On and off Walnut Street

While the virtues of online holiday shopping are undisputed, somehow the spirit of the season and the search for the perfect gift demands some hands-on experience with our consumer culture on steroids.

Even if the rest of the city hasn’t recognized West Philadelphia as a shopping mecca yet, those of us who live and work here know that this is a great place to find the unique, the offbeat, the handmade and the outré. This year, the Current decided to look for gifts that are locally connected.

University Square

The best place to find local authors is in the capacious “Books by Penn Authors” section of the Penn Bookstore (3601 Walnut Street). Here are several that caught our eye:

“Brotherly Love,” a book-length poem by Daniel Hoffman (University of Pennsylvania Press $15.95), “Animal Patients: 50 Years in the Life of an Animal Doctor,” by Main Line veterinarian Edward J. Scanlon (Camino Books, Inc. $14.95) and Penn Press’s entry in the “must-have” coffee table book competition, “Pennsylvania Impressionism,” edited by Brian Peterson ($49.95).

If the old saw “Think Globally, Act Locally” applies anywhere, it must be at the Black Cat (3426 Sansom St.), where work by local artists and artisans are presented with pride in this overstuffed place. Deb Brilla of Manayunk calls her company Wanna Buy a Watch?—which makes sense when you see the beautifully-crafted earrings made with semi-precious stones and tiny machine-worked watch parts ($58) she creates. Bath 101 isn’t the new freshmen requirement, it’s a collection of all natural products—facial scrubs, bath salts and a delicious orange sandalwood soap ($6)—made in a bathtub in South Philadelphia.

You can brush up your Yiddish at The Paper Garden (3402 Sansom St.), where their enormous selection of holiday cards includes a comprehensive Hanukah assortment including several pidgin-Yiddish cards for all the sheyne meydeles and boytchikels in your life.

Around the corner at the Penn Book Center (130 S. 34th Street) a display rack features the “Philadelphia Pictorial Series.” a collection of attractively designed slim volumes crammed with archival photographs published by Arcadia on topics that range from the geographical—“Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill” by Judith Callard of the Germantown Historical Society ($18.99)—to the sociological—“Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia” by Thom Nickels ($19.99). Philadelphia’s own Bill Cosby has an enthusiastic blurb on the cover of “Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales” (W.W. Norton, $24.95), but the best reasons to buy this large-format book are its well-written stories and vivid illustrations.

Museum Mile

The sophisticated shopper need go no further east than 33rd Street and University of Pennsylvania Museum’s (3260 South Street) two lively shops to find Chinese turquoise, jackets with exuberant Uzbek embroidery and Cambodian hand-made silk sarongs. But where’s the Philadelphia connection? We found it in Mrs. Woolley’s hat ($24)—a marvelous wool felt cloche with a flexible brim that encourages improvisation. The famed archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley (and his Mrs.) excavated the Royal Cemetery at Ur (now Iraq) and that renowned collection is one of the jewels in our Museum’s collection. On Friday, Dec. 5, the Museum shops kick off a weekend sale with 15 percent discounts for PennCard holders.

West Side Story

Way out west beyond 40th Street, where fashion yields to funk, the Toviah Thrift Store (4211-13 Chestnut Street) is where the cognoscenti find the look for less. Amidst the jam-packed racks are terrific finds—slate blue suede Ferragamo pumps ($17.50), a heathery tweed man’s wool sport jacket with jaunty leather buttons ($10) and a cornflower ‘60s Leslie Fay shift—very Givenchy—that Audrey Hepburn would have killed for ($5).

No holiday shopping list would be complete without food. The season’s office parties and open houses are a grazer’s paradise. The fixings for these movable feasts can all be found at The Fresh Grocer (40th and Walnut Streets) where a mouth-watering selection of party trays, including three pounds of mini-cannolis ($24.99) to feed our Philly soul are available from the catering department.

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Originally published on December 5, 2002