Press-Republican

November 21, 2009

Take a fantasy shopping trip

By RICH FROST, A Day Away

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Regular readers know I'm not much of a shopper.

Therefore, I feel a bit out of the loop as friends talk about Black Friday, that day after Thanksgiving that has become the biggest retail bonanza of the year in America.

So I began to ponder some of the special shopping places I've encountered in my years of travel writing, especially those that rank as destinations in themselves. And I put together my ultimate fantasy shopping trip. Should one have money to burn, I suppose these could be linked onto a single itinerary. Each, however, has enough to anchor a full vacation.

GIANT BOOT
I can't imagine a better place to begin than at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine. Long a destination point for outdoor devotees, Bean offers not only gift potential but an opportunity to fill any gaps one might have in travel equipment and clothing.

The company emanated from the determination of Leon Leonwood Bean (1872-1967) to make a better hunting boot. His key invention in 1911 — the addition of laced leather upper components atop rubber work boots to make the Maine Hunting Shoe — has never lost its popularity.

Freeport has grown up. Whereas once Bean's comprised the only show in town, now all sorts of outlet stores fill the city. L.L. Bean itself has grown into a complex of three separate huge buildings, including the Bike, Boat, and Ski Store, and another devoted to hunting and fishing.

Fortunately, the flagship store proves as satisfying as always. It's easily identified by the giant Bean Boot out front, built to celebrate the firm's 90th birthday in 2002.

We entered into a full room of set-up tents, a nice introduction to what could be termed a museum of modern camping. Factor in the friendly, knowledgeable and readily available staff and you have an optimal place to shop.

Anything you might need for a successful outdoor experience likely sits somewhere in this high-ceilinged, well-lit building with hardwood and stone floors.

High-tech has earned its place among the essentials of camping and outdoor recreation. I was happy to find radios and flashlights powered by hand cranking.

Part of company lore includes Leon Bean's decision to save money on locks by never closing. Indeed, the place has stayed open 24 hours a day since 1951. A clerk confided there can be slow times during the winter, with some nights passing without a single customer. Ironically, big snowstorms bring in crowds.

"People come in off the highway because they know we're open!"

SHELTERED PORTALS
Next, I'd fly out to Santa Fe. The venerable Spanish settlement has grown into New Mexico's state capital. It also may boast the highest concentration of shops, galleries and artists studios in America.

Visitors flock to the boutiques and galleries on the perimeter of the city's large plaza and to similar opportunities out Canyon Road. However, I have a specific place in mind, the Palace of the Governors. Built as the seat of government shortly after the Spanish arrival in 1609, this adobe building has spent its last century as a museum.

Inside, there's a comprehensive exhibition of territorial history, along with a host of artifacts from Spanish, Mexican and early Anglo frontier days. One wall holds signatures of governors in residence from 1610 through 1910. Two paintings on buffalo hide date to before 1750; they're touted to be the "earliest known depiction of colonial life in the United States." A re-created 19th-century New Mexican chapel, a sparsely furnished Mexican governor's office of 1845 and American Governor Prince's 1893 Victorian reception room of the 1890s are additional exhibits.

Outside, along the sheltered portals, Native American craftspeople assemble daily and display their work. Expect Apache, Navajo and representatives of the various New Mexico Pueblo tribes. It's my favorite place in America for buying artwork directly from the people responsible for its creation.

Most commonly seen articles are jewelry, especially pieces featuring turquoise. Our own interest happens to be pottery. Different tribes each have their own special techniques. I'm particularly partial to the highly polished black bowls made at Santa Clara Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo and elsewhere. Leather work is also frequently displayed.

Two caveats. Navajo rugs are unlikely to be sold along the portal. Several nearby galleries offer these for sale. Don't expect bargains. The Palace also includes a display of early printing presses and binding equipment. Blank books with marbleized covers made here would also be unique gifts.

LARGEST MALL
Let's pretend I'm finishing up my shopping but still have a few random items left on my list. One place where I'm likely to find virtually anything else I might be seeking is the Mall of America, near Minneapolis and St. Paul in Bloomington, Minn.

Until 1982, the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings played their games at Metropolitan Stadium. When a new stadium was completed in downtown Minneapolis, developers purchased this 78-acre property and built the country's largest mall. It opened in 1992. Forty percent of the annual visitors are tourists, including many from Europe.

Here's what I mean by largest mall. Soaring spaces and high rooftops, lots of steel and chrome, plenty of elevators and escalators. More than 500 stores, from Macy's and Sears to Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. Fifty-plus restaurants. A Nickelodeon Universe theme park. Carousel, roller coaster, water slides and other rides. A million-gallon aquarium.

Specialty stores purvey almost every item imaginable — two dozen shoe stores, Lids (hats and caps), Wallet World, Malibu Shades (one of several places for designer sunglasses), Sox Appeal and even one solely devoted to Mall of America souvenirs.

Looking for uniquely Midwestern gifts? Browse Lake Wobegon USA, a boutique devoted to places made famous by Minnesota favorite son Garrison Keillor. Or Lucky Charms for its Minnesota-made jewelry.

Want some exercise? Try the climbing wall or jump at Extreme Trampoline. Out of breath after an exhausting day of consumerism? Go to Oxygen Bar. Met someone during your shopping and want to settle down long term? Head for Chapel of Love and get hitched. Need a little pick-me-up? Buy some caffeination at Caribou Coffee, whose motto reads: "Life is short. Stay awake for it."

For the premier photo opportunity, try the Lego Imagination Center. In case you've run out of ideas for those little building blocks, you'll be amazed at what fills this four-story atrium — things like a flying machine, brightly colored dinosaurs, a motorcyclist, a grease jockey working on an engine.

Are there other special shopping destinations? Sure. We've enjoyed whiling away time in central North Carolina's pottery belt, where one can buy ceramic place settings directly from the artisans creating them. I've learned to allot full afternoons for such wonderful book emporia as City Lights in San Francisco and Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver.

But enough is enough. Let me save a few places for my next fantasy trip.

E-mail Richard Frost at: rbforiole@aol.com