Shop outside the big box

By Libby Nelson, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007

So an e-mail has thunked into your inbox and there's something about a Santa Swap where you have to buy a gift for someone at work. Rats. You're really not in the mood to head out to one of the area's ginormous malls. And you're really not interested in going online and having to pay a shipping fee. So where can you go shopping to find something unique but that won't leave you feeling stressed out?

May we suggest some of the bay area's boutique shopping districts? These compact enclaves of shops and restaurants offer you a chance to explore quaint downtowns, community main streets and off-the-beaten path destinations. Most are very walkable and offer a break from the box store experience.

In each district, we've tried to point you toward several shops, along with potential stops for coffee, drinks or a meal to cap off your shopping excursion.

And if you don't see a favorite, let us know by sending an e-mail to comments@tampabay.com

Downtown St. Pete

The town formerly known as God's waiting room has turned into a heavenly destination for shoppers and foodies and may well be to St. Petersburg what the Miracle Mile of Michigan Avenue is to Chicago. Oh, okay, it's not THAT trendy, but it's better than what we had years ago when you could fire a cannonball down Central and not worry about hitting anything or anyone. On one axis is Beach Drive, which offers waterfront views in between your purchases, and on the other is Central Avenue, awash in its share of unique stores and friendly shopkeeps.

Shop at ... BayWalk (First Street and Second Avenue N) is the one-stop shopping hub of downtown St. Petersburg, with national chains like White House/Black Market. But Central, with its art galleries and eclectic shops, offers opportunities for more creative gift-giving. For foodies, Bliss Gifts and Tea Room (405 Central Ave.) sells high-quality tea blends in metal tins, and The Kitchen, next door (409 Central Ave.) has custom granolas with a variety of flavors - I liked the nutty, vaguely chocolatey "Chunky Monkey." A block west, The Florida Craftsmen Gallery (501 Central Ave.) sells works by local artists, including painting, photography and pottery, and there are home decor stores in the mix as well. The Aveda Institute (235 Third St. S) lets you give a massage, body wrap or facial. The $55 Caribbean Seaweed Body Treatment sounded intriguing.

Grab coffee ... Paciugo (300 Beach Drive) serves up the usual Italian coffee drinks, but the real star is the gelato. It's a bit of a walk from Central Avenue, but the flavors, including lilac, several varieties of chocolate and Mediterranean sea salt caramel, are well worth it. The smallest cup has three flavors; the largest, at five, is a meal in itself.

Grab a bite and a beer ... For lunch, it's hard to go wrong along Central Avenue, which caters to the business-lunch crowd downtown. Thai restaurant The King and I (455 Central Ave.) has a lunch special that includes soup and an egg roll. Sandwiches abound, including at Lonni's Sandwiches (425 Central Ave.) and the Lucky Dill Deli (277 Central Ave.). If you're closer to happy hour than to lunch, enjoy outdoor dining at the Parkshore Grille (300 Beach Drive), Ceviche (10 Beach Drive) or Moon Under Water (332 Beach Drive) along Beach. Schlep a couple of extra blocks and you'll land at Fresco's (300 Second Ave. NE) for a soothing cocktail right on the water. (Need more choices? Click here for more restaurant offerings in downtown St. Pete .)

Shopping perk ... See the Miracle Mile reference above. Oh, and did we mention all those water views?

Ybor City, Tampa

We all know it mostly as a party district by night. But long before the bars moved in, Ybor started its resurgence back in the late '80s with an eclectic mix of bookstores, record shops and artists galleries. You can still find that independent spirit in many of the businesses that open their doors long before happy hour starts.

Go shopping ... at Seventh Avenue boutiques, including vintage clothing store La France (1612 E Seventh Ave.), which stocks classic clothes, hats, handbags and shoes from the past century. Vintage dresses are priced from about $40 up. For art aficionados, Brad Cooper Gallery (1712 E Seventh Ave.) has some more affordable contemporary pieces, including sculpted mugs and blown glass vases. The Mermaid's Slipper (1911 N 19th St.) sells handmade jewelry and handbags as well as contemporary art. For those looking for something more mainstream, there's Centro Ybor, a shopping and entertainment complex with national retail chains that include Sunglass Hut, Victoria's Secret and Urban Outfitters.

