Sunday, October 16, 2016

Autumn: A Reason to Wander, A Season to Explore



Remember that little kid you were sitting in the backseat of your parents car? You'd see a cool billboard for something like an amusement park or zoo and start yelling, "Can we stop there...please!?" And of course you wouldn't - there was no time, perhaps no money, maybe no interest in the spot and off you would drive.

Here's a place we found because we took a detour.

After miles and miles of reading billboards claiming Bushkill as "Pennsylvania's Niagara Falls" we went for it. We drove many miles out of the way thinking there might not be anything great to see there after all but hey, why not? We never expected to find anything like this: four miles of wooded trails that curved alongside streams that led to eight waterfalls! We spent two hours exploring - amazed by the beauty of the place.



The moral to the story? Follow your curiosity and make time to wander a bit. You never know what you might find. Do it in honor of that little kid you once were, before you had a car, before you had a drivers license.

Make that little kid smile.


Autumn is the perfect time to start interrupting long stretches of too busy to wander a bit. There are few things more inspiring and beautiful than a walk in a forest during this season.The rewards are immediate. Within just a few steps onto a trail you are surrounded by vibrant color, aromas that invigorate and sounds that soothe. 

Plan your visit to Bushkill Falls at any time of year but especially during peak leaf-peeping season. You can expect crowds on weekends but the further away from the main falls you venture, the more solitude and quiet you will find. You will want to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes since even the briefest visit here requires a fair amount of climbing up and down steps, platforms and boardwalks. The park - which is a major Pennsylvania attraction that features gift shops, a museum, a convenience store and picnic areas with grills - is also dog friendly.




Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Haddonfield Reveals an Artist in Bloom

If you love art and you delight in making new discoveries, New Jersey’s Markeim Arts Center is where you will want to be on the evening of April 16th. Art lovers from across the region will gather in historic Haddonfield that eve to see the work of an artist revealed for the first time. 

During a catered cocktail reception that will serve as a fundraiser for both the Markeim and the Rotary Club of Haddonfield, guests will have the opportunity to meet artist Mike Bloom and see first-hand how retirement from a successful career in architecture has translated for him into a creative storm of dynamic design in wood, stone, metal and on canvas.

From Retirement to Renewal

Mike Bloom creates daily with the same passion he brought to designing large-scale buildings during his 40 years as an architect. Off a quiet street near Haddonfield, only moments away from traffic lights and parking lots, he works in a sanctuary of art, color and light where sun streams in from every window and jazz fills the air.

“I’m retired - that means instead of working 15 hours a day I now work 10 hours a day. Well, lately more like eight,” Mike says with a smile and a shrug.


Evidence of his dedicated approach to creating is everywhere in his bright studio. Paintings line the walls and floor. Jewelry in the making rests on a table. Sculptures stand throughout the space. Asked how many creations he has made over the past five years he says, “If you count, you lose. I rather not know.” 

A visitor in his studio reaches for a miniature sculpture he has just crafted out of stone. “Aha, if you reach for it, I’ve won! It’s tactile!” It turns out the piece is an abstract representation of birds made to be experienced by anyone blind or vision impaired.  

His architectural skills allowed him to reconfigure an entire house to suit his needs for a large work space. 

He opened up walls, slanted ceilings and added skylights of his own invention: his “Sun Tubes” magnify daylight and work in conjunction with a circle of LED lights that power up when natural light is weak. The fact that these tubes now also illuminate schools in blighted areas in New Jersey is a source of great satisfaction for him. 

Architect to Artist 

When he first began painting only five years ago he says, “I didn’t know anything.” Reading, observation and repetition brought him to the point where he is now - receiving accolades and being asked to show his work.

“Landscapes are literature - they tell you all you need to know,” he says, explaining why he prefers abstraction to something more straightforward in his work. “Abstracts give you questions and reach inside your mind.”


