by Joyce Kahn
Asking me if I like to shop is like asking the pope if he’s Catholic. And so with joy in my heart and a little cash in my pocket, I began my foray into a sampling of Montpelier’s shops with one question to pose to shopkeepers, eager to promote their wares for the holiday season: What items would you suggest are unique and affordable? Within Montpelier’s small downtown, you can find something to please the most discriminating shopper on your list. I selected a dozen stores to visit, but be advised: This is by no means an exhaustive list either of shops or of gift possibilities but rather a sampling of the vast variety of products, with a diversity of appeal, obtainable in town. I found goods from the practical to the esoteric—the gifts shop owners want you to know about.
For the artist or would-be artist on your list, gifts from The Drawing Board are a good choice. Liz Walsh showed me one of her favorites, the Make Your Own Music Box Kit, which works like a player piano. On the art-supply side of things, children might like a blank sketchbook with a Noah’s ark or a barnyard cover scene to color as well. A possible gift for a child 4 and up is a Decorate-Your-Own Rubber Duck. For adults, you can find a treasure trove of new, compact, resource manuals on almost every topic, including painting in most media, bookbinding, and cartooning. And if holiday stress is bothering you or a loved one, The Book of Zentangle, which explains how to make Zentangles, a form of artistic meditation, may interest you. This method of producing nonrepresentational art one stroke at a time was developed by a calligrapher and her Buddhist monk husband and is a good pick for artists and nonartists alike.
The Uncommon Market is a good stop if you want to prepare a fabulous holiday meal, grab something for takeout or find gifts for the foodies on your list. Sharon Allen and staff can provide you with pheasants, quails, standing rib roast, sides of fish and their own rolled and stuffed ham. They carry salmon and oysters for fish lovers. As we get closer to Christmas, those wanting to grab prepared foods can reach in the cooler for scrumptious vegetarian lasagna, shrimp cocktail, artichoke-Gouda dip, quiche and peanut noodles. The market will also make up gift baskets to meet your price level or sell you a gift card. They also have a unique wine selection and make a policy of not duplicating what others are selling. But if food is not your thing, cast your eyes to the heavens (or ceiling in this case) to find a Jim Thompson hand-painted animal kite, which Thompson can make to order.
Yvonne Baab of Global Gifts carries unique home décor and gift items with a local and international flair. She is the sole local distributor of artist Sarah Munro’s silkscapes—small, richly colored silk paintings, often hung in windows. Montpelier artist Anna Bell’s framed prints, reminiscent of Chagall, are on the shelves, as are Burlington artist John Brickels’s whimsical clay robot sculptures. You can support fair trade products by purchasing ornaments from Thailand and wool hats, gloves and mittens from Nepal. If it’s silver jewelry you’re looking for, Global Gifts has a large selection. But if you are choosing gifts for the spiritually inclined, you will find tarot cards, quartz hearts, gemstones, hand-carved stone Zen gardens, incense and burners and small meditation singing bowls with their mellifluous sound.
Botanica’s flowers and greenery provide a sensory feast for the eyes. Co-owners Sonja Grahn and Sarah McAllister showed me that besides a bountifully supplied flower cooler, they have centerpieces, local wreaths, handmade door swags and miniature tabletop boxwood trees. People also like Norfolk pine plants, good for apartments, nursing homes or assisted-living facilities because they are small, can be decorated and are not a fire hazard. They also have many locally grown plants, including poinsettias, cyclamen and Christmas cactus, all now in bloom. If you want a later bloom, you can purchase a paperwhite garden. Other unique items include velvet cardinal ornaments, greeting cards from France and local lilies in unusual colors grown right here in Post Mills, Vermont.
The Book Garden is a small, quirky, interesting store. Its owner, Rick Powell, boasts a large, up-to-date variety of graphic novels for both children and adults, including the latest trend, memoirs. He also carries books on self-sufficiency and sustainable living, including gardening, fermentation and his best-selling book on tiny homes. For the comic book collector, Powell has comics from the ’70s and ’80s. And he carries the latest young adult fiction and nonfiction, including fantasy. New to the store are action figures that relate to books, such as The Hobbit, figures for all the Marvel comics, as well as for the popular TV show and line of comics, Walking Dead. All the art on the walls was done by Powell, a professional illustrator, and his selection of art books reflects this interest. You can also find many games for the family and young people, including Magic and Dungeons and Dragons.
If kitchen goods are what you’re after, head to Capital Kitchen, where Erica Humphries showed me many new and unusual products—practical, colorful, and sustainable. The Blossom Trivet shapes itself by breaking apart to make a long string, attaches to the bottom of a hot bowl you want to carry, or just rests on the countertop. The Sodastream Machine allows you to make your own seltzer while being eco-friendly. According to Humphries, “If you drink a lot of seltzer, it’s a game changer! No more recycled bottles, and no more buying the bottled stuff.” In summer, you can make fizzy lemonade or your own favorite flavored drinks by adding fruit juice. And if you are tired of watery, leaky freezer packs, you might want a PackIt personal cooler, a lunchbox and cold-pack combination. Those baking for the holidays will appreciate the large assortment of cookie cutters: snowflakes, stars of David, dinosaurs, doves, dragonflies, dogs and your favorite barnyard animals.
I was curious what unique musical item I would find at Guitar Sam, where Jay Ekis insisted a ukulele is that item. A ukulele is a four-string Hawaiian instrument, inexpensive because of its small size. It is not a miniguitar, and the chords are formed differently from guitars. Ekis apprised me that Montpelier has a good ukulele community: 40 people attended a recent workshop. He noted that the instrument is pretty easy to play, sounds beautiful and is for little hands, too. Although the store specializes in guitars, they stock djembes, which are little African drums, as well as acoustic guitars and the didgeridoo, an instrument from Australia resembling a hollowed-out staff and producing an interesting hypnotic sound. Inexpensive stocking stuffers include penny whistles, recorders, harmonicas and plastic egglike little maracas. But perhaps the most intriguing of all is the nose flute, which you put up to your nose and blow out while using your mouth to change the pitch.
