Shopping It Up in Austin
I’m standing in a narrow path, flanked on all sides by shelves of antiques of all shapes and sizes. It’s cool and dim inside Uncommon Objects, the place to browse for antiques along Austin’s South Congress Avenue. What’s caught my eye here is a gigantic iron heart, probably at least three feet by four feet, hanging on display. Covering every surface of this wall hanging are tiny plates, each a votive holder. My eyes are wide, picturing this huge sculpture aflame with tens of flickering white candles, all glowing feverishly in a heart shape at the center of my living room wall. It’s $200 and ridiculously impractical, and worse yet, I have no means of transporting it home on the plane.
I’m already holding a vintage doorknob in one hand and a set of old postcards in another. The heart will have to stay. For the third time that day, I curse the fact I’m not a local.
Austin is one of my favorite cities anywhere, and South Congress is one of the main reasons why. From antique emporiums such as Uncommon Objects to funky duds at Electric Ladyland, the street’s offerings just defy categorization.
When shopping on South Congress, I usually head to Uncommon first. It’s a good starting point to exploring the available wares along the street before heading downtown or grabbing a bite. And with all its offerings, it provides a good benchmark for comparing prices among merchants—and also serves as an emporium for the unusual, historic, and just damn cool.
“My love affair with Uncommon Objects began the first time I walked in and saw the coolest vintage movie poster in a large antique frame,” Austin resident and fellow shopper, Stephanie McGill, told me. “It was of the movie, Giant, and, like any good treasure, it was hidden in the back of the store. I felt it was just waiting for me to find it. And when I did, I just had to have it! Since then, I have found many other hidden treasures in Uncommon Objects, from antique lamps and silver vases to picture frames, glassware, and even jewelry.”
My favorite element of this store is how its quirky and offbeat items suddenly seem ideal, long-lost, and perfectly normal. The wares jostle together on shelves and wall hangings, with colors popping and textures inviting hands, all catching the eye. Why wouldn’t I want to hang that fifty-year-old optometrist’s eye chart in my kitchen, or bring back that antique typewriter to furnish my office? This pinup calendar from the 1940s would be a great conversation piece; that vintage cowboy shirt the ideal piece for my fall wardrobe …
I usually find it’s a matter of picking and choosing, and lamenting the (small) size of my apartment. If I ever do get a whole house of my own, Uncommon will be furnishing a good chunk of it.
“I think what makes the store unique is not just what they carry, but how the place makes you feel,” says McGill. “When you walk in, you are simply transported into another world—one where a crazy mix of stuff all seems to go together and it’s fun and different. The name of the store says it all!”
Start shopping: 1512 S. Congress Ave., open daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m. Take a virtual tour and get directions at UncommonObjects.com.
It’s good to recycle—and especially so with clothes! Check out New Bohemia, one of the best places to find vintage clothing in a town that’s known for its consignment shops. Bargain hunters first get accosted on the sidewalk, where there are usually a few racks of clothes demanding attention. Whether it’s an irresistibly soft summer camp T-shirt, a killer pair of jeans, or a sparkly formal top, they’re usually selected with care, and are sure to lure you inside.
Once in the store, you may feel as if you’ve stopped by a friend’s house—if your friend ransacked her parents’, aunt’s, and grandparents’ attics, then hastily hung all the offerings out for the taking. You’ll have to sort here, but it’s worth it. I love looking through the prom dresses from decades past, their industrial polyester staying stiff for the ages; trying on aviator jackets with sherpa collars offering faint hints of mothballs and cigarettes; and attempting to pick just one clutch purse, dazzled by the selection. And don’t pass by the extras: there’s always a wide selection of old patches to dress up your jeans, funky buttons, and great belts.
Start shopping: 1606 S. Congress Ave., open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In the “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” category, Therapy offers fashion, accessories, and chocolate all under one roof! Genius owner Jyl Kutsche knows how to appeal to her demographic—if the great fabrics, cool designs, and flattering cuts don’t get you coming back for more, the chocolate certainly will. And if things weren’t already good enough with that triumvirate, Kutsche is dedicated to sustainable/eco-friendly and fair-labor companies, so you can purchase many of the store’s pieces with an even clearer conscience.
Look for designers such as Betty Belts, Maitlands, Puella, and Kutsche herself for the clothes, and Ithaca, Lake Champlain, and Vosges for the chocolates.
Start shopping: 1113 S. Congress Ave., open 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Visit TherapyClothing.com for a preview tour.
Many head to Florence, Italy, for a new leather jacket, or Ireland for the warmest wool sweaters. Naturally, Texas is known for the best, most authentic cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and other Western gear. And in Austin, Allen’s Boots is the place to go for the perfect pair.
A fixture on South Congress for more than twenty-five years, Allen’s sells boots from brands including Frye, Old Gringo, and Corral. They also stock plenty of jeans, hats (including Stetsons), Western shirts, and jewelry. Whether you want just a standard pair of brown leather boots, or fancier ones with lacing and embroidery, they’ll have them here. I’ve had my eye on a pair of chestnut-brown Frye’s for awhile now. Maybe next time I go to Austin I’ll finally get them.
Start shopping: 1522 S. Congress Ave., open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. See the wares online at AllensBoots.com.
Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds/Electric Ladyland
If you’ve passed the rooftop zebra dressed like Carmen Miranda, you’ve gone too far: Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds and Electric Ladyland (two stores in one) are not for the faint of heart. This emporium of the unusual and offbeat offers costumes and vintage threads for the woman who wants to be noticed. No wallflowers need stop by here (unless you want an actual flower costume)—these outfits will guarantee the command of any room, from holiday bashes and cocktail parties to disco-ball lit nightclubs.
In business since April Fool’s Day, 1984, the store spans more than 8,000 square feet (that’s a lot of costumes) in the center of South Congress street. Costumes are available for both rental and purchase. And if the outfits aren’t enough, stop by the Party Room to make the ensemble complete. Possibilities include twenty types of hairspray (choose from black lite, multicolored glitter, and purple), Abe Lincoln beards and fake goatees, and all kinds of wigs, among other amusements.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
Start shopping: 1506 S. Congress Ave., open generally 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., see the store Web site for full details.
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