His art reflects a layered sensibility. Walk the exhibit at the Markeim (on now through April 30th) and what you will discover are bold landscapes depicted in vibrant colors contrasting with canvases covered with shadowy figures expressed in subtle hues. You will find joyful, swirling creations in wood alternating with jagged works in stone and metal that seem to communicate loss. 

“This whole thing is an out-of-body experience for me - the upcoming exhibit, realizing how many pieces I’ve made over the past few years, being interviewed…all of it.”

Art for Peace 

Before he ever thought about dedicating serious time to art, Mike created his first public work - a powerful anti-Iraq War display in front of his Haddonfield office: he added one American Flag to a display for every soldier killed in battle overseas. The number of dead, he says, were not being accurately reported. He was so committed to the project that he called Dover Military Base every week to get a count of the caskets that arrived. He had military support for his project but not necessarily local support - his display was torn down. A general from Fort Dix flew to Haddonfield to help restore it. 

Considering how self-deprecating Mike is, it’s no surprise that the item he treasures most in his studio was made by someone other than him. It’s a collage of his anti-Iraq War project that a supporter created then dropped off anonymously at his office one day while he was out.

Life as Art

“Are we just mean?” he wonders about humans in general as he points out “The Homecoming” - a sculpture he created with no arms, no legs and “totally maimed, like our soldiers.” 

Mike’s focus on suffering coexists with a lively sense of humor and an interest in ideas that range from philosophy and physiology to quantum physics - topics he discusses among friends during the salon he has been holding weekly at his studio for seven years. 


Always thinking, contributing, creating - that is how Mike Bloom has chosen to move through life. That approach is now the signature of his retirement. After decades woking in “an art form of constraints,” as he describes architecture, this 52-years-married, 40-year active member of the Rotary Club of Haddonfield is designing freely - crafting a new life for himself as a talented, prolific artist and creating new experiences for those few people who have already encountered his work.

Be among the first to discover the Art of Mike Bloom. Visit the Markeim Arts Center on April 16th, 7-10 PM, when his creations will be officially presented to the public for the first time. The catered cocktail reception will feature open bar. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Rotary Club of Haddonfield and the Markeim Arts Center. 

Purchase tickets online at markeimartscenter.org, by calling 856-429-8585 or by contacting Gerry Nanos of the Rotary Club of Haddonfield at hgnanos@gmail.com. Price: $30 each or $50 per pair.




Wednesday, March 16, 2016

You in The Land of Northern Lights

The Northern Lights have captivated imaginations since the beginning of recorded history. The sight of these swirling sheets of light dropping into Nordic skies from space have sometimes frightened people who live under their seasonal spell.

In Norway, myth has it that if you speak too much about them they disappear from view. If you dare raise your arms toward them they might just make you disappear into thin air. But the Northern Lights have mostly been a source of inspiration rather than fear throughout time. They charge imaginations - I know they have mine.

Witnessing them first-hand became a life-long dream for British actor Joanna Lumley, best known for her role in Absolutely Fabulous. She first discovered the Northern Lights as a six-year-old child when she found a storybook illustration of a little penguin staring up at the Norwegian night in awe. She kept the book all of her life and traveled to the Arctic with a BBC crew to finally see those lights herself. Her journey is captured in Joanna Lumley in The Land of Northern Lights.


The documentary is breathtaking - the music throughout adds an epic quality to every moment of her search and the landscapes she traverses are just unbelievably beautiful. But it's her warm, funny, intelligent conversations with everyone she meets along the way and her genuine happiness in her own company as she travels - enjoying personal treasures like her penguin storybook, old maps, her journal and a book in which she draws gracefully - that make this an experience you feel you are taking yourself. The moment Joanna finally gets her wish is overwhelming. Expect tears - hers and yours.

This documentary isn't new - it was made in 2008 - but to me it's a classic that I'm so grateful to have found. I think I will watch those last moments of stars, full moon, Norwegian night and Northern lights again and again. In a word, (one Joanna exclaims often throughout her journey) it's extraordinary!


