San Antonio Shopping Guide
The Alamo City offers some of the best crafts, food and merchandise in America. Here's how to find them.
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GET YOUR BEST FRIEND, GO to the west side of downtown San Antonio where you’ll find the Public Market located on a street named Produce Row. Buy yourselves a shopping bag—not a paper one, but one made of woven hemp. They sell for about a dollar and you ask for a morral de malba; if they don’t understand you, ask for a shopping bag outlining an appropriate size with your hands. In this bag you will be able to tote all your treasures from a varied and interesting shopping trek in this colorful bi-cultural community called San Antonio. While you are in the Market, take advantage of the fruit and vegetables, all fresh daily, that you can purchase from individual farmers at wholesale prices. You can buy your produce in the block-long, sky-lighted, stuccoed building called “The Farmer’s Market.” Then wander across the street into the large tin-shedded structure, where vendors in stalls offer an array of clay pots, piñatas, and border-quality Mexican craft work.
Across Produce Row from the Market is Mi Tierra, a Mexican restaurant and panaderia (bakery) that never closes its doors. Everything is baked daily on the premises, and they feature a rich assortment of Mexican breads, rolls and pastries, with delightful names such as campechenas, cuernos de mantaquilla, pan de huevo or pano, or their specialty, semirtas de nuez.
At the opposite end of the block from Mi Tierra visit Los Cocos for an aromatic and visual treat. This small shop carries an endless variety of spices from around the world. To please the nose, the eye, the taste, there are literally barrels of everyday spices such as lavender, sweet basil, oregano, and borage. They also market their own chili powder (Mole Poblano), their own chocolate (Cercaled), along with jellies from Cuba, fresh cod from Canada, and Jamaican drinks.
Within walking distance from the Market district or a short ride on the Shopper’s Special bus, you’ll find one of the most environmentally unique places in this country. For shopping, dining, and entertainment, it’s a pleasure. It’s the area called Paseo del Rio (The Riverwalk) and La Villita (The Little Village), with nearby HemisFair Plaza thrown in as a bonus. The heart of the Riverwalk area (between Commerce and Crockett Sts.) is the best place to start. Located here is a building complex called River Square. There are two restaurants on the river level of the building with the large Mexican brick columns. But on the second level, (Presa Street level) there is an outstanding shop called La Sirena (the Mermaid).
The proprietor of this shop is Allen Stehling, who personally buys all the merchandise sold in his store. This merchandise is international in scope, but featured are many of the finest folk art and crafts of Mexico, Middle and South America. Weavings and fabrics from Oaxaca, native dresses of Guatemala and Tehuantepec, ceramic masterpieces from Peru, antique Mexican jewelry, lacquer wear of Olinalá and Theodora Blanco dolls are but a few of the quality items available here, all selected with a knowledgeable and discerning eye. Except for some of the larger or more intricate items, prices are generally moderate. This is the best shop of its kind in the United States, so don’t miss it.
Next door is a recent addition for pure fun and enjoyment dining or shopping. It is called The Greenhouse, a combination antique shop, plant shop and natural food restaurant. If you like the table and chair you are using while having your meal, then you can buy them; likewise for all the hanging plants and potted succulents that justify the establishment’s name. In case the diversity of merchandise is insufficient, there are also available some genuine World War I recruiting posters, all framed, wired and ready to hang. Right prices–and have a smoothie while you look around.
In the same building, but facing Presa Street instead of the River, is The Spanish Door. This small shop is the major local retail outlet for Kerrville’s James Avery jewelry, both silver and gold. Mr. Avery’s work is exceptional and is available in a wide range of prices. As you leave the Spanish Door look to your left: on the ground floor of the large building diagonally across Commerce Street is Viva. Owners Mona and Gene Fogt operate this contemporary religious art store in the original home of one of San Antonio’s major banks. Now instead of money in the bank, they feature the “Gallery-In-The-Vault,” which contains changing exhibits of contemporary religious sculpture, painting, or prints. The old banking room walls now host a myriad of religious posters, serigraphs, and prints, and where the banking platform used to be their gift cards are located.
