Bargain-hunting in Stillwater
In this St. Croix river town, shops harbor all kinds of treasures.
© Beth Gauper
Shoppers stroll past gift shops on Stillwater's Main Street.
When spring is a tease and days are gray, only one sport always comes through: Shopping.
And where better to shop than Stillwater? The little village on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River has a Main Street that’s chockablock with antiques, books and bibelots from around the globe, filling every inch of storefronts once occupied by the blacksmiths and haberdashers and apothecaries of the logging era.
In summer, its streets are clogged with tourists, out to enjoy the riverside ambiance as well as the merchandise (See
Summer in Stillwater).
But in March, my friend Jean and I discovered, Stillwater becomes a candy shop for bargain-hunters.
One Saturday, we cruised right downtown and took one of many free parking places next to the river — that was a big treat right there.
Signs hung on Main Street shops: Huge sale. 40 percent off everything. Clearance. It was the off season, but we guessed that
gift shops also were suffering in the shaky economy.
Whether you can afford to buy or not, it's still fun to look at all of the shiny wares. At the 45 Degrees outdoors store, I almost bought an ingenious set of Orikaso folding camping dishes, $15. All the hats and gloves were 40 percent off, so I did buy a fleece cap, $14.50.
Easter goods were 10 percent off at Alfresco, a lovely housewares shop in a sun-filled corner building with high ceilings,
and I admired the colorful textiles and rugs from Company C.
We made a beeline for the Luna Rossa coffee shop when we saw the "Gelato'' sign in its window, but it was still closed for
Next to Luna Rossa Trattoria, we went into the Grand Garage, where Otter Shoes had cool Patagonia sneakers on sale. And next door, Ethel's was having an 85 percent off sale.
Proprietor Ethel Larson was celebrating her 85th birthday, still on top of her game. Her shop stocks elegant but exotic clothing, the kind an artist might wear to an opening, and we asked if the typical staid Minnesotan finds enough occasions to wear it.
"People should expect more "wows!'' in their lives,'' she said, not missing a beat. "You just have to go out into the world and say, 'Look you lucky people, here I am.' ''
She offered us a cup of Black Box shiraz with cheese and crackers, and as we admired her filmy silk dresses and sleek shirts, she chatted with us. But her ear still was cocked for other customers, with whom she also chatted; it was a pleasure to see a consummate saleswoman at work.
© Beth Gauper
Shops in historic storefronts line Main Street.
Walking down Main Street, we stopped at the K„the Wohlfahrt Christmas store, the only U.S. branch of the famous shop in Rothenburg, Germany. It was full of hand-carved wood ornaments and other hard-to-find items, such as the lighted wood cutouts called Schwibbogens.
In the window of Alesci Furniture Gallery, we spotted beautiful woven table runners, and proprietor Steve Zahren said they came from a local weaver working with Peruvian weavers. We also loved the clean lines of his Mission furniture.
"I could take anything in there and be happy with it,'' Jean said.
There are more gifts and gear in Stillwater shops than anyone can see in one afternoon. But Stillwater is best known for antiques.
On an October trip, Jean found the best prices at Country Charm Antiques on Main Street, where she bought a sterling silver and topaz ring for $28.
"I used to make jewelry, so I knew that's a really good price,'' she said.
At Stillwater Antiques Mall, she was pleased with a $10 china bowl with a violet pattern and would have bought a paisley wool
scarf, but it had a frayed edge, and the dealer at the counter couldn't give her a discount.
The antiques malls house the wares of many dealers, who take turns selling their fellow dealers' wares. Sometimes, they'll
give a discount, and sometimes they won't.
On a January trip to Stillwater, I shopped with my friend Sandy, guided by the spirit of Sandy’s late, antiques-loving mother.
“She’d always say, ‘Pretend you don’t like it and walk away, or offer $5,’ ” Sandy said. And did it work?
“Yes! She got all kinds of crazy and wonderful things,'' she said. "I wish I’d listened to her
At Midtown Antiques Mall, we asked D.J. Smith, one of the 80 dealers, how he feels about lowball offers.
“You can make an offer, and we’ll call the dealer,’’ he said. “Or we won’t call, if it’s an insult. Then we’re not going to call the dealer, and we’re not going to talk to you.’’
Oh. But what if I happened to know the piece had been sitting there for months?
“Then I’d say, ‘Let’s send it home with you, let’s move it on out,’ ’’ he said.
At Stillwater Antiques, we both coveted a cream cashmere cardigan with mink stole, $85, and Sandy nearly bought a framed
lithograph of African animals, also $85.
© Beth Gauper
At the north end of Main Street, the old Isaac Staples sawmill now houses dozens of antiques dealers.
On the north end of Main Street, we roamed the three levels of Staples Mill Antiques, in lumber baron Isaac Staples’
1853 stone sawmill.
There, a dealer was liquidating her business and sold me a wrought-iron plant stand with four glass shelves, $45. When I admired a $342 Roseville freesia vase, she offered me a steep discount on that, too.
We didn’t spend more than $50 on anything on our little getaway. And we saw only a tiny portion of Stillwater’s antiques: There’s just way, way too much.
But we’d had fun imagining these beautiful things on our own walls and shelves, and we’d had conversations with
interesting people. We’d seen our childhood playthings sheathed in protective plastic and remembered our distant
In one antiques shop, Sandy fondly fingered a mink coat that was like one her mother wore.
“I remember when she came home from parties smelling of smoke and perfume,’’ she said. “It’s like a Proustian experience, where the madeleine sends him off into his memories. Maybe that’s why we do this.’’
Trip Tips: Shopping in Stillwater
Parking: It's free for four hours in many lots along Lowell Park (the riverfront). The lots behind the Freight House restaurant and south of Brick Alley are free until May 1.
Shopping: In winter and spring, sale prices may not be marked; ask if you like something. Look for deals until the
tourist season goes into gear with the Rivertown Art Festival in May.
Antiques shops: On Main Street,
Midtown Antiques Mall, Stillwater Antiques Mall, Country Charm Antiques, Our Antiques and St. Croix Antiquarian Booksellers
are open daily, as is Staples Antique Mall on the north end of Main Street.
Most antiques dealers will give a 10 percent discount if asked. At the consortiums, dealers take turns selling each
other’s goods and may be reluctant to give bigger discounts. But it can’t hurt to ask.
Accommodations: Six Victorian inns are members of the Stillwater B&B Association. Girlfriends may like the Water Street Inn downtown, which has many rooms with Murphy beds as well as queen beds. It's well-located, between Main Street and the river, but it can get noisy on summer weekends.
On weekends in March, some Stillwater inns take part in the Chocolate March, hosted by members of the St. Croix River Valley
Bed and Breakfast Inns.
Dining: At lunch, Leo's offers a sunny corner window onto downtown and serves burgers and malts. Brine's is a little
dark but is one of downtown's oldest businesses.
On the north stretch of Main Street, the River Market coop has a fine deli.
Attractions: For more, see Summer in Stillwater.
Information: Stillwater tourism, 651-351-1717.
Last updated on January 1, 2012
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.