With the tremendous growth of online and “big box” commerce in recent years, Main Streets across America have struggled to retain a broad selection of shopping opportunities. Many formerly diverse central business districts – if they have not dissipated altogether – have now found themselves dominated by one or very few retail sectors. While the retail mix in downtown Ithaca, New York has shifted and evolved over time, the Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall and the rest of the small city’s walkable urban core continues to support a large number of desirable commercial niches. Indeed, nowhere else in the region can one find such a vibrant assortment of well-represented retail clusters.
Downtown Ithaca is especially well-known for its wealth of art and craft stores, making it a favorite locale among locals and tourists alike for shopping for holidays and special occasions. Locally handmade items can be found at stores like Handwork, 15 Steps, and The Potter’s Room, while Diaspora, Ten Thousand Villages, and Titus Gallery specialize in unusual crafts from all around the world. Fine art galleries like Sola Gallery and State of the Art enhance the scene tremendously, as do antique stores like Pastimes and The Vintage Industry.
One of the Ithaca Commons’s best-loved gift stores is American Crafts by Robbie Dein, which has showcased work of the country’s finest artisans in pottery, art, glass, wood, jewelry, and fiber since 1972. Says Dein, “Downtown Ithaca has always been supportive of ‘Handmade in America’ as well as the effort, commitment, and creativity that are part and parcel of living the life of the artist and following one’s heartfelt passions. Handmade American crafts represent the very fabric of our lives and our culture, and we are thankful to be a part of the fabric of life in Ithaca.”
Bibliophiles will also find downtown Ithaca to be an excellent place to browse and shop. The shopping district plays host to the area’s only community-owned cooperative bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, as well as several other purveyors of new and used books, including The Bookery, Colophon Books, and Autumn Leaves, which boasts 60,000 volumes, 40,000 records, and a pirate-themed café all under one roof. Downtown Ithaca IS also home to a Christian Science Reading Room, which sells the Christian Science Monitor and a selection of religious texts.
Comics for Collectors is downtown Ithaca’s pop-culture destination, offering new and limited edition comics, graphic novels, and memorabilia to an ever-growing fan base. Says owner Tim Gray, “Comics are often thought of as kid’s stuff but in recent decades they have found a huge following, including many professors and other highly-educated people. They are drawn here because Comics for Collectors provides more than just comics – we also have a deep commitment to the community. We have always been at the forefront of the pop-culture scene in Ithaca, ever since the founding of our local comic club and convention over 35 years ago.”
A smaller but reemerging retail sector in downtown Ithaca is clothing, jewelry, and accessories. While this category faces fierce competition from national retailers, the recent Downtown Ithaca Fashion Show proved that there is apparel here to fit every taste, style, and budget. The Art and Found, Petrune, and Fibers Boutique represent the work of local designers, while Loose Threads, Avanti, and Evolution 102 offer up eclectic contemporary fashion. Trader K’s buys and sells gently used clothing for all ages, and Sheldon Hill offers affordable and elegant vintage jewelry from 1880 to 1980.
Benjamin Peters on the Commons is downtown’s source for fine menswear and shoes for both sexes. Says owner Peter Parkes, “We have recently seen a significant trend towards ‘dressing up’. Men today value their personal style, and women appreciate the fact that styles have changed, as well. Trends towards slim-fit suits and coats, flat-front pants, and tailored shirts have made men’s fashion relevant again. The Downtown Ithaca Fashion Show also opened shoppers’ eyes to layered looks with colored vests, sweaters, and scarves.”
Local gourmands can stop in at F. Oliver’s and pick up some amazing olive oil and balsamic vinegar and add some wines and ciders from the Cellar D’Or or Sam’s Wines and Spirits. What’s a gift basket without chocolate? You can pick some up from Life’s So Sweet, Sarah’s Patisserie, or 15 Steps. And where’s the cheese? Ithaca Coffee Company or Collegetown Bagels can get you what you need. You can also get growlers from Ithaca Coffee or Bandwagon, and then head to Now You’re Cooking for cooking accessories to put it all together.
For children of all ages, Alphabet Soup in Center Ithaca has imaginative toys, puzzles, games and books. The Cat’s Pajamas in the Dewitt Mall has great toys, puzzles, clothing, and fun things that make everyone happy. Jillian’s Drawers at Center Ithaca has toys, baby carriers, shoes, and many wonderful accessories for parents. Bloom has sustainable clothing for children and parents and toys to boot. Going to Life’s So Sweet Chocolates at 116 West Green Street is like going to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with nostalgic candies, truffles, jellies, and every other type of confection plus an old-fashioned soda fountain.
Among downtown Ithaca’s over 50 independent retailers are also a number of home décor stores; fine jewelers; new and vintage musical instrument shops; and outdoor recreation and sporting goods stores. Downtown Ithaca additionally boasts a full-service pharmacy; a fine florist that has been in business since 1894; an art supply store that also serves as an exhibition and education space; and two stores that sell fine fabrics, knitting yarns, and sewing machines.
Explains Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “The retail niches of downtown are a treasure for our community. Nowhere else in the area will people find this assortment of boutique shops in the downtown setting. These niches – art and craft stores, books, clothing, jewelry and accessories, children’s clothing and toys, and gourmet specialty foods – they differentiate downtown Ithaca from area strip malls and shopping centers.”