Our favorite shops
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We all have our favorite bars and our favorite restaurants, our favorite parks and our favorite vistas. But, certainly, we shop and it follows that we have our favorite retailers, too.
While the days of a Milwaukee inhabited almost exclusively by local retailers are long gone, there are many indie businesses still providing Milwaukeeans with what they want and need, and adding to the city's uniqueness at the same time.
Here are some of our favorite shops, past and present. Add yours using the Talkback feature at the bottom.
I have two places tied for my favorite retailers, National Hardware, 1303 N. 4th St., and Fein Brothers, 2007 N. Martin Luther King Dr.
National is a place where you can find anything you want to buy. But the biggest thing is the back counter where they can, and will, help you fix or replace anything, no matter how old or how complex. These guys are household detectives who can always solve the crime.
Fein brothers is like walking through a magic kingdom. If you are interested in cooking, this place has stuff you never knew existed but that you are positive you need in your kitchen.
The place I miss most is Ott's Drugstore that used to be on Silver Spring in Whitefish Bay. The most incredible array of candy you have ever seen. It's the first place I ever bought a Payday candy bar, to this day my favorite treat. They delivered anything including Payday candy bars. And it was free of charge.
I love Stemper's, 1125 E. Potter Ave., for a number of reasons. First of all, they donate all the liturgical vestments for Irish Fest Mass, which is a classy move, and also probably my favorite day of the summer, so they get big brownie points with me for that. They always have the best vendor booth at Irish Fest, too, so more brownie points for that.
On a Milwaukee level, I love that this has been a family-owned business for over a hundred years. That's pretty amazing. On a personal level, Stemper's is a landmark in the Milwaukee Catholic community. If you've got a Confirmation, First Communion, baptism, wedding or any milestone event happening in your life, this is where you go for gifts. If you're selling a house and you want to get a statue of St. Joseph to bury upside down in the yard (don't laugh – I know real estate agents who swear by this), you go to Stemper's. Chapel veils? Stemper's has them. Rosaries, medals, votive candles, statues of all sizes – Stemper's. Spanish language prayer books? Stemper's. I could go on.
As for my favorite former retailer, it has to be Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. My family always went to the shop in Mequon while we were waiting for a table to open up at The Chancery, and this was the only time in my life that I was actually disappointed when it was time to eat because I was having so much fun looking at books. I was too young to realize how amazing it was that this business was locally-owned. All I knew at the time is that it was truly a magical place to me. I miss it.
I've been in Milwaukee for a year now (it took a few months to move back in the spring of 2012) and while I definitely shop local, I'm not sure I have a absolute No. 1 "shop" that doesn't peddle the wonderful, wonderful coffee bean.
A favorite though is Hoarder's World, 203 N. Broadway, in the Third Ward, for no other reason I can explain than I smile every time I think about going and smiling the entire time I'm in there. I don't often buy anything (which probably drives them nuts) but trust me – I'm looking to buy something (which drives my wife nuts).
Part of it might be my continued interest in old, unique "stuff" – as well as an abnormally high interest in TV shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers. "Everyone looks for different" and "What's old is new again" definitely applies in this instance, but part of having a favorite shop is feeling good when you go in and out of it – and this is that place for me.
The store I miss the most is easy, Aala Reed. It closed in 2010. Not only did Laura Lutter Cole and her original business partner, Sharon Reed, create one of the city's best men's stores in the past decade but their original vision and risk taking helped develop Brady Street and, not to mention, spur my wife and her business partner into founding their boutique, Lela, in the Historic Third Ward. Luckily, I've found a few new online shopping outlets that carry the brands Aala Reed did.
As for my current favorite local retailer? There are many, but I always enjoy walking around Beans and Barley, 1901 E. North Ave., (shoo), 241 N. Broadway, is great for men's shoes (women's, too, of course), the little MilwaukeeHome shop, 159 N. Jackson St., is awesome and although most of the books I buy are digital there's still fun in the East Side comforts for Boswell Books, 2551 N. Downer Ave.
I love Shorewood-based The Waxwing, 4415 N. Oakland Ave., that features about 100 artists' work. It is adorably arranged and chock full of treasures – lots of jewelry, wall art, candles, cards. I always tell people to go here if they're shopping for a gift, but the funny thing is I have only bought one gift here. Instead, I usually walk out with something for myself. Plus, the owner Steph Davies is super nice and a talented artist herself.
My favorite Milwaukee shop of all time, however, was Sweet Doomed Angel. It was a punk/Goth shop on Farwell Avenue, across the street from the Oriental Theater. It burned down in a fire a couple of decades ago and I have never found a local shop like it. I bought a lot of black T-shirts and necklaces and flat Chinese slippers. My style still revolves around this "look," but I have updated with the times. No more boxy, '90s tees for this Goth-ish girl.
I named this article "Our Favorite Shop" in part in homage to The Style Council LP of the same name – and, of course, in part because it's apt. In 1985, I'd have purchased that TSC record at Earwaves, a record shop run by Dave Szolwinski that had three lives on Farwell Avenue. The first, where I likely bought the record, was on the site of the current Pizza Shuttle. Later, Dave moved directly across the street into the mini-mall that long housed a Webb's, and finally, to a spot next to Landmark Lanes that was later home to Farwell Music. I spent a lot of time in all three and the shop was a great meeting place to talk about music and discover new bands, which I did a lot especially in the shop's first two incarnations, where I religiously bought my weekly NME and Melody Maker. Rich Menning's Atomic Records on Locust – which replaced Ludwig Van Ear – is quite easily tied for first.
My current favorite shop is a long-standing gem. Walking into the Usinger's shop at 1030 N. Old World 3rd St., is like walking back into Old Milwaukee. The place looks and feels and smells great. It reminds me of going there as a kid with my grandparents and I love taking my kids there. As was tradition when I was young, the staff almost always gives my little ones fresh Usinger's wieners as a free, generous snack. The food is great, the deals on the "seconds" table are incredible and there is no place that shouts "Milwaukee" louder than Usinger's.
This should come to no surprise to readers of my blogs, but I love American Science & Surplus, 6901 W. Oklahoma Ave. From the first time I visited this "everything" store as a kid, buying glow-in-the-dark stars for my ceiling, to the go-to cheap gift store for my daughter, I'll never get bored at this place. Why? Because it has everything. Toys, gadgets, test tubes, science projects, army surplus, and parts that, well, I have no idea what they're made for. And that's one of the best things about American Science & Surplus. The staff labels and identifies every item, no matter how obscure. Frequently, the descriptions and made-up uses for these most peculiar pieces is worth a visit on its own. This is the kind of store I could spend hours wandering around, while ultimately spending about 73 cents when it's time to check out. It's great for children of all ages.
"National is a place where you can find anything you want to buy. But the biggest thing is the back counter where they can, and will, help you fix or replace anything, no matter how old or how complex. These guys are household detectives who can always solve the crime." The same can be said for my favorite shop, Robertson Ace Hardware. Housed in the 116 year old landmark Dittmar Building, the store has been in the Village of Wauwatosa for 92 years. Walking into Robertson's is like connecting with an old friend.
Since 1995 I've been a loyal customer of Lise and Kato's inside Bayshore Mall. The store carries a large array of women's clothing mostly in natural fibers, plus handbags, scarves and fine handcrafted jewelry. Here you will find many brands that are unavailable elsewhere in the city. If you're a fan of Madison's Rupert Cornelius this is the place for you.
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