Now, just in case you are in the market for an Oriental rug or two, you happen to be close to two places that have the best selections in town. The first is one-half block on Commerce Street toward the river from Viva. The name of the shop is Farris. The other place is the fourth floor of Joske’s, the large department store, one block on the other side of the River. Both have stacks of new and antique rugs in a wide variety of sizes. At Farris’ you might run across a surprise if you have enough time to search through all the piles. One day I uncovered the most beautiful antique Navaho rug East of the Pecos. Farris’ also carries other Oriental objets d’art, and some fine Spanish shawls (woven in China, where, I was informed, all fine Spanish shawls are woven). As at most rug merchants, the prices at both places match the size and quality.
If you were not looking for a rug, go past Farris’ on your way to one of the two Kerr’s stores, both located on the River. The first one has been in the same location for years and is next to the Commerce Street bridge; the second is located one-half block up the River on the east side, directly across from the River Square Complex. Both stores carry essentially the same line of merchandise: inexpensive Mexican arts and crafts, along with some Mexican-made household staples, such as large straw baskets, glassware, dishes, and assorted utensils like monillas (those wooden rattle-looking devices you twirl between your hands to stir and foam hot Mexican chocolate). This might be a good place to interject a note about shopping for Mexican crafts. Mexicans are usually not content to produce a craft object that is strictly decorative but insist that it also satisfy some function as well. It may serve as a top or only as a votive candle holder, but chances are that the object is not only beautiful but useful as well. Besides the texture and color appeal of Mexican arts and crafts, this extra dimension enhances the joy, surprise and discovery of shopping in San Antonio.
The next step is a leisurely stroll down the River, past the Hilton, slightly around the bend to the Arneson River Theatre. Now up those rather imposing steps, past the historic General Cos house, and you find yourself in La Villita, a restored village, reminiscent of this city’s early history and lifestyle. It is a nice, shady, cool place just to wander in, dotted with art galleries, restaurants, and shops. There are three places here you should not miss.
One is the Southwest Craft Center, and it is, as the sign claims, a Gallery of Fine Arts. San Antonio has a large population of excellent craftspeople, producing just about every craft. This store is their major outlet. Here you may select from an interesting and impressive group of excellent craftwork. You will find ceramic pots of all sizes, shapes, and glazes, macrame handbags and hangings, original toys of wood fabric, batiked pillows and banners, and some original and distinctive jewelry. Frequently there are changing exhibits featuring the work of individual craftsmen, some of whom will do commissioned work. Caroline Adams, who directs the gallery, can steer you to a craftsman’s studio if you like.
Just across the way, overlooking Juarez Plaza in La Villita, is Angelita’s, a shop in a restored adobe-type Mexican period house. This marvelous and intimate shop specializes in hand-crafted ladies clothes from Mexico, India, Africa, and Peru. There is also a unique assortment of jewelry, both antique Mexican and some contemporary designs made with African trade beads. Perhaps the most unique are the pieces made from pre-Columbian artifacts. You will also find antique Spanish shawls, American patchwork in the form of quilts, pillows and handbags, Panamanian mollas, and a small but very nice selection of children’s clothes from Mexico. Some really great buys here at moderate prices.
Adding new dimension to the quality of hand-crafted jewelry in San Antonio is a new and small shop located in an obscure corner of La Villita called La Chamade (the sign may still just say Silversmith). The newly arrived French owners create excellently designed and executed silver rings, bracelets, necklaces, and accessory pieces, with and without unusual polished stones. Many craftsmen are only craftsmen because they lack the ability to design well, so they depend a great deal on traditional forms or motifs. Not so here. Raymonde and Berenger produce contemporary and original work based on a knowledge of design, executed sensitively. The designs, ranging from bold and simple to intricate and delicate, are offered at very fair prices.
