There are several ways to go about holiday shopping.
You’ve got the bump and rush of the mall, the drive and drive more of the big box, and the click and pray of the Internet.
Then there’s my favorite way—browsing the fascinating, small shops of Pennsylvania’s many historic downtowns. You park once, stroll from store to store, discover unique goods, meet some interesting people, maybe stop for lunch or coffee.
To me, downtown Carlisle fits this bill perfectly, with its wide, tree-lined streets, old brick buildings and parking meters that still take coins, making a click and clunk with the turning knob.
The place has a relaxed feel about it, with no blinking lights or huge signs. The streets are clean but not sanitary, and the sidewalks are a patchwork of brick and concrete. The nondescript storefronts give hints to their contents and offer the impression that there are treasures to be found within.
Some of those treasures wait inside Whistlestop Books on West High Street. The small, well-stocked store smells like, well, books. Owner Jeff Wood carries a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction titles, poetry, drama and the like, as well as booked-themed T-shirts, boxed cards and something called “decomposition books”—notebooks created with 100-percent post-consumer waste.
Notably, Wood, a bird lover, features several shelves of bird guides and a nice collection of wildlife cards by artist Roger Tory Peterson.
“If you are going to be small, you might as well be interesting,” said Wood, commenting on his eclectic selection.
Interesting and tasty is a good way to describe Georgie Lou’s Retro Candy, just a few doors down and across the street. The bright, colorful store, a must-see for any sugar freak, doesn’t just sell candy. It sells memories, said owner Stephanie Patterson Gilbert, who lines her shelves with Sky Bar, Necco Wafers, Mallo Cups and so much more.
Customers can pick Zotz, Candy Buttons and Marshmallow Ice Cream Cones from the 10-cent and 25-cent bins. Those searching for a beloved candy from their past just might find it, one reason to shop here rather than at a big box.
“You can’t go into Wal-Mart and ask what happened to the Marathon Bar,” said Patterson Gilbert. “I can tell you.”
Clothing shops in Carlisle are equally unique. I can assure you that you’ll discover well curated, eclectic finds in independent boutiques like the ClothesVine (apparel, accessories, jewelry) and Miss Ruth’s Time Bomb (vintage ware and accessories) that you will never see in any chain store.
With the peal of a bell from a nearby church, I was reminded that it was time for lunch. Downtown Carlisle offers about 30 restaurant to choose from, such as Café Bruges, a Belgian eatery; Andalusia, serving Spanish and Moroccan tapas; and Issei Noodle, dishing up Asian infusion cuisine.
Issei Noodle is a warm, conversational restaurant with an open kitchen. It serves ramen of many varieties, rice bowls and small dishes such as Japanese seaweed salad and fried gyoza, a handmade, Japanese-style dumpling served with ponzu sauce. Diners can wash down their meal with a glass of ginger honey green tea.
I wrapped up lunch with a visit to Helena’s Chocolate Café and Crepêria, serving sweet and savory crepes, French macaroons and other delectable morsels, including a 3-inch thick piece of peanut butter pie surrounded with a thin skin of dark chocolate.
Emily Bartholet, a Dickinson College sophomore, frequents Helena’s.
“I work so that I can come and eat here,” she joked.
Bartholet kindly offered some of her favorite places in downtown Carlisle, one of which is No Common Scents, a newly opened soap store.
This Hanover Street store has a bubble machine attached to the front door, spurting out little, shiny soap globes to attract the attention of passersby. Walk inside, and you’ll discover what owner Tami Shaffer describes as “where art meets soap.”
Shaffer’s striking soap creations look good enough to eat. Her colorful soap roses top bricks of soap, resembling pieces of cake. The soap by the slab contains multihued striations, some looking like watermelon and some like camouflage. Soaps come in many scents such as salted caramel apple, apple honey goat’s milk, ginger snapped and mango tea. Men also appreciate the line of organic products, including beer soap and Bossman beard jelly.
“I have a cult following of men,” Shaffer said.
Harmony Society is another store relatively new to downtown. This vintage clothing and yarn store on West High Street has a wide assortment of beautiful, mostly natural fiber yarn.
When I visited, Judy Nuñez sat in the store working on a gray sweater for her great niece. She said that it’s nice to have a community yarn shop where people can come, work on projects and learn from one another.
“Here, I know that I have the yarn and the pattern, and I can come for help,” she said.
The shop offers a variety of classes, including how to use a drop spindle to produce yarn, how to make felted clogs and knitting for beginners. Owner Amber Martin makes some of her own yarn, her spinning wheel visible in the rear of the store.
Navigating to these destinations isn’t difficult, especially when the visitor’s center is located right the middle of town at History on High, run by the Cumberland County Historical Society. The center contains easy-to-read maps, brochures on local destinations and helpful staff to answer questions.
I left downtown Carlisle having seen beautiful things, having bought some lovely, useful items and having eaten unique, delicious food. But I also found it comforting knowing that there was plenty more to see and buy on my next visit.
Downtown Carlisle boasts dozens of shops and restaurants to explore and enjoy. Here are several mentioned in this story:
- Andalusia, 26 N. Hanover St., www.andalusiacarlisle.com
- Café Bruges, 16 N. Pitt St., www.cafebruges.com
- The ClothesVine, 134 W. High St., www.theclothesvine.com
- Georgie Lou’s Retro Candy, 56 W. High St., www.georgielous.com
- Helena’s Chocolate Café & Creperie, 36 W. High St., www.helenascafe.com
- Harmony Society, 136 W. High St., www.harmony-society.com
- History on High, 33 W. High St., www.historicalsociety.com
- Issei Noodle, 54 W. High St., www.isseinoodle.com
- Miss Ruth’s Time Bomb, 115 & 119 W. High St., www.missruthstimebomb.com
- No Common Scents, 15 N. Hanover St.; Facebook: No Common Scents
- Whistlestop Bookshop: 129 W. High Street; www.whistlestoppers.com