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Where Shopping Gets Personal

Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page H01

In this hectic holiday season, driving through mega-mall parking lots searching for a space or lining up at dawn in hopes of snagging a coveted "YMCA Elmo" can push us all closer to mercantile meltdown.

Oh, for a day that transports us to quaint little Main Streets lined with gaily-decorated specialty emporia where we can, literally, press our noses against the window to see the objects of desire within. Oh, for a day of soaking up a bit of history between purchases, or ducking into a little cafe for some slow food and perhaps a glass of wine before returning to the fray. Oh, for a day of revisiting some of our local museums, and finding gift possibilities from Tokyo or Togo. Better yet, a place where we could ditch the car and take it all in at our own pace, savoring the season.

Shoppers stroll Maryland Avenue in Annapolis. (Photo Craig Herndon for The Washington Post)

As Tom Lehrer, the inimitable satirist, once sang: "Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy."


Annapolis virtually oozes history. The statehouse -- which sits majestically atop a hill overlooking the harbor -- was where George Washington resigned as commander of the Continental Army six years before becoming president. And Maryland's capital still boasts an impressive concentration of Colonial-era buildings, some of which are open to the public.

But Annapolis is also a contemporary center for shopping, dining and leisurely strolling.

Most visitors head for the City Dock at the base of Main Street for a scenic glimpse of the boats bobbing in Spa Creek. A number of classy home decor, craft and clothing stores share Main with schlocky souvenir shops. Think $10 Naval Academy skivvies and $3 Chesapeake Bay shot glasses.

For tasteful and original local creations, hit the League of Maryland Craftsmen (216 Main St.; 410-626-1277) for handmade pottery, model ships, glass, sculpture, photography and jewelry. Don't miss ceramist Richard Ashburn's stoneware, which features lifelike blue crabs (small cheese keepers, $77; large hanging platters, $235).

Many locals prefer the quaint shops of Maryland Avenue -- which runs from State Circle to the Naval Academy -- for china, crystal, sterling and silver plate, picture frames, linens, lingerie, clothing, books, kids' stuff, art, even tobacco. Some sell only new things, others antique and vintage. The owners are a cheery, eclectic (even eccentric) lot who complain they've been overlooked by tourists.

My own recent ramble started at the midpoint of the street, at the Wise Willow Children's Book and Toy Shop (37 Maryland Ave.; 410-267-0100), which is 60 percent reading matter and 40 percent toys: European puppets, puzzles and assorted creative playthings. Haba's T.C. Timber wooden blocks, for example, come in such global architectural styles as Mayan temple, Japanese pagoda, Egyptian pyramid and the U.S. Capitol ($30 to $45). Stocking stuffers include $4.75 origami kits, and that perennial fave, 50-cent cellophane fortune-telling fish. For wee ones try "A Child's Book of Art: Great Pictures, First Words" at $17: Van Gogh's bed is in the furniture section, Rousseau's tiger in the animal chapter, natch.

Goode Stuffe Antiques and Dolls (49 Maryland Ave.; 410-280-0201) is one of those treasure troves crammed with antiques and collectibles, from pop culture artifacts, such as Howdy Doody and Clarabell washcloth mitts, $5 each (used, no less) to gotta-have holiday ornaments: $4 and $5 for mid-century modern examples up to three figures for rare, early Victorian pieces. Sterling candlesticks are $60 and up per pair, while $295 buys a Mission umbrella stand. But, oh, the vintage costume jewelry. There is enough bling bling to accessorize a gaggle of inaugural ballgoers.

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