Christmas shopping in Fells Point has its advantages, prime among them is the lack of muzak—no saccharine holiday tunes piped through speakers every single solitary second (including the bathrooms in, say, the mall) to manipulate your mood into narrow compliance with the merry, merry.
And here's what I notice: Without the "cheer" soundtrack, people actually talk to you. Bored shopkeepers, curious patrons, meandering tourists squeezed into the often-tiny shops want to engage in a pass-the-time and maybe-learn-something kind of way. Add this to the element of discovery as you wander the cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, and the tedium of shopping expands, somewhat, beyond mere commercial exchange into an exploration of quirky products, backstories, politics, and the economy.
Inside Katwalk (1709 Aliceanna St.,  669-0600), browsing through the racks of blouses, I notice a curious basket of menstrual products, boxes of tampons and pads overflowing a shelf. The clerk explains that the "Goodie Girl Bags" are part of a donation drive to get women in homeless or domestic-violence shelters some of the costly sanitary protections products they need, monthly. "Nobody thinks about that part of things," she tells me and we chat briefly, in a "personal is political" vein wondering why these pricey products still aren't considered necessities by those government agencies doling out assistance.
Down on Thames Street, merchants and restaurant owners are talking about the construction of Sagamore's new hotel on the Recreation Pier, lamenting the loss of business while the chaos and noise of building keeps customers away. Sagamore Development bought the old waterfront building and pier for a song—$3.4 million—in 2014 and put $60 million into the building, which is slated to open in February, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. Still, some merchants take the long view: Maybe this 128-room luxury hotel, the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, will eventually give business a bump.
Just across the street from the hotel, Sagamore Development is creating a collection of shops. The sign is in place, "Sagamore, Shop on Thames," but so far, a clerk at The Treason tells me, they are the only Sagamore-affiliated shop open yet. With an investment from Sagamore, the Treason (treasontotingco.com) has opened up a small manufacturing space in Sagamore-owned City Garage (101 W. Dickman St.), which houses several small entrepreneurs. The canvas and leather backpacks, duffel bags and wallets are exquisitely crafted, named after local streets—The Charles backpack, The Chase backpack, etc.—and cost a pretty penny, some running as high as $225. The plan, a clerk tells me, is for Treason to produce dopp kits for all of the hotel rooms across the street, hopefully seducing the charmed guests into seeking out other Treason products.
Shopkeepers in Fells Point like the origin stories of their products, the backstory that moves into the forefront—and the nearby Emporium Collagia (1732 Thames St.,  534-5340, emporiumcollagia.com) is no different. Owner/artist Luana Kaufmann, whose business card describes her as "collagist of found imagery, purveyor of fine goods," talks me through her quirky collection of curiosities: the finely-crafted necklaces made of real quail eggs and snips of thorn ($32), the toy soldiers doing yoga ($5), the dense wooden coasters salvaged from bits of Atlantic City Boardwalk seasoned by sea air and salt ($99 for a set of four), the "mug" shot glasses of Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, etc. ($3). This is the kind of teeny-tiny shop that you can fall into for an hour, exploring or flipping through reprints of period literature, like the 1811 children's book called "The Cowslip or More Cautionary Stories in Verse," which in a poem called The Crying Child advises that, "A rod is the very best thing to apply/ When Children are crying, and cannot tell why:/ Unless they are babes in the cradle so young,/ That they are not yet able to speak with their tongue." Ah ha, scored! I think, knowing this is the perfect stocking stuffer for my college-aged son who spent his adolescence kvetching about my far more laissez-faire parenting.
From there I go to Sheep's Clothing (1620 Shakespeare St.,  327-2222), off-the-beaten-track on mostly residential Shakespeare Street, to hear more "origins" stories from the owner behind the counter, about the hand-made woolens he travels to Ireland and Wales to buy, how the weavers and spinners pass down their skills, how he buys now from the same sons and daughters of those master craftsmen he purchased from in '80s.
A block away, back on Thames, Ten Thousand Villages (1621 Thames St.,  342-5568, tenthousandvillages.com) prints the origin stories of products on each tiny tag, thanking customers for purchasing and "enabling a significant and growing number of third world artisans to knit, stitch, and weave their way to a better quality of life." Lots of good kiddie things in this shop, from knitted finger puppets ($4.50) to make-your-own-chewing-gum kits ($15)—and children get a lesson in "chicle," the sap of the Sapadilla tree from the rainforests of Central America and how this is a product of the "chicleros" who used machetes to cut the trees and drain sap, creating something they could sell while not harming the trees or the rainforests.
And I learn all this from chatting with clerks and merchants, which makes the whole Fells Point excursion a meandering reflection on everything from menstrual products to corporate development to sheep-shearing to child-rearing methods to chewing gum. These thoughts do not occur to me at the mall. (Karen Houppert)
Make Your Own Chewing Gum ($15), Ten Thousand Villages, 1621 Thames St., (410) 342-5568, tenthousandvillages.com
Atilla Boot by Austrilia Luxe ($450), Katwalk Boutique, 1709 Aliceanna St., (410) 669-0600, facebook.com/KatwalkFashionShowroom
Plush Rocket ($19.99), Gorilla King, 1711 Aliceanna St., (410) 327-0181, gorillakingcomics.com
Golden Girls Pop Vinyls ($10.99 each), Gorilla King, 1711 Aliceanna St., (410) 327-0181, gorillakingcomics.com
Umo Lorenzo Cufflink ($52) 16 Sixteen Cap ($40) Angel Park Men's Clothing, 1707 Aliceanna St, (410) 669-0600, facebook.com/AngelParkBoutique
"Bait: Off‑Color Stories for You to Color" by Chuck Palahniuk ($19.99), Gorilla King, 1711 Aliceanna St., (410) 327-0181, gorillakingcomics.com
Scarf ($74) and cap from Ireland ($52), Sheep's Clothing, 1620 Shakespeare St., (410) 327-2222
Arty Hat ($225) Lana Choker by Karine Sultan ($117) Louna Charm Necklace by Karine Sultan ($105) Katwalk Boutique, 1709 Aliceanna St, (410) 669-0600, facebook.com/KatwalkFashionShowroom
Bordelle Crop Top ($295) Polina's Privé, 724 S Broadway, (410) 276-0205, polinasprive.com