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Frozen - A Winter Day at National Harbor

Why let a little chill stop you from enjoying a day of fun along the Potomac? Even in single digits and bitter winds, National Harbor, Maryland can bring out smiles - happily frozen ones - in visitors willing to face the elements on a winter day. 


National Harbor goes quiet when temperatures drop but that adds a fresh element to the experience - you can explore the area’s 100 shops and 30 restaurants, open year-round, hassle-free. Finding treasures and indulging in a tipple or two at National Harbor, minus summer crowds, is a reward reserved for the brave and the bundled up.


A great way to start a winter walk there is with a cozy sit and something hot at McLoone's Pier House, known for sunsets and happy hour, (141 National Plaza) at McCormick and Schmick's, recognized for its seafood, (145 National Plaza) or at Bond 45, (149 Waterfront Street) the speakeasy-style steakhouse with links to an iconic New York restaurant. 

Nicely warmed up, step out into the cold toward the most central location at National Harbor where American Way meets The Belvedere. Once you arrive at The Belvedere look down - that’s where you will find the history and geography of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. featured in a 1600-square-foot terrazzo mosaic. The piece was created by Steven Weitzman. As you make your way toward the water, down steps designed in the style of Rome’s Spanish Steps, you will discover more about the area’s history and heritage in a four-paneled mural by Cheryl Foster.

The Potomac, in all its winter gray glory, serves as the backdrop for three attractions at National Harbor. The Carousel is the favorite among families with young children. Picnic tables, a playground and a toddler play space are nearby. 

The Capital Wheel is the highlight of any visit - it offers guests panoramic views of the surrounding area from climate-controlled gondolas that rise 180-feet into the air. The White House, the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery come into view as you enjoy the 15-minute, $15-per-person ride. (A glass-floored VIP car is available for special occasions at the rate of $50-per-person.)

The most interactive of the attractions emerges from the sand along the waterfront with what looks like a silent roar. “The Awakening” is a massive sculpture by J. Seward Johnson comprised of five pieces that visitors of all ages can’t resist climbing. This is a work of art that invites you to get silly. Do touch!


On extremely cold days you will want to do much of your exploring indoors. One of the best indoor spots to enjoy is Gaylord National Resort  & Convention Center which you can reach by following a scenic waterfront path away from the Capital Wheel toward 201 Waterfront Street. 

Along the way you might find yourself pushed by strong on-shore winds. The sculpted figures that make up “Five in the Wind” reflect your experience - stop to admire the work of local artist Norman Greene then hurry into the shelter of Gaylord’s 19-story, two-acre glass atrium. 

The moment you step inside the Gaylord from the waterfront side of the building you will find yourself in a space dedicated to ease and comfort. The temperature is balmy. Tall trees define most of the areas in the atrium. Soothing music and the splash of dancing fountains echo through the space. Meander between shops then make your way to the Belvedere 
Lobby Bar where you can take in the beauty of the atrium and the Potomac beyond it with a cocktail in hand. 

If you are a guest of the hotel Pose Rooftop Lounge is where you will want to go for amazing views of the river and the capital through 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows. (Return in season for a drink on the wrap-around terrace.) 

Nicely fortified by rest, you can emerge from the Gaylord back into the cold via the main lobby entrance. Walk to American Way to visit colorful boutiques, a gallery dedicated to showcasing Pop-Surrealism and beautifully-designed stores that make browsing a pleasure. 

After the comfort of the shops brace yourself for the cold one more time - there is something remarkable at the end of American Way that you won’t want to miss seeing: the winter sky ablaze in reds and purples as the sun sets over the Potomac. Time your day just right to make this moment the inspiring end to your cold-weather experience at National Harbor.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rugged, Restful, Golden

The next time you plan a trip to Colorado, be sure to put the city of Golden at the top of your travel itinerary. Golden surrounds you with rugged beauty and Western hospitality only 30 minutes from Denver International Airport.