If you are not having pangs of conscience about our balance of payments, then a shopping bargain bonus is next on the agenda. It, too, is only a short walk away. The divided street that is the eastern boundary of La Villita is Alamo Street, and across that street is the 90-acre Hemis-Fair Plaza, the site of an international exposition held in 1968 honoring the 250th anniversary of San Antonio. If you enter the Plaza through the main entrance gates, you will be on a pedestrian mall-like path called HemisFair Way. Continue down this path until you come to a rather large open area with a dandelion-looking fountain off to one side. Then you will see The Pakistan Pavilion. In this shop are racks of lovely hand-embroidered Pakistani dresses in an array of colors, a fine selection of oriental jewelry and a subtle-hued, hand-printed silk scarves. A word of caution—don’t be too greedy when you check the price tag of the scarves.
Baskets and brass are next. Walk east on HemisFair Way until you get to what was once the United States Pavilion. Turn the other way into the passage between a cluster of small buildings and you’ll discover the Oriental Gift Shop. In this shop you will find tightly woven baskets of different shapes and sizes, some in colors and some natural. They are beautifully made and very inexpensive. There is also bright brass in all the traditional forms—candlesticks, ashtrays, bowls, compotes—all selling at untraditional prices. With the money you have saved here, you can relax with a drink in the observation lounge at the top of the Tower of the Americas nearby. Have a look at where you have been, or where you may want to go. If you can’t kick the buying habit while you’re up there, and if you’ve got a nephew in Des Moines, go to the cashier counter in the restaurant and purchase—you guessed it—a genuine cast facsimile of the Tower in assorted sizes. Or if you’re a little close by now, send your nephew a giant post-card of the view.
So far, every place described is downtown and walkable. The next phase of the shopping odyssey definitely requires an automobile, because we are going to shop the mid-Broadway to upper-North-New Braunfels corridor.
First, go out Broadway to the Brackenridge Park entrance where the Witte Museum is located. On the first floor, to your right, is the Witte Museum Gift Shop. Here you’ll find a variety of excellent quality, international folk art, including African masks, tiny boxes of Guatemalan dolls, traditional American farm stoneware, baskets from China, antique lace and buttons, plus books on many of these crafts, or on past exhibits, as well as the standard publications related to the exhibits in the museum itself—natural history, wildlife, and such. Regional museum shops throughout the country traditionally provide a rich resource in finding some exceptionally unique and interesting purchases; the Witte’s Shop follows that tradition admirably. Their collections of shells, rocks, and beads are a rummager’s delight.
For your table or for your friend, Dave’s Flowerland is just across Broadway from the Witte. Dave is a drive-up flower merchant par excellence. Varieties of flowers and potted plants spill out of his shop all over the sidewalk in front. Generally, Dave has a daily dollar special on a generous bunch of multi-colored assorted flowers which you won’t be able to resist.
If you need something for your dining table, continue on out Broadway into the heart of the Alamo Heights shopping district. In a strip center with parking in the front, located across from the Alamo Heights Bank, is the Plate N’ Platter. Here you’ll find almost a warehouse inventory of china, stainless steel wear, glassware, and kitchen utensils from woks to tortilla presses. The merchandise is all over the floor, on tables, in bins, on shelving, and from the ceiling. It includes brand names such as Arabia of Finland, Lauffler of Germany and Cordon Bleu of France. If you want something that is not in the store but is in a catalog, ask Mr. Koplan, the owner. He has all the catalogs and knows how to use them.
For a three-in-one shopping stop, continue North three blocks, then go one block West off-Broadway on Ogden Lane. On the first comer is Townsend Square, a complex of vertical cedar and glass structures. For the very best in contemporary lithographs, signed and undersigned, by names such as Bamett, Gallo, Youngerman, Trova, and Johns, visit El Sol De Rio, the art gallery element of the complex. They also have monthly shows of regional and nationally known contemporary artists. Next door is The Different Drummer, a small but contrasting collection of interesting antiques, many just the thing for a particular or special gift problem. Off to one side and toward the rear in its own little house is Great Things, a shop housing some more quality Mexican folk art, some splendid Dutch cookware, a few Mexican santos’, and some delightfully unique antiques.
