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Austin: Shopping

Visitors to Austin don't really come for the shopping, but the opportunistic shopper can be rewarded with some wonderful discoveries. Folk art, arts and crafts, music, books -- these are the areas where Austin excels. And it's got the rest of the world of material goods pretty well covered, too. As for the shopping experience, I think most will enjoy the helpfulness and lack of artifice shown by salespersons here.

The Shopping Scene

What follows is s brief description of where the most "Austintatious" shopping can be found. Specialty shops in Austin tend to open around 9 or 10am, Monday through Saturday, and close at about 5:30 or 6pm, and many have Sunday hours from noon to 6pm. Malls tend to keep the same Sunday schedule, but Monday through Saturday they don't close their doors until 9pm. Sales tax in Austin is 8.25%.

Downtown -- Most shops are located along several blocks of East Sixth, along Congress Ave., and along West Second, one block off Congress in a nascent shopping area that extends for just two or three blocks. If the weather is agreeable, this is an easy area to cover on foot and a good spot for window shopping. Specialty stores include apparel, interior design, music paraphernalia, hot sauce, and folk art.

South Congress -- Just across the river from downtown begins the SoCo shopping area. Most of the shops are on South Congress, and the majority of these are located up the hill, in a stretch running from the 1400 block to the 2500 block. On the first Thursday of every month they sponsor a street festival with music and other forms of street entertainment. Shops include art galleries, boutiques, bargain antiques stores, and clothing and folk art shops. There are also shops scattered along South Lamar, but they are not concentrated enough to allow for window shopping, and South Lamar isn't as interesting or as easy to navigate as South Congress.

North Lamar -- Just west of downtown (you could almost call it downtown but not quite), in the vicinity of where Fifth and Sixth streets cross Lamar Boulevard, you have a high concentration of one-of-a-kind shops extending for one or two blocks in any direction. The shops continue, scattered along both sides of Lamar northwards up to 12th street. You'll find music, books, clothing, food -- all the necessities, plus a lot of extravagance, too. It's a mixture of chic, quirky, folksy, and artsy. Located here is Whole Foods's flagship store.

North Lamar and 38th Street -- From this intersection, going either north on Lamar or West on 38th Street (where it curves south and becomes 35th Street), within a few blocks there is serious shopping. On Lamar you'll find the shopping center where Central Market's flagship food store is located, surrounded by specialty shops selling cameras, paper goods, cosmetics, pottery, and books. West on 38th are two small shopping centers that host exclusive and specialty stores: 26 Doors and Jefferson Square.

The Drag -- Bordering the university on Guadalupe Street is a stretch of stores selling mostly hip apparel to students: boutiques, beads, books, and an open-air area where hippies sell jewelry, tie-dyed shirts, and such, which for some reason has always had the name Renaissance Market.

Northwest -- There is no lack of malls in Austin. In the northwest, three upscale shopping centers, The Arboretum, The Arboretum Market, and The Gateway complex (consisting of the Gateway Courtyard, the Gateway Market, and Gateway Square) have earned the area the nickname "South Dallas."

South of Austin -- Bargain hunters go farther afield to the huge collections of factory outlet stores in San Marcos and New Braunfels; see chapter 19 for details.

First Thursdays

As if there wasn't already enough street theater in Austin, the merchants on South Congress Avenue decided a few years back to start hosting a monthly street festival. They began keeping their doors open late and providing food, drinks, and, entertainment on the first Thursday of every month. Soon impromptu open-air markets sprang up, and jugglers, drum circles, and of course live bands performed indoors, outdoors, and in between.

First Thursdays have become quite popular for their mix of shopping, entertainment, people watching, and the surprise factor -- you never know what you're going to meet up with. It's also a way for locals to celebrate the near end of the work week. The street festival occupies about 8 blocks along both sides of South Congress. Traffic along the avenue is not cordoned off, but everyone drives slowly because of the crowds crisscrossing the avenue. It starts around 6pm and runs until about 10pm. To find out more, check www.firstthursday.info.

Shopping A to Z

Antiques -- In addition to the one-stop antiques markets listed on the site, a number of smaller shops line Burnet Road north of 45th Street.

Art Galleries -- It's not exactly SoHo, but the area just northwest of the Capitol and south of the University of Texas -- specifically, the block bounded by Guadalupe and Lavaca to the west and east and 17th and 18th streets to the south and north -- has a large concentration of galleries. They include the group clustered in the Guadalupe Arts Building, 1705 Guadalupe; D. Berman, next door at 1701 Guadalupe; and Women & Their Work Gallery .

Bookstores -- As might be expected, there are a couple of bookstores in the University of Texas area, on the Drag. The University Co-Op, 2244 Guadalupe St. (tel. 512/476-7211; www.coop-bookstore.com; five other smaller outlets), opened in 1896, has many volumes of general interest, along with the requisite orange-and-white Longhorn T-shirts, mugs, and other UT souvenirs. Also, there is the new Follett's Intellectual Property at 2402 Guadalupe St. (tel. 512/478-0007).

For a good selection of used and remaindered books, check out Half-Price Books at 5555 N. Lamar Blvd. (tel. 512/451-4463; www.halfpricebooks.com; four other locations); it also carries CDs, cassettes, DVDs, and videos.

Food -- Through no more cause than historical accident, Austin has become the new frontier of grocery shopping -- grocery shopping as aesthetic experience. And the two entities that are busy at work pushing the envelope are Whole Foods and Central Market. Both were born in Austin, and both have a vision of ravishing displays of fresh produce, gourmet foods, wines, and delicacies from around the world. I am told by the folks at the tourism office that both of these stores are among the most popular tourist attractions in the city, and I don't doubt it for a minute.

But for sheer ease of use, and for its being a countercultural artifact, there's Austin's own community grocery store, Wheatsville Food Co-op at 3101 Guadalupe St. (tel. 512/478-2667). It's owned and operated by its members, but anyone can shop there. They make the maximum use of their limited floor space, including a good selection of beer and wine and a deli, and have excellent service. Unlike the stores of the future, you're in and out of this one in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

Austin also has an abundance of farmers' markets. Perhaps the most notable of them, Austin Farmers' Market, held downtown at Republic Square Park, Fourth Street at Guadalupe, every Saturday from 9am to 1pm March through November (tel. 512/236-0074), not only features food products but also live music, cooking demonstrations, kids' activities, and workshops on everything from organic gardening to aromatherapy.

South Congress Organic Farmers' Market, held Saturday from 8am to 1pm in the parking lot of El Gallo Restaurant, 2910 S. Congress Ave. (tel. 512/281-4712), is smaller, but you've got the guarantee that all the goods are locally grown without chemicals.

In north central Austin you'll find Travis County Farmers' Market, 6701 Burnet Rd. (tel. 512/454-1002), which hosts monthly festivals honoring particular crops and/or growing seasons. It also boasts three restaurants, a bakery, a store selling country-primitive antiques, and long hours; open from 8am to 6pm daily.

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