The Cheshire Cat is a feast for the eyes: Where besides this shop can you find owner-designer Lucy Ferrada’s holiday line of clothing, inspired by Willy Wonka, as well as such colorful, whimsical, local and international crafts and folk art? Ferrada remarked, “If it fits in this wonderland, then it gets to live here.” She advises customers to look up, where I saw charming mobiles adorned with sculptures of people carrying out activities in their native country. Clever clocks designed by Michelle Allen, such as a mermaid wearing a seashell bra with a pendulum seahorse and a cow with a pendulum tongue, adorn the wall. Ferrada just started carrying Tracy Pesche’s Tra art—three-dimensional, colorful, whimsical, wood-and-metal wall art with suns, hearts and faces. She also carries hand knits by local artist Pam Barnes as well as Vermont-made stained-glass angels. A large assortment of Goody slippers adorned with ribbons, bows and roses will make any woman feel like a princess and her feet very happy. These are great for travel or as an indoor shoe. The store is also a gallery for national artist Brian Andreus’s wall sculptures, prints, books and calendars. Ferrada noted, “His is very child-at-heart artwork, and his simply illustrated books are one-page little pieces of truth.”
Listening to Cool Jewels’s Willis Backus was as entertaining as it was informative. For the unique, Backus thinks he has the best selection of meteorites in downtown Montpelier. He buys what he loves, and he clearly loves these beautiful gray, metallic, magnetized rocks fallen from space and collected in Australia. Kids also love them. He also has a new shipment of affordable, colorful, patterned glass balls and witches’ balls. Backus instructed: “They’re very functional. The witches get mesmerized by the filaments inside when they’re casting their spells, so they don’t come in your house to bewitch you.” Beaded necklaces from Bali and new merchandise from China are supplied by Backus’s son. You will be equally mesmerized by an abundance of wonderful rocks, including pyrite or fool’s gold, beloved by young boys. If you’re looking forward to summer and a new physical activity, you can find gold pans for local panning in Minister and Hancock brooks in Worcester, where you might find enough gold to make your own jewelry. And if you’re looking for an activity to do with a child, or start a child on a new hobby, head over to the store’s bin of 400,000 beads, where kids can search through this trove of beads and find a satisfying treasure for as little as 15 cents.
Aubuchon Hardware could be your one-stop shop. According to Gary Law, their biggest sellers historically have been sensible gifts, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, flashlights and lanterns using lamp oil for emergencies. He noted that the best gift is not something you necessarily want but something you need: “If there’s somebody you’re concerned about, if you buy it, the person will use it.” They also stock pokers and shovels for the stove or fireplace, as well as chimney brushes. Popular appliances have been toaster ovens, waffle irons and coffee grinders. For those optimists who believe snow is imminent, you can find a plethora of snow fun items, from small snow seats to inflatable 50-inch snow tubes and six-foot toboggans. And for the nostalgic, you can even find an old-fashioned wood sled. For those with a more romantic, less practical bent, Aubuchon’s carries a wide assortment of wind chimes, lovely to look at and pleasant to hear. And there is no limit to their sundry stocking stuffers, from pocket knives and Jumbo thermometers to small and adjustable Bungee cords.
Capitol Stationers is the stationery store equivalent to the hardware store, where there is possibly something for everyone. Co-owner Eric Bigglestone says they sell a lot of unique gifts, including many stocking stuffers. Bigglestone noted, “The community really supports locally made things,” so during the last five years the store has tried to promote and specialize in more Vermont-made products, such as notecards from Vermont Life, Eat More Kale T-shirts, Danforth pewter items and Lake Champlain chocolates. While known for their cards, they also carry unique items, such as decorative and whimsical steel angels for the holiday season. For candle lovers, you will find a bevy of colored and scented candles and accessories. Yankee ingenuity is reflected in the Redneck line of wine glasses, drinking jars with straws and soap dispensers, all adaptations of Ball canning jars. While you may expect to find markers, journals, writing pads and datebooks, you may not know about their picture frames, always marked down 50 percent. Bigglestone also noted that, while pens have changed dramatically over the years, they still stock basic fountain pens, as well as calligraphy and ergonomic pens. But if you are searching for a truly unique yet local gift, you may like the beautifully crafted ballpoint pen made from the last remaining elm tree from the State House lawn.
Cindra Conison, owner of The Quirky Pet, has many unusual items for both pets and their masters. She is proud of the fact that all her products are made in the United States. One such item is her handmade beeswax candles in the shape of dogs and cats. In the bakery case, you can find gourmet dog treats, locally made cookies that are as nutritious as they are fun to view. She also carries colorful, soft, round, fabric cat and dog beds. And Cindra puts together delightful gift baskets filled with hand-thrown pottery from Stowe and treats for the dog and human. Or you may prefer a basket in the shape of our state, filled with dog and cat products made in Vermont. She also carries catnip blankets of colorful cotton fabrics made in a Montpelier cottage industry. Insert the catnip in the blanket, let your cat roll in it and you will have one blissed-out cat. But I advise caution on purchasing her catnip bubbles! Other unique items are small stone Buddha animals with little sayings on the back, such as “May your life be filled with prosperity.” Best of all, you can shop while listening to the pleasant sounds of six colorful parakeets in their permanent store home.
My shopping excursion better acquainted me with many of our capital city’s gracious shop owners and the unique items they carry. There is no need to venture beyond Montpelier’s downtown to find unique, interesting and affordable gift items for the holidays.