Back on the bus everybody! We are going over on North New Braunfels Avenue to see an old gasoline pump (red) filled with fish (gold), a lot of poster size photographs of all your old favorite movie stars, and the remnants of a post office, vintage 1920. No, it is not a head shop; it is The Pin Cushion, a really super fabric store run by bearded Jack Boemer, the imaginative owner. He’s got it all together in piece goods, with domestic goods of practically every kind and price, and a complete collection of foreign fabrics—silk from Thailand, Indian cottons, Javanese batiks, African prints, to name a few. Buttons and patterns support the fabrics, so it is a one-stop shop for all those into stitching.
Two blocks up the same avenue is Accent, a well designed, two level store-house of items that reflect the high standards of buying excellence set by the owners, Bob Garman and Charles Thompson. No matter what the size, use, or origin of the item, it will be special. A partial run-through of the store’s selections includes some distinguished antique furniture and accessories, discriminating choices of all those things gourmet cooks (and others) require, both in the kitchen and for setting the table including the informal invitations, place cards, and candles. On the second level the pace changes to things like men’s ties, small children’s toys, aprons, scarves, decorative pillows, North African fabric, Peruvian and Columbian dolls, and several well made Icapala chairs. A thoroughly enjoyable store, well thought out and well priced.
In an earlier issue of this magazine, readers were promised some San Antonio supermarket alternatives. However, they are in quite diverse locations scattered over the North Side of the city. You should not have difficulty in finding these places with a map as they are all located on major thoroughfares.
Let’s begin with Paletta’s (2 blocks east of San Pedro Avenue on the corner of Jackson Keller Road and Ricoleta.) Here you can buy everything from Fondue Swisse to Tuscan peppers to heart of palm. They have a wide selection of international cuisine. If you are interested in breads, there are Russian rye, Swedish rye and long French bread, baked fresh daily. The supply of imported wines and spices is equally impressive, as are the canned foods: baby stuffed eggplants, Danish mussels half shells in water and salt, or paté from France. For appetizers try their marinated antipasto, or clams in sauce from Milan. Scooped with a steel receptacle from old wooden trays are piccolino, macaroni, and vasinicola. For you older aficionados of Palleta’s this is their new location, but they still retain that old world quality.
Forbes Delicatessen (1925 Fredricks Road) is an authentic deli with Thirties Lower East Side decor. The food is authentic, too: corned beef and pastrami, hot, lean and savory on rye or pumpernickel; lox and cream cheese on a bagel or onion bun; and home-made pickles like—you should pardon me—mother never made. It’s partilarly fun to shop here in the spring, just before Passover, when Mr. and Mrs. Forbes load up to the rafters with domestic and imported specialties for the season. They are open on Sunday mornings, the variety of kosher specialties is extensive, and the prices reasonable.
People go to Fincke’s Meat Market (400 East Josephine) for Mr. Fincke’s personalized service. He offers any cut of quality meat—lamb, pork, beef—and it is all custom cut. He will also package and mark meat for the freezer, or give it a special seasoning (a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic). You may also choose from an assortment of barbecued meats, sausages, and cheese.
For shrimp from Taiwan, or a certain fish fillet from Norway, drop by Polunskey’s (1224 North Flores Street). They have the largest variety of seafood in town, at reasonable prices. They offer fish in any form, fresh, frozen, or breaded; plus a generous supply of lobster, squid, scallops and shrimp from all over the world. You will also find cocktail sauces and other seasonings; even some fresh dressed poultry if you aren’t in the mood for seafood.
Louis and Jana Botto conceived of the Greenhouse Grocery (1708 North Main Avenue) literally as an alternative to the supermarket; indeed it is. Everything in au naturel: yogurt, raw sugar, rolled oats, fertile eggs, and longhorn cheese. Perhaps most interesting are their teas, along with an explanation of the organic functions. Consider Sassafras for example, which makes you more resistant to colds and throat infections, and also is used to clear eye inflammations. Available also are canned goods like black strap molasses, organic peanut butter, and Tamari sauce, to name a few. They also have a large supply of grains: long rice, whole wheat, spaghetti, and millet. Most surprising of all is 100 per cent grape juice, no additives.