It’s where you will find the best of Old West culture and outdoor adventuring in a low-key, authentic setting.

There's a reason why so many people from Denver pour into this town the moment great weather rolls in. It’s a historic destination (founded during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush) that rewards its visitors with relaxation - if that’s what they need -  or adventure - if that’s what they crave. 

Look all around you in Golden and what you discover is a place that honors it’s history, celebrates its artists and preserves its architecture. It is a pleasure to explore with unique, locally-owned businesses, small museums and bronze sculptures throughout the town. The streets are impeccably clean. The overall feeling is one of calm and well being. 

Maybe it’s the wide open skies above this low-profile town (most  buildings are four stories and under) but sound seems muted here. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself speaking in a softer voice during your stay to protect the rare quiet you will find in this town.

What do you hear most in Golden? On a walk recently it was the breeze, lots of wind chimes and the sound of geese calling to each other. The air hinted that it had just been to the mountains. 

Keep your eyes up while you're here - the panorama changes continuously with the colors and shadows cast by the sun.

Clear Creek, at the center of town, offers an inviting place to get acclimated to the area. Along its paved path is where you will find people exercising, walking their dogs, fishing and just generally engaging with the beautiful surroundings.

Walk in one direction and you will be headed toward hiking trails that lead up to Lookout Mountain. At the very top is The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave and Lookout Mountain Nature Center and Preserve.


If you rather not hike to enjoy Lookout Mountain's scenery you can drive up to some of its best overlook spots or you can do like the fittest do - bike the 7%-grade, 4 1/2-mile winding road, hairpins and all, to the top.

After taking in what you came for - the big sky views, sunset, moon rise, stars or twinkling lights of Denver in the distance - you may want to add a thrill to the ride back towards town. Not satisfied with the pull of gravity, many bikers choose to pedal all the way to Golden, eager for greater speed. (Some adrenaline junkies prefer to make the return trip even more daring - they cruise it on longboards.) 



Walk along Clear Creek in the opposite direction and you will find yourself meandering toward the Coors distillery where tours and tastings take place daily. 

If real adventure is what you're after, there's plenty of opportunity for that in Golden. The landscape that surrounds Golden draws avid kayakers, hang gliders, hikers and mountain bikers to the area. Rock climbers who are serious about their pursuit also make their way into town - it's home to the American Mountaineering Center. Go for a hike at sunset and you are likely to spot groups of them coming off the trails - muddied, tired and grinning - to tailgate with a cold, local brew.  

One of the most pleasurable yet easygoing ways to enjoy Golden is to just walk the town. There is so much variety and whimsy to the shops and architecture that you can expect a surprise around every corner. At the top of a hill there is a colorful structure - a replica of a Nepalese Sherpa house - that serves as both a restaurant and cultural center.

On a side street there is a large building made entirely of river rock. Expect to see vibrant murals along building exteriors - each one is the handiwork of artist, Jesse Crock.

There are two practical reasons to add Golden to your Colorado travel plans - the town’s central location puts you within easy driving distance to Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and multiple ski areas. Also, at 5,675 feet above sea level, the town provides your body with a relatively gentle adjustment to the reduced air pressure and lower oxygen found at greater elevations. That’s right - the next time you travel to Colorado you can kick off your vacation with little to no altitude sickness.

When plans bring you to the Denver area, remember Golden - a town that glows with the spirit of the Old West.

All photos - © 2016 Maria Gorshin

Tips:

* Consider making your reservations at The Golden Hotel - a warm, welcoming place to stay. The look is Western Contemporary, the location is ideal (along Clear Creek and steps to all of the town's attractions), and the restaurant serves up excellent dishes breakfast through dinner. (Wild game meatloaf and hearty soups are among guest favorites.) The atmosphere throughout is one of genuine comfort. 

* Pack layers to take you through chilly mornings, warm afternoons and cold nights. Remember to bring all of your outdoor gear plus hiking boots and sturdy walking shoes - pack for adventure.

