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 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


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

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discovering Baltimore's Fells Point

A trip requires careful planning...or does it? Too much preparation leaves little room for surprise. The next time you venture into new territory skip some of the details. Magic always appears in those open spaces you leave in your itinerary.

During a weekend getaway to Baltimore I re-discovered just how energizing it feels to arrive in a destination without any expectations. I knew the basics: Inner Harbor, crab legs, Little Italy, water taxi. I let Baltimore fill in the rest of the details, one long walk and wander at a time. 

Baltimore turned out to be a generous host and clever guide.

At every turn, it was a new discovery. I found broad strokes of New York and London, hints of Paris and Philadelphia (but with hills!), and left in love with a new city. But my favorite discovery? A thriving storybook village along Charm City's waterfront - Fell's Point.

Small-scale life and walkable history stood quietly, invitingly only a few blocks away from the bustle of Inner Harbor's biggest attractions. We were searching for our hotel, The Admiral Fell Inn. We turned a corner to find that "off-the-beaten-path" led us right into a cobblestone market square alive with music and artisans in an area defined by shops, bistros, cafes, boutiques, and graceful architecture dating back to the 1800s. No chain stores. No chain restaurants. Each small business added its own flavor to the vibrant scene.

We were met by another surprise at the hotel - an elegant, historic hotel that was even more lovely than we had expected. After a warm welcome in the Lobby we arrived in our room to discover it was not only beautiful and pristine but faced one of the prettiest streets in Fell's Point.

We explored Baltimore widely but ending back at Fell's Point each night became the highlight of our visit to the city. A cozy, Bohemian spot for tapas and wine, Adela's, connected right to our hotel. It was a great place to visit each night before easing into sleep.

Mornings were always misty while we were there - just right for quiet strolls down to a quirky cafe, The Daily Grind, and a walk back to the hotel alongside history.

If you're headed to Baltimore, consider making Fell's Point your home base and The Admiral Fell Inn your home-away-from-home while you are there. These spots are a picturesque retreat from the familiar brand name stores and  restaurants that line much of the Inner Harbor. You'll enjoy just as much liveliness and activity on the Fell's Point stretch of the Inner Harbor but with more charm, magic and sense of discovery. Behind every jingling, creaking door you'll find a warm, welcoming pub, treasure-filled little shop and the kind of nuance-laced atmosphere that makes a place unforgettable.