, and when customers started asking for knitting instruction, the store started selling yarn and needles, and offering classes in knitting, crochet and sewing.
Next stop is Scarlett Alley, a long-standing neighborhood gift gallery (241 Race St.) especially popular for bridal registries for its line of Sabre flatware. The flatware is cute; the handles are made of melamine in rich colors (orange is the current favorite of Scarlett Alley shoppers) or fun designs like daisy, herringbone and polka dots. I pick up tortoiseshell serving spoons, a long overdue housewarming gift for a colleague of my husband’s. Exhausted, I schlep back to the hotel, light a candle and enjoy a long bath in the oversize tub.
The next morning, after a scone and a coffee at Di Bruno Bros., a gourmet food and cheese shop extraordinaire, I hike over to Antiques Row, a neat stretch of Pine Street flanked by three-story brick town homes. My first stop is Twist (1134 Pine St.), owned by Sharne Algotsson, a Philadelphia native who married a Swede, lived in Sweden and worked for IKEA before returning to Philly to open her home furnishing store. Twist carries a mixture of new and vintage items, including furniture designed by Algotsson and made in Philadelphia, and vintage pieces she has purchased and had refurbished locally. I buy a carved block that had been part of a larger piece used to stamp sari fabric as a small gift for my friend and quilting teacher. At SOTA (Spirit of the Artist, 1022 Pine St.), I consider Art Deco switch plates ($18) for my neighbor’s 1930s rowhome, and at the dazzlingly green Matthew Izzo (928 Pine St.), I stroke colorful wool pillows from Jonathan Adler (“groovy since 1997”).
Early in the afternoon, I drive 10 minutes to Manayunk, a former 19th-century mill community set snugly against the Schuylkill River that’s been transformed into a thriving shopping/eating/drinking destination. Even on a Tuesday afternoon, Manayunk is a popular spot for yuppie shopping.
After a fantastic lunch at Indian Affair, my first stop on the busy Main Street is the used CD bin at Main Street Music (4444 Main St.), where I buy a used Wilco CD for my husband. Next door is Bias (4442 Main St.), André Mitchell’s boutique that features clothes of his own design, including pink T-shirts ($36) with witty sayings (the one that says “I don’t mind if my husband wants to work … just as long as the household chores are maintained” is appropriate for a number of my girlfriends, I reckon) and his popular layered lace wrap skirt designed to fit women sizes 0-14 ($85). Mitchell changes the store’s “theme” quarterly; right now the theme is jet-setting to Tokyo, complete with TVs showing the Concorde in flight and clothes trimmed in vintage kimono fabrics.
At Belle Maison (4340 Main St.), I almost pawn my cat for a $185 Beauvillé tablecloth (just kidding, Sylvie). The linens from Alsace are only one of the many beautiful home items in this whimsical shop and former bank with a light blue sky painted on its ceiling. I find a vintage poster for my sister and cocktail glasses emblazoned with clubs and spades for my poker-playing brother-in-law.
The afternoon drifts away from me as I make my way down Main Street, passing pastel Vespas at a sidewalk display and sleek gowns in the Nicole Miller window (4249 Main St.). Judging from my complement of shopping bags, I’ve done well.
I’ve heard it said that Baltimoreans don’t go to Philly. It’s too far, too unfamiliar. Whatever. I say, get over it, grab your credit card, and hop on I-95 (or the next Amtrak). Philly, and the holidays, are up and coming.
Travel and tourism information can be found at http://www.gophila.com, 215-599-0776.
Tria’s Jon Myerow has put together an impressive beer and wine list along with tasty tapas plates at this hip Rittenhouse Row bar/cafe (123 S. 18th St., 215-972-TRIA, http://www.triacafe.com). Lacroix at The Rittenhouse was one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country in 2003 and remains a special-occasion kind of place (210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 215-790-2533). An Indian Affair has sophisticated food and décor and the best lunch value in town (4425 Main St., Manayunk, 215-482-8300, http://www.anindianaffair.com). Located in a huge building on the river, Manayunk Brewery has somewhat of a split personality, manifesting itself in multiple dining areas and menus (pub grub and sushi?), but it’s worth a moment to stop and sample a Manayunk Lager or a Krooks Mill American Pale Ale (4120 Main St., 215-482-8220, http://www.manayunkbrewery.com).
Sofitel Philadelphia has a sleek, modern lobby and bar, attentive service and spacious rooms with warm wood paneling and gigantic baths. Rooms from $129 (120 S. 17th St., 215-569-8300, http://www.sofitel.com). Rittenhouse B&B is an upscale, beautifully renovated 1900s carriage house right off the park. Rooms from $239 a night (1715 Rittenhouse Square, 877-791-6500, http://www.rittenhousebb.com). Located in former Center City bank, Loews Philadelphia offers spectacular views of downtown and the feeling of being smack dab in the middle of all that’s going on. Rooms from $150 (1200 Market St., 215-627-1200, http://www.loewshotels.com).
World Café Live, a new 300-seat restaurant/ concert venue sponsored by University of Pennsylvania radio station WXPN (which can be heard locally via WKHS 90.5 FM), hosts live music by up-and-coming artists like Jamie Cullum as well as classic performers like Richie Havens, Rickie Lee Jones and Bruce Cockburn (3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, http://www.worldcafelive.com). Home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and seven other resident company performing arts organizations, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts boasts four different performance venues and a rich diversity of arts programming (260 S. Broad St. on the Avenue of the Arts, 215-790-5800, http://www.kimmelcenter.org). Formerly Wanamaker’s, Lord & Taylor is a department store in the grand old style. Check out the daily organ concerts— which include special Sunday holiday concerts during the month of December (1300 Market St.). The National Constitution Center on Independence Mall tells the story of the U.S. Constitution through interactive and multimedia exhibits, photographs, sculpture and artifacts (525 Arch St., 215-409-6600, http://www.constitutioncenter.org).