* Try not to miss a single sunrise or sunset. 

* Visit the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum and take the Coors distillery tour. (The shorter version is shortcut to beer and small-batch craft brews that are available only in Golden.) 

* Grab snacks, breakfast burritos and baked goods at The Windy Saddle and coffee at Pangea. Order spicy, steaming soups at Sherpa House and enjoy the unique interior of the space. If you have special dietary requirements, you can pick up everything you need at Golden's Safeway or at the Whole Foods minutes from town.



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My Top 5 Budget "Love it Like a Local" NYC Favorites.

Can you enjoy NYC without spending too much money? Yes! Even with few funds you can still enjoy one of the most expensive cities in the world.




Having less to spend can even put you in closer contact with New Yorkers. The extra time you put into saving dollars - like waiting for the bus, subway, your turn at the window of a popular food truck or on line at the supermarket - means, potentially, more time around city residents. That's more chances to fall into conversation with people who may have great ideas to share with you about what to see and do free or "on the cheap" in New York.

On a tight budget you have to jump right into every day life. The result can be a richer New York experience where you spend your time more like a local, less like a tourist.

Feeling like you can't afford a quick trip to New York until you've saved up enough to enjoy all of its glamour and luxuries? Ok, but if you'd like to visit sooner than later realize that it's easier than you might imagine. The most important thing you need to bring to the experience is the mindset that you are coming to delight not in high-priced fun but in the vibrancy of the city.


A few basic tips:

Skip the hotels. Use Airbnb or stay in hostels (all ages welcome) instead. Manhattan and Brooklyn have some of the best in the U.S.

Avoid the $5 water bottle. Food, water and snacks are outrageously expensive in NYC. Carry a backpack that you can stock up with your easy-to-carry favorites to help you save. A visit to Trader Joe's or Fairway Market is worthwhile.

Keep your feet happy. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes - not only will you need to walk to save, you'll want to - NYC sidewalks are where you fall in step with city life and encounter everything that is fascinating about this place.



Be a tourist but add a twist. See the sights as if you live here. Below, a few suggestions:

My Top 5 "Love 'em Like a Local" NYC Favorites.

1. The Middle of the Brooklyn Bridge:

Any time of day, in any sort of weather, standing at the very center of one of the most iconic symbols of New York is an exhilarating experience and offers an incredible panorama of old and new architecture. You will look windblown and be genuinely smiling when you reach the mid-point of the bridge. What a view! I list this favorite first because visitors usually save it for last then end up saying, "Oh well, we'll do it next time." Don't disappoint yourself - make this moment a priority.

Get Local: Time your visit for fewer crowds and more beauty - aim for sunset, sunrise, full moon eves, snowy days or crystal clear nights - amazing!

2. Off-beat Chinatown:

Every guidebook and app will lead you to this classic New York neighborhood. Follow their advice to arrive in the area. Then? Explore the side streets to escape the big crowds and to find the unexpected.

Get Local: Make a stop at Hester Street Playground to see Chinatown in the details of everyday life. It's a little pocket of peace in a loud, crowded neighborhood. Visit historic, peaceful Eldridge Street Synagogue. Shop inside the base of the Manhattan Bridge where you will find a market filled with small businesses, food stalls and intense aromas.

3. Sunbathing in Central Park:

Exploring NYC takes a lot out of you. Re-charge in Central Park. Enter from the Central Park South entrance at 6th Avenue and 59th Street. Meander toward Sheep Meadow, a green space that covers an area between 65th Street and 71st Street in the middle of the park.

On your way, climb to the top of the exposed bedrock near Heckscher Playground. It's a great spot to rest for a few moments on sun-warmed stone while taking in views of the skylines that surround the park. The bedrock dates back to the Ice Age.

 
At Sheep Meadow, kick off your shoes, relax with a picnic on the grass and time in the sun. Who relaxes in Sheep Meadow? Everyone - from tourists to city dwellers recovering from long work days to people escaping small apartments for some open space.

