Local treasure trove: Gifts found in unique specialty stores perfect for friends and family who deserve a treat

Owner Katie Dawes, left, and Jeanne Klanchar set out Nordic Ware cast aluminum cookware. Kitchen Kaboodle in State College is preparing for the Christmas holiday shopping season.
Owner Katie Dawes, left, and Jeanne Klanchar set out Nordic Ware cast aluminum cookware. Kitchen Kaboodle in State College is preparing for the Christmas holiday shopping season. CDT photo

As the winter season sets in, so do the trove of treasures found locally.

Area retailers are filling stores and window displays with their best wares, so holiday shoppers have a plethora of options — from quirky and quaint to luxurious or customized.

What may be the best part, some say, is the experience of hometown shopping.

“In each town — from State College to Philipsburg to Boalsburg to Bellefonte to Centre Hall to Millheim — they all have wonderful local shops,” said Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Shopping local, of course, helps support local businesses and your community. Those people, your neighbors, are working at those local businesses. It’s a win-win. Stores have unique buys for shoppers, no matter which part of Centre County you’re in.”

Downtown State College: That “Norman Rockwell” experience

In State College, visitors can enjoy the charm of downtown longer this year with extended holiday parking plan hours.

Borough retailers will offer vouchers for up to four free hours in municipal garages for the month of December, so there is no need to rush through a shopping list, said George Arnold, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District.

“I’m not sure how many people recognized that last year,” he said. “The vouchers are typically good for one hour each, so it’s a good deal, and I think if we can get the word out, locals will be really able to take advantage and enjoy and shop longer.”

Borough Council members also approved the district’s request for free borough parking downtown — street meters, lots and garages — for Dec. 22, 23 and 24. Downtown construction also should be complete by the second weekend in November, he said, so accessing holiday deals will be simpler.

“Those are some of the ways we are working with the borough,” Arnold said. “We know construction season has gone a little long. These are long-term improvements to make it nicer for walking and downtown and visually improving the fixtures downtown. There is already a lot of excitement among retailers.”

The shift to holiday mode started earlier this year, Arnold added, with crews placing snowflake lights and brand-new banners the first week in November, ready for the tree-lighting ceremony and First Friday event Nov. 7.

“It will be much like if you go up in New York, decorated early,” he said. “It will be beginning to look a lot like Christmas the first week in November. That’s something retailers had requested.”

Hopefully, the allure of a downtown shopping experience will continue to bring out crowds, Arnold said.

“The customer service is there that you don’t get at the big stores, and we hope people like that kind of hometown feeling,” he said. “And you get that Norman Rockwell feeling. This year, too, with the new banners we have for the season, they will help. There will be a warmth about the town.”

At men’s apparel shop Harper’s, employees have prepared elaborate holiday windows, scenes set in holiday lights with mannequins in the store’s finest garb and shiny, giftwrapped boxes.

“It’s time to make the downtown feel festive,” said Brian Cohen, shop owner and third-generation retailer. “With the Downtown Improvement District, especially in last couple years, they have worked hard. The tree lighting ceremony gets better every year, with more and more lights.”

Shoppers are getting more into the spirit, too, Cohen said.

“You go into a restaurant and have a drink or something to eat and walk around town and feel the cold air, and it puts you in that seasonal mood,” he said. “You can’t get that anywhere else in our region. In a mall, you’re in a mall. Even in strip mall, you don’t walk, you drive from store to store.”

And the gift options are just as good, and more unique, Cohen added. His store, he said, offers gift ideas for men, from high school guys to men who are 80 and up.

“It’s still a lot of people buying shirts and sweaters,” he said. “Those are easy items. We have a lot of beautiful shirts, plaids checks or solids. For a lot of guys, Christmas gifts are those kinds of things. We have a great range of cashmere or blended scarves that are pretty.”

Of course, Penn State gear is a good fit for many recipients, but Harper’s “Varsity Club” room — with plaid carpet and a foosball table — is packed with high end fan apparel, such as a 100 percent cashmere Penn State sweater.

