Having trouble finding that perfect gift this year? Braving Black Friday or adventuring on Amazon.com are not the only options. Milwaukee’s diverse shopping districts offer a variety of opportunity and options for every sort of gift recipient — from the fashionista to the quirky uncle and everything in between.
Perhaps the best place to start discussion of Milwaukee’s shopping districts is the Third Ward. Just south of downtown, the district is packed to the brim with boutiques, galleries and specialty shops, thanks to a successful campaign in the ’90s and early ’00s to draw businesses to the area. Much of the development has continued southward, into Walker’s Point, but the best shopping still remains in this small neighborhood — perfect for a weekend afternoon of wandering.
Third Ward businesses have a reputation for high price points, but there are options for the cost-conscious shopper.
The big news in the district is the new West Elm store, 342 N. Water St. The modern home decor and furniture store opened in June, amid a great deal of hype from devotees and newcomers. While West Elm is part of a Williams-Sonoma-owned chain, Milwaukee’s store features a curated selection of products from Wisconsin artists as part of its LOCAL initiative. So you don’t have to feel too guilty about shopping at a national outlet instead of something closer to home (westelm.com).
Boutiques are one of the Third Ward’s main draws, and it’d take a full article to go through them all. One that stands out among the crowd is Denim Bar, 317 N. Broadway. Whether your loved ones are hopping back on the ’90s trend and hoping to deck themselves out from head to toe, or if they just need a nice designer pair of jeans, this should be your first stop. Denim Bar offers Wisconsin’s largest selection of denim for both men and women. Denim Bar also features a number of options from owner Heidi Darrow Mains’ original gig, online boutique Stella’s Trunk, featuring luxury gift items from around the world (denimbarmke.com).
You might also consider popping into Lizzibeth, one of the newest additions to the Third Ward. Formerly a pop-up fashion boutique that sold jewelry and clothing in random stores, restaurants and homes, as well as online, Lizzibeth now has a brick-and-mortar location at 550 E. Menomonee St. Owner Lizzi Weasler opened the store in November 2014. A year later, the store is a solid addition to the neighborhood, offering affordable women’s fashion options, with most jewelry priced under $40 and most everything else under $100 (lizzibeth.com).
You know what goes with new clothes? New shoes. And Shoo, 241 N. Broadway, has been the Third Ward’s top place to pick up unique footwear for more than a decade, specializing in hard-to-find footwear lines from the States and abroad. Operated by siblings Kate and Pat Blake, the store is known for its inventory, customer service and antique decor — creating an exceptional shopping experience in a store with a homey feel. For Madisonians, Shoo recently opened a location on State Street (shoostore.com).
If your giftee is the outdoorsy type more obsessed with function than fashion, the Third Ward has an answer. Clear Water Outdoor, 250 N. Water St., is an outdoor clothing and gear store offering such top brands as Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx. In addition, the store offers kayak, cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals and lessons
Wrap up a Third Ward shopping experience with a trip to Red Elephant Chocolates, 333 N. Broadway, to complete your list and pick up a tasty reward for yourself. Red Elephant specializes in handmade chocolates, including special seasonal batches, and their product is a perfect stocking stuffer
What the boundaries of Milwaukee’s “East Side” are may differ from person to person, but there’s no denying that traveling north of downtown along Lake Michigan you will find exceptional shopping opportunities. From Brady Street and North Avenue up toward Downer Avenue and Shorewood, there’s a string of businesses worth checking out.
Start with the artsy options of East Meets West, 918 E. Brady St., an Asian art, clothing, accessories and gift shop. With most of its inventory purchased by the owner in her native Thailand, the eclectic shop is packed with one-of-a-kind men’s and women’s apparel and accessories that can’t be found anywhere else in the city.
Further down Brady, you can stumble across Uncommon Items, 1316 E. Brady St. This small boutique doesn’t look like much from the street, but inside it’s stuffed with affordable women’s apparel and handcrafted jewelry, with a bohemian aesthetic
Buying for pet lovers? You won’t want to miss EcoPet, 1229 E. Brady St., a local pet shop with an emphasis on healthy treats and accessories. The shop’s offerings include dog pizza slices and smoothies, natural and organic catnip and a wide selection of affordable travel gear and accessories that the humans’ll love.
Or, if you’re buying for parents of cuddly humans instead of cuddly pets, try Little Monsters, 2445 N. Farwell Ave. This vivid little shop features quirky toys, clothing and miscellaneous other items — and it is designed more for discovering that one special gift than the latest, most on-trend sensation (littlemonstersmilwaukee.com).
Beans and Barley, 1901 E. North Ave., is best known for its restaurant and deli, but its adjacent specialty market is an out-of-the-box option for loved ones. Plus, while you’re browsing through Beans and Barley’s selection of natural bath and body care items, magazines and books, and food and wine options, you might find something for yourself to take home! (beansandbarley.com)
Still looking for one last thing? That’s exactly what Shorewood’s Mod Gen, 2107 E. Capitol Drive, is for. Around since 2001 as the Garden Room, Mod Gen recently rebranded as a 21st-century general store, expanding to offer more books, home goods, specialty foods, toys and more. (modgenmke.com)
Bay View isn’t just where Milwaukee 30-somethings go to settle down. It’s also a great place for Milwaukeeans of all kinds to find unusual, hip gifts for their artistic and adventurous friends, and the influx of residents to the area over the past few years has come with a similar influx of high-quality businesses.
Take Sparrow Collective, 2224 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., as an example of the Bay View aesthetic you can find all along KK Avenue and its tributaries. The artistic consignment store, established in 2009 after similar shops shut their doors, features handcrafted art, jewelry and decor by individual artists and groups — and a lot more of it than you’d think from the modest facade.
But not every Bay View gift destination is a new addition. Rush Mor Records, 2635 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., is Milwaukee’s oldest record store, founded in 1971. It’s also still an essential a place to shop for vinyl lovers, fresh off an exterior makeover earlier this year and packed with music from across every genre and era. (rushmor.com)
If it’s old clothes instead of old records you have in mind, you’re in luck. Bay View’s an antiques, vintage and thrift store hub, with more options than we can list. One of the more established choices is Tip Top Atomic Shop, 2343 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., a kitschy treasure trove of vintage clothing and household goods that’s a retro aficionado’s dream.
You seldom go wrong gifting a good book, which makes Bay View Books and Music, 2653 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., a must-browse stop. The store is one of Milwaukee’s few old-timey, claustrophobic-in-the-best-way shops not to either close or relocate in the past few years. The shop stocks a healthy assortment of records and DVDs, too. Bonus: The entrance bleeds seamlessly into R Vintage N More, an overstuffed furniture and antique mall that shares the space with the bookstore.
Wrap up the gift hunt with one of the best-smelling places in Milwaukee: Halo Soap, 2227 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. This storefront owned by soapmaker Stacie Cherubini stocks handmade soaps, bath bombs, skin care products and more. Technically, you can also buy any of Halo’s products online, but that’s a terrible, unscented decision. (halosoap.com)