Get Local: Bring chilled wine to celebrate creating a lovely, laidback moment for yourself in busy New York but know that while wine is slightly/sort of tolerated a bit during summer concert events in the park it's still not ok, officially speaking. Confused? That's ok, it's confusing. Bring a Frisbee too and enjoy.

4. Explore the Upper West Side:

It's one of Manhattan's most graceful neighborhoods and a beautiful setting in which to encounter the city's art, architecture and history. All you have to do is stroll tree-lined side-streets and boutique-lined avenues and you tap into the heartbeat of a great neighborhood.


Begin your walk at the 79th Street and Central Park West exit of Central Park and start zigzag-ing to cover as much of Central Park West, (The American Museum of Natural History, The Dakota, the New York Historical Society) Columbus Avenue (bakeries, boutiques and classic brownstones along every block) and the Lincoln Center area (art, music, bustling intersections) as possible before you get too tired or run out of time. You can do this walk in as little as 2 hours.

Note: The Upper West Side is my hometown and considered one of Manhattan's most family-friendly spots. It's a small town in a big city. Read more about it's  history, culture, how to best explore it and what it was like to grow up in the area by clicking around here at City Girl Writes - it's one of my favorite areas to write about.

5. Take to the Water - Governors Island:

Board a ferry and pay $2 to enjoy priceless views of NYC. Governors Island is a 172-acre island surrounded by a 2.2-mile promenade that offers incredible views of skylines and water activity - sailboats, ferries, tugboats are all part of the scenery. While you're there take a tour of the island's historic fort. Remember to bring your backpack of food and snacks to save on the cost of your visit. Spend what you save on renting a bike to explore this wonderfully car-free island.

Get Local: Governors Island features special events all summer long - from a festival that highlights the many ways New Yorkers enjoy the great outdoors in an urban setting to art exhibits and, twice this summer, a favorite among New Yorkers: The Jazz Age Lawn Party. A visit to this tiny island is well worth your time.

So, those are just a few of my recommendations for enjoying highlights in expensive Manhattan on a budget. Sounds exhausting? It can be, especially when you are trying to save by only walking or taking subways to get around.

Treat yourself to an air-conditioned car ride between some of the sights I've listed above that are far apart. For example: after your time in Chinatown, Uber it uptown to Central Park. It's a long way.

Uber has offered me a promo code to share with you - a nice way to save money and a chance for me to say thank you for reading this very long post! Enjoy it knowing there are now more Uber vehicles in NYC than there are yellow taxis (according to the New York Post) so your wait to catch a ride might be as fast as a New York minute.

I'd love to hear how your visit to NYC goes - let me know in the comments section below.

Happy travels,

Maria

Monday, April 27, 2015

Travel, Shopping and The Joy of Local

 
This is a post about travel. This is a post about shopping local. And this is all about how shopping local can be a trip. Confused? Come along with me.

We're all familiar with the many reasons there are to support local business. If you haven't been reminded lately, here are 10 great ones.

But there's another reason to shop local - it's the most satisfying, engaging way to make a purchase. No monotone welcomes or scripted endings ("Did you find everything you were looking for?") In local businesses you connect authentically with members of your own community while purchasing quality in a way that cycles money right back into the micro-economy that is your hometown. Win, win, win!


It's also just plain fun - especially if you turn shopping local into a form of local travel.

Travel is a state of mind you carry with you wherever you go. If you leave home open and curious and return with new ideas you transform your going into travel even if all you do is cover a few blocks...or drop into a few stores you've never visited before.

I traveled all over the world for many years as a writer for the hotel and tourism industry. I loved being on the move and fell in love with exploring new places. Then my family and I moved from Orlando to South Jersey to help develop the Revel Resort project in Atlantic City.


Do you know what happens when the project you relocated to help launch ends abruptly? Many un-fun things. One of those things for us was no more frequent travel. Actually, it was no more travel at all. Wings clipped. All plans grounded.