And for those who want to have a little more fun, Cohen said, socks are a new rage.

“A really hot trend in menswear has been socks,” he said. “We have a lot of really fun colors and patterns. Even though people make fun of socks as a gift, sock sales have been fantastic over the past couple years, and I think it’s because of all this color.”

Kitchen Kaboodle along West Beaver Avenue has its share of bright gift ideas — plenty of unique gadgets, interesting silicon products that come in happy or traditional colors and shapes, owner Katie Dawes said.

“There is so much for anyone who likes to cook, all easy to clean and oven safe, great tools that are long-lasting and colorful and a lot of prep tools to make food preparation easy and fast,” she said. “People are branching out more into different cuisines. We have the basic chefs and cooks knifes, too, but with the interesting menus people are serving that reach more of a diverse cuisine, it just requires some different preparation tools.”

Whether shoppers are looking for gift ideas to suit a Mediterranean cook (or an aspiring one) or someone looking to add more Asian-inspired meals, the store has the wares to make it happen.

“We have tools for all of those new cuisines that folks are enjoying,” Dawes said. “They are trying these and then making at home.”

Dawes also makes a point to offer products made in the U.S. as well as gift items made regionally, such as wooden pieces for the table made in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the Northeast. Cookie cutters in seasonal shapes are plentiful and make easy stocking stuffers.

The shop’s cookbooks can help shoppers who are stuck, too, or make easy gifts in themselves, she said, and many people still think seeing the wares in person still beats browsing the Web.

“It’s fun to come in and take a look at them in the flesh instead of looking online,” she said. “You get a better feel for it when you are coming into the shops. Plus, seeing the item is more inspiring. I don’t think folks realize we are open every day until 8 p.m. Many of the others downtown are as well. We gift wrap and all the sales associates here really have good product knowledge. It makes it easy if you’re looking for something you need. You won’t get that online, or in the big box stores.”

Dawes said she — like many other shops downtown — is planning special offers for the holiday season, another reason to hit the stores on foot.

“And, we are so excited that construction will be done,” she said.

“We are really looking forward to having our neighborhood local folks rediscover us.”

Downtown Bellefonte: Modern Gifts, Victorian setting

Bellefonte is known for its old-fashioned feel — on display especially during its Bellefonte Victorian Christmas, a weekend of events set for Dec. 12-14 this year. Dickens strolling characters, carolers and carriage rides help set the mood, as well as storefront décor.

Many merchants plan special offers around the annual grouping of holiday entertainment, shopping and social gatherings, which also features Santa Express Excursions by the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society. Tickets for the train will be available in November, and Bellefonte Intervalley Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director Gary Hoover said those tickets can double as shopping incentives.

“Many merchants offer discounts to those who travel on the train,” he said. “Take a wonderful Christmas train ride and receive discounts just by presenting the tickets. You’re getting a lot more for your shopping trip in downtown Bellefonte.”

While they’re in town, visitors can stop at shops like Pure Imagination Toys along East Bishop Street to find treasures for the shorter set, too, with old-fashioned, classic toys as well as new educational items, said co-owner Rhett Walsh. Crafts or science kits and games also are very popular at this time of year, he said.

“Victorian Christmas is a great event for Bellefonte and the retailers,” Walsh said. “So many people visit from out of town on top of bringing in local customers who just want to get in the Christmas spirit. We are a toy store, so we are typically very busy for November and December, but Victorian Christmas really gets people in the mood for shopping. The energy in Bellefonte for Victorian Christmas is great.”

If visitors come for the events, retailers are hoping they will stay — or return — for shopping, said Jera Gates, manager of Co2 the Unique Boutique, a gift shop along North Allegheny Street.

“Victorian Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year,” she said. “Everyone is just so cheerful. It brings in a lot traffic, and a lot of those people aren’t from the area but come back every year. It gives them something to look forward to. They discover the boutique, and, hopefully, they’re leaving wanting to come back soon.”

The store offers national gift brands, such as Vera Bradley and Dearfoam slippers, as well as out-of-the-box ideas, such as a jewelry line called Alex and Ani. The line uses recycled materials from the United States repurposed as uplifting charms and collections.