Grab coffee ... at Tre Amici @The Bunker (1907 N 19th St.) First a cafe for Cuban cigar rollers, then a hangout for World War II veterans, this restored historic building now houses a sleek, modern coffee shop. A block and a half from Seventh Avenue, Tre Amici serves espresso, Italian sodas, sandwiches and salads.

Have a bite or a beer ... If you want something a little more substantial, Seventh Avenue is lined with restaurants, from hot sandwiches and pizza at Roma Pizza (1724 E Seventh Ave.) to the American-style Green Iguana (1708 E Seventh Ave.) and the upscale, Spanish-Cuban restaurant Columbia (2217 E Seventh Ave.). (Here are 24 more choices in Ybor for food and libations.)

Shopping perk ... Ybor City's parking meters are free between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the holiday season. Also, a streetcar connects Ybor City to downtown Tampa, the St. Pete Times forum, the Port of Tampa and Channelside for $1.25.


Recently named one of America's most walkable cities by RunthePlanet.com, this small community's Main Street is lined with original shops, most selling variations on the theme of home decor: antique home decor. Florida kitsch home decor. Irish home decor. Located on the northwest edge of Pinellas, it has long been known for its Scottish traditions and rich array of festivals, including its own version of Mardi Gras.

Shop at ... An Olde Feed Store (735 Railroad Ave.), which is jam-packed with treasures for those who like antiques. The store stocks lots of old china and knick-knacks, but also sells fishing gear, vinyl records and antique books. Finds included a 1950s sundial casserole dish ($45) and a fancy old phone ($25). The Painted Fish, a few blocks away (350 Main St.), has fun handmade journals covered in cardboard from boxes that once held beer or ice cream bars ($12). Kina Kouture shakes up the row of home-decor shops along Main Street with contemporary, funky boutique clothing. Pieces can be on the more expensive side - few are priced below $40 - but would be a nice accent for a holiday party.

Let's do lunch ... at Cafe Alfresco (334 Main St.), where you can munch on soups and sandwiches for prices between $6 and $10.

Grab coffee ... Kookie Krums (513 Main St.) serves up a rotation of coffees along with still-warm cookies fresh from the oven. There's nowhere to sit in the store, but Main Street is lined with benches. The store also sells cookie bouquets and small gifts that would make good stocking stuffers.

For a bite and a beer ... Casa Tina Mexican Grill (369 Main St.) serves vegetarian-friendly Mexican favorites. Full entrees run about $15, but tacos and burritos are less expensive. Bring in a bottle of hot sauce that isn't Tabasco sauce, and you get one drink on the house. If you want more, the Chic-a-Boom Room at Kelly's (319 Main St.) has happy hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Shopping perk ... The Pinellas Trail intersects downtown Dunedin, so if you want to get your shopping done and get in some nice exercise, get that bike carrier hooked up and head out.


This small beach community at the southern tip of Pinellas County has but just one block of it's "main street," which is Eighth Avenue, but it packs a nice little punch.

Shop at ... On the way to the heart of Pass-a-Grille, make a quick stop right past the Don CeSar at the Nancy Markoe Gallery, where you'll find artistic, but functional, everyday items, such as kitchen ware and journals. Once you get to Eighth Avenue, make gift shop Bamboozle one of your stops. It sells clothing, sandals and shoes. The clothing can cost on the higher end -- a pair of fanciful leather sandals cost more than $100 - but the store also has cheaper, beachy gifts, including handmade wine glasses with sea creatures on the stems for $26. Comfort and Joy Gifts (808 Pass-a-Grille Way), sells fresh produce from the porch and homemade jams, jellies and baked goods, as well as work by local artists. For a very special - if very expensive - gift, Evander Preston's artisan jewelry at the gallery that bears his name (106 Eighth Ave.) is a sight to behold. But beware: You have to ring to get in, so serious buyers only. Previous clients have included Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Buffet.

Grab lunch ... The Seahorse Restaurant (800 Pass-a-Grille Way) serves lunch and brunch. Mozaic restaurant has sandwiches and tapas in the $5