It's about time we gave the old 'shopping' category some filling here at 123ish.com. When Black Friday rolled around and kids came in from out of town to visit, your humble author hit on a swell idea: I'd join the legions of shoppers at Iowa's own Historic Valley Junction in West Des Moines, with a side agenda of composing a gift inspiration list. Not just any gift list, but one where we veer away from the traditional shopping mall.
See, even if you're not close to Valley Junction (you're missing out!) most major cities have a historic Bohemian district filled with local specialty shops. Just map my finds onto your local scene and compare. Or if you're too lazy to venture out to your local shops, fine, we have Amazon links for you couch potatoes too. Just expect that the Amazon link won't be quite the same thing as your quirky small business scene.
Anyway, the purpose here is to give inspiration for your holiday shopping. Christmas (or whatever winter holiday you celebrate, be it Hanukkah, Yule, Festivus, Kwanzaa, Life Day, or Global Orgasm) is right around the corner. Our other purpose is just to have fun.
The shop is the "Quill & Nib," and this is a store devoted to preserving the dignity of the printed word. Most of us left penmanship behind to pound on keyboards forever, but if you know anyone with a need for honest hand-written or hand-drawn ink and paper, this is the kind of store you want.
The pens are not cheap. They are hand-crafted one at a time by the proprietor, who shows us one of his works here. You see a sample cube of resin beside the kind of design the pen carved from that material has. That's a $120 pen there, but LOOK at it! Notebooks at this shop are hand-bound leather with rich, fluttering pages. Ink colors go on for days. In a digital world, this shop fearlessly preserves the time when you'd all be reading my words in flowing script on a scrolling parchment.
Wacky Local Pride
This is Iowa we're talking about. Did you know we top the list of pork-producing states and have more pigs than people? Well now that you do, you're obviously filled with the conviction to run to "Heart of Iowa Market Place" and buy something to commemorate our porcine achievements.
How about some Bacon Balm? This is exactly what the world needs right now is more people who taste like delicious bacon when you kiss them! Substitute your own local agricultural scene and its various corny achievements, if you're not in Iowa (poor you).
The trick here is to know the age of your recipient. If you can peg that as well as the region they grew up in, you'll be able to research the top-selling kid's item from that time. Chances are they had scads of this stuff or went to school with other kids who did. I found piles of these Big-Little Books at "Memory Lane Antiques," and very reasonably priced at that.
You know what else I found there? View-Masters! This is what we had before the Internet, kids! With ten bucks for the rig and some reels for a few dollars each, you can set this up in a nook of your study and know you always have some scenic views that never change, no matter what apocalyptic upheaval the world undergoes.
It pains me to pay attention to the same store twice in this list while other stores got squeezed out of the list, but vintage signs at Memory Lane also made me think of great gifts with character. They're not that pricey, have classy nostalgia, and are versatile one-size-fits-all gifts because who doesn't have at least one wall?
Cannabis legislation in the United States is till thawing at a glacial pace, but in the meantime the whole world has gone crazy for CBD products. CBD oil is extracted from the non-psychoactive portion of the cannabis plant (ELI5: it doesn't get you high). It has many medical uses and therapeutic applications, with more being discovered every day. This is the display at "Your CBD Store Valley Junction," from which we enjoyed a puff or three on some CBD vapes we got there.
Lacking that, there's CBD in everything out there from bath bombs to facial cremes to gummy worm candies. There's even CBD products for dogs and cats. If you want to be trendy and it's reasonably legal in your area, CBD products are this year's hot gift.
Unique Holiday Decorations
This works for gifts when you have to exchange presents a little early, due to schedule conflicts. Holiday decorations are the kind of thing you never spend that much time shopping for, so you just head to the mall and buy the trendy thing everybody else is getting. Lately, it's those bland inflatable Santas. Mass-produced decorations suck all the character out of the holiday.
You want to look for offbeat wackiness like this cowboy snowman I found gracing the dining area of "The Tavern Pizza & Pasta." Christmas decorations look better when they're hand-crafted, folksy, and brimming with imagination.
An easy guess when you're giving to kids, candy is a staple holiday treat. But whatever you do, don't get something mass-retail, because nothing says "I could barely remember who I was getting this for" like a cheap box of chocolates snagged off the shelf at the drugstore. I found these unique Lego candies at "Nan’s Nummies," and immediately wanted to give them to the five-year-old version of myself as soon as we work out time travel.
Nan's is the kind of corner candy shop you thought only existed in movies. You step in the place and just inhale. They make their own fudge there. They have saltwater taffy varieties you've never heard of, and they're all brilliant. They have the kind of candy that was your favorite as a kid, but now you can't find anywhere.
Who says socks have to be a boring, practical gift? As long as you make them something interesting, you can't go wrong. Socks are easy to size because "close enough" works, and if the humor's too risque, you can just wear them with longer pants. "Sisters" is just one of the Valley Junction stores with a free-wheelin' sock collection.
These socks are all redolent of Internet memery, with an edgy Hot Topic vibe wriggling in somewhere. I should mention Sisters has a stock of all kinds of stuff from purses to jewelry to candles, so it's a complete mystery why all I thought to notice were the socks.
Why Is Small Business Shopping So Popular?
Every town bigger than a backwater has their own "shop local" business movement. And heaven knows, there are plenty of Instagram influencers out there hawking random goods. What's so special about what I'm doing, and why is it so darn cool?
Well, it's cool because I though of it, naturally. But also, as we cede consumer ground annually to the mega-corporate big box stores and the echoing malls, we lose something important: Our culture and our character. Nothing is distinct when you can get it anywhere. Nobody is allowed to say anything when everything has to appeal to a worldwide market. There's no joy in discovery when every store sells the same stuff.
You can travel the world and find the exact same identical McDonald's, Walmart, Starbucks in every city. You can talk to people all over the world and they quote the exact same Star Wars memes. Remember when travel was supposed to broaden you?
So prowling one-of-a-kind specialty shops and antique boutiques, even if it's an online Etsy kiosk, is becoming more popular. People like to share their discoveries, it's what built most of the Internet. But who wants to take a selfie next to a shelf at Walmart? When I go deep shopping small businesses, I see something I never see anywhere else: People having fun shopping.
Antique stores are the new Bad Bath & Beyond. Lots of middle-class and even low-class folk shy away from antique shops thinking they're for rich snobs only. But actually antique and vintage stores are really not expensive at all. Consider that banner image up top; that's a back room at "Hinge," just brimming with decorative inspiration. That giant clock looming in the foreground? It's $179. For less than 200 bucks, you can have this overstated tribute to temporal passage mounted to your living room. Watch guests double-take when the clock is the biggest thing in your house. Just smile smugly and say "I think it's important to be punctual."
That's how you take your culture back! Be a little crazy. I'm calling on everybody to stampede their local small business scene and post your discoveries just like this. How are you different? What makes your town stand out? What is your distinct local culture?
We have to fight against the drenching tide of the worldwide corporations making everything the same, which makes nothing matter. The 2020s might prove to be "the culture decade" out of pure rebellion. Do we still remember how to do that?