“They are all supposed to support positive energy and make phenomenal gift ideas,” she said. “They are wonderful — the meanings that go with them. You receive these and you just get this really personal feeling. What the cofounder does with the bracelets is goes into mills and buys loose, recycled materials. So it’s a really awesome gift, and it’s sustainable.”

Those who choose to shop local are getting the benefit of personal service, too, Gates said.

“We love helping all our customers come in and finding that perfect gift for that special someone,” she said. “Our customers definitely make the holiday season a blast, and I think there is just something special and magical about Bellefonte. It has a lot of charm and character, this beautiful Victorian town. It’s a wonderful time of the year.”

It’s the busiest time of the year for Carol Walker, owner of Victorian Rose, who packs all her store’s rooms with homey holiday scenes: glowing fireplaces, immaculately set tables and trees in many palettes. The transformation takes almost the entire month of October.

“We do our whole store in Christmas,” she said. “We have so many different themes: white deer and silver and red and green, gold and silver displays.”

A “natural” section shows how bears and squirrels and other woodland creates can be a charming holiday vignette inside the home. That’s aside from an elf wonderland and a gingerbread room. This year will mark the 13th that Victorian Rose has been a Christmas destination.

“People say it’s breathtaking, like something you see in New York City,” Walker said. “You will hear people saying through the summer, ‘You have to come back at Christmas.’ And I know our customers. I know their family. If they need a gift for their mother, I know what to find. If you can shop in a little gift shop, you will find a lot nicer or unique gifts than a box store. And you get customer service.”

Though Victorian Christmas visitors don’t always have time to shop, Walker said, they make a point to return.

“It’s just a really festive day,” she said. “You really feel like you’re in a Victorian era. The stores are all geared up. The whole community gets involved. It’s a beautiful time to be in downtown Bellefonte.”

Nearby, Milesburg also has special events planned for the holidays.

Milesburg’s Home Town Christmas on Nov. 29 will feature crafts, open houses, carolers on borough streets, Boy Scouts offering candy and maps and an appearance by Santa Claus. Eagle Valley Personal Care Home also will host a craft show with plenty of handmade ideas for presents.

Christmas kicks off in downtown Philipsburg on Dec. 6. Santa is scheduled to lead a parade, which begins at noon. Philipsburg businesses don’t have the same lineup of specialty shops as other stops in Centre County, but locals sometimes opt for gift certificates to popular eateries and salons. Near town, though, at Conklin’s Corner Antique & Gift Barn near Philipsburg, shoppers can browse two floors of gift ideas: from antiques to décor and artwork. The customer service — and variety — draw visitors from around the state.

Penns Valley: Getting Merry

From antiques to handmade keepsakes to edible (and drinkable) gifts, Penns Valley has much to offer in the way of both holiday events and treasure-hunting.

Centre Hall has The Beaten Path, a second-hand shop with items from estate sales and antiques, and Steiger’s Early Americana for unusual gift ideas, said borough Secretary-Treasurer Beth Araujo.

Around Thanksgiving, borough workers put up holiday themed banners and reindeer to make for a more festive experience. Christmas trees decorated at either end of town welcome visitors.

“It’s like coming back home,” she said.

The Whistle Stop Restaurant, in the borough’s old train station, is a historic destination for many, she said.

Uptown, next to Brother’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant is Sweet Scoops, which opened this summer and offers gelato, soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt for hungry shoppers.

Just 15 minutes away, locals are banding together again to offer the fourth annual Merry Millheim Weekend, another chance to browse for unusual and handmade gifts. This year’s event is set for Dec. 5 and 6, with a visit from Santa, a live Nativity and carolers on Main Street the evening of Dec. 5, said Martha Hoffman, owner of IngleBean Coffee House.

While the town is hopping with “Merry” visitors, EcoVents is again hosting a Handmade Holiday Market at the Bremen Town Ballroom, which features the work of local artists, said Erin McCracken. McCracken and her husband, Josh, own the ballroom and operate EcoVents.