But good came out of that experience too. We started a family business and I fell in love with a different sort of travel - the hyper-local kind. Exploring hyper-locally only required a little bit of time each day (or week) and a lot of curiosity about the people and places nearby. That I could do!


Once I started I found out just how fun it was to "get lost on purpose."

I found beautiful landscapes, charming towns, historic sites, astonishing weirdness, awful ruins, incredible architecture and fascinating people all within miles of our home and business.


I'd come back to the day-to-day after each mini adventure with that feeling of invigoration travelers know so well.


Are you feeling wanderlust but are just too busy or broke to break out your passport for a long journey? There is a simple way to experience the kind of wonder you feel on trips even when you are close to home.

Believe it or not it's this: walk into stores owned by the people in your community.


Every individually-owned shop is a world and culture unto itself.

A great place to put this idea to the test is just 15-minutes outside of Philadelphia across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Collingswood, New Jersey. The Patco suburban line gets you there fast for under $5 roundtrip if you're traveling from Center City.

Collingswood is a colorful town where one-off businesses, restaurants and galleries line sidewalks. Once home to the Lenni-Lenape Indians and then to pioneers who arrived from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the mid 1600's, Collingswood is now home to an eclectic blend of residents who give the town a unique energy and progressive vibe.

You won't find too many "chains" there. What you will find are businesses with well...let's call them "wings": family-run BYOBs, bakeries, music schools, yoga studios and all sorts of shops that fly high powered by the vision and individuality of each owner.

 

In the center of town, there's Frugal, a donation-based thrift store where you can find vintage and modern clothes for men, women and children "at broken-in prices." It's cheerful, lively and full of great finds. I bought two summer tops - only $5.99 each - while Toots and The Mayals played in the background. (When was the last time you shopped for clothes listening to great reggae? Usually to find a great bargain you have to shop in stores where radio stations are set between Pop and static.)

At Frugal, even some of the hangers are unique - this one offered a peek into the past when New Jersey's phone numbers were only five digits long.


The Robinson family, owners of the boutique, support local charities monthly, donating a portion of their profits to each community-based organization.


Right next door there's Collingswood's happy place, The Candy Jar, a shop where you always get more than you give. Walk in even with zero dollars and you will still leave with samples, smiles and full of good conversation and stories thanks to Laurie Cohen and her team of ladies. From the moment you step inside the retro visuals, the kind welcome, the aromas of house-made chocolates all work together to return you to the best days of childhood. It's a warmth you won't find in the candy aisle of your nearest fluorescent-glare convenience store.


A few blocks away you will notice the ornate façade of a 1920s movie theater. It may look closed from your perspective along Collingswood's Haddon Avenue but walk to the corner of Fern Avenue where a small sign points you mid-block toward a non-descript yellow brick building. There you will find a way into the landmark.


You might hesitate when you face the metal logo on the door, "The Factory Workers? Is this a union hall? Is this an actual factory? Am I allowed in here?" Push open the heavy door and what you will find is an unexpected scene, one defined by deeds, dreams and deliciousness all made by skilled hands.

It takes about a second to realize you've discovered the heart of Collingswood.

Inside is a lively café that serves eight incredible coffees roasted with care on site. Revolution Roasters is a labor of love created by Justin, Steve and Joe, a trio dedicated to the art of the perfect cup of Fair Trade, sustainably grown coffee.


The food they serve along with their aromatic brews is good for the soul - hearty, fresh fare crafted in the Constellation Collective Kitchen at The Factory by Valentina Fortuna, Lindsey Ferguson and Maura Rosado, three food artisans who prepare everything - from quiches, po' boys, salads, breads and decadent breakfast sandwiches to sweets baked from scratch - from locally-sourced ingredients.


Around a bend past the café is where you find the actual floor of The Factory, a 16,000-square-foot community makerspace on a mission to help bring back the trades to the United States. The membership workshop created by owner, Tom Marchetty, makes $200,000 worth of wood- and metal-working equipment (and classes in their use) available to anyone over the age of 18 for a small fee.

The historic, mural-lined space is now home to builders, designers, a video production team, a busy recording studio and a full line-up of monthly community events that feature live music, including The Factory's Second Saturdays.

After your visit to The Factory, head back toward Haddon Avenue inspired to explore further. Look at the panorama that lies ahead of you. Those stores and restaurants you see lining both sides of Haddon are personal stories. Walk into any one of those places, ask a question with genuine interest and watch how quickly you discover the unexpected.

 

At El Sitio you can sit in the outdoor patio with friends and a bottle of BYOB wine for as long as you like, enjoying good conversation with one of the owners, Cecilia Jaramillo, about Collingswood and the latest dishes she has created. What you soon discover is that she owns a second El Sitio - it's thousands of miles away in Ecuador.

Stop into The Tortilla Press for a meal and you'll discover there's more to the award-winning restaurant than great Mexican-inspired food. It's run by a team that is fully-committed to promoting green practices, loves New Jersey wines and has even tried to launch a Restaurant Week for Kids.


Need one more example that might encourage you to go on your own door-to-door exploration of Collingswood? Here's a quirky one:

I almost walked past a physical therapy office on Haddon Avenue one Saturday afternoon when a sidewalk display of paintings in front of it drew my attention. I stopped and moments later I was meeting the artist behind the paintings. Francesco di Santis explained that he was borrowing the space, described how he creates his own oil pastels from elements of nature using techniques that date back to the Renaissance and shared the stories behind some of his beautiful landscapes and haunting portraits. I didn't expect to discover so much in that sunny space where neck braces and wheelchairs had been moved aside to make room for art. It was another Collingswood surprise!


I've valued small businesses ever since they started disappearing from the neighborhood where I grew up in New York. I saw one after another pushed out by national chains. Places that had existed for decades were replaced by stores that opened and closed every six months. That cycle of closings served to raise commercial rents continuously. The result? The New York I grew up in no longer exists. It went from being a place where every corner had a little neighborhood deli or old time place where neighbors could touch base and get news from each other, like my childhood favorite, Joe's candy store to being a place where recently one Design Within Reach and one Starbucks, yes Starbucks, announced they were closing due to outrageous rent hikes. (Starbucks at the corner of West 67th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan saw it's rent rise to $300,000 a month this year.) In that environment everyone loses.

The big American hope that's left? Local businesses in small towns. The fight has been lost in big cities - there is no way to keep a small family place going there any more. But in small towns, people still have a chance to help each other, their local economy and themselves by supporting each others' businesses.

What will it take to inspire you to shop locally? Will it be the ethics? Will it be the fun? Whatever it might be, know that your choices - where you shop, how much you spend - matter and tend to boomerang back into the very communities we call home. Oh no...my post about travel/shopping has turned preachy! I'll end this post with more fun - a listing of fantastic upcoming events to enjoy soon on your travel adventure to Collingswood. Enjoy!

Visit these South Jersey towns to explore more and support local businesses:

Camden, Downtown Business District
Downtown Haddonfield - Full disclosure: my family owns a business in this town. (I'll be writing about Haddonfield next.)
Historic Haddon Heights
Westmont's Dining District

Photos:

Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum sells all locally-crafted goods.

Revel Resort in all it's former, promising glory.

A beautiful mural - part of Philadelphia's Mural Arts program.

A landscape that left me in awe in Amish Country.

A funny moment I captured on a sidestreet during a 15-minute mini adventure walk in Philadelphia.

A little frame shop with a big personality and long history - 75-year-old Caves in Audabon, NJ

Series of five photos show Collingswood locations featured in the post.

Joe, one of the owners of Revolution Roasters and Tom, owner of The Factory Workers.

Additional images of bright and colorful Collingswood, New Jersey