“We try to focus on having local craft vendors,” she said. “It’s a way for local artists to really showcase and sell their work.”

Aside from a selection of handmade jewelry and cozy gifts — of wool or felt — other popular goods are block printed stationery and Christmas cards. The ballroom also will host tables for vendors from its farmer’s market, so cheese or maple syrup can help shoppers round out their gifts — or stuff stockings.

“We try to have diversity,” she said. “It is a smaller show, about 14 vendors, but we try to have fiber, jewelry and paper artists and different mixed media. A lot of our vendors use recycled materials, and we consider it to be one of our green events.”

Though some of the details for Merry Millheim still are not determined, McCracken said the weekend is filled with excitement. The weekend is also a fundraiser for the Millheim pool at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park, Hoffman said. and events will include the Merry Millheim Mile, a mile-long run/walk through the town with participants wearing holiday outfits.

Visitors can enjoy cookie-making or a cup of joe at the IngleBean Coffee House or enjoy a handful of special events and performances throughout town. Elk Creek Café & Aleworks is a popular stop for the gift of beer and related swag or as a resting point between shops, such as the Green Drake Gallery & Arts Center along West Main Street. The gallery offers fine art as well as handmade crafts, mostly from Pennsylvania artists.

There will be options for kids, adults and even pets to pose with Santa Claus while they make their rounds at local shops during the special events.

“It’s a really great time to enjoy what Millheim has to offer,” McCracken said.

Boalsburg: Finding just the right gift

At A Basket Full along East Main Street in Boalsburg, shoppers can order a gift hand-picked — and prettily packaged. Owner Pam Bair fills her baskets with gift items — from local goodies to other desirables, such as Crabtree and Evelyn bath and body products.

The store also carries well-known accessory and clothing lines.

“It makes sense to shop local because you’re supporting locals, who then support other locals and it goes on,” she said. “It keeps the money here instead of it going to Texas or California. And you get that personal attention.”

Boalsburg Chocolate Company along East Main Street draws destination shoppers — those who have had a taste before — and visitors who wander in during special events, such as the upcoming Hometown Christmas, shop owner Bill Speakman said.

“I think more people are looking for quality, the kinds of things you can’t get in Wal-Marts and supermarkets, and that tends to drive them to smaller businesses,” he said.

The six-year old business is best known, he said, for truffles and chocolate covered pretzels, though wine from Mount Nittany Vineyard also is available there.

“A lot of people pair the chocolate and wine together to make a nice gift,” he said. “Hometown Christmas is a fairly busy weekend. It’s always great to bring more people into town and see what Boalsburg is like, that it’s not just a sign along the highway. It’s kind of living in a Norman Rockwell painting.”

Locally and regionally made gifts and craft supplies are ready again, along with some new and affordable options, at Contempo Artisan Boutique along South Church Street in Boalsburg, owner Staci Egan said.

Sets, such as a box of locally made hot sauces and barbecue sauces, make thoughtful gifts for men. They also work well as teacher gifts, she said, and even the sauce ingredients are locally sourced.

Pottery, crafted regionally and locally, is a hot seller for those smaller-ticket items, she said.

“Mugs and bowls, simple little thing that people use every day, are good gifts at a great price point,” Egan said.

Of course, her jewelry as well as other handmade baubles, are holiday hits, too, she said.

“Jewelry is perfect for women, or even high school girls are starting to appreciate it,” she said. “It’s nice to not go to Claire’s. Get something special, handmade and locally made, and a lot of times more eco-friendly.”

Blessing Bands, fabric bracelets with inspirational phrases in vibrant shades, can be a meaningful and customizable gift made by a local artist. Egan said she prides herself on building relationships with customers to help them find just the right gift, all part of the local shopping experience.

“I’m a huge believer in customer service, and it’s just not the same when you go to a big store as it is when you go to a mom and pop, locally owned store,” she said. “People come in, and I recognize them. Their kids are in the same activities as mine. It’s part of being a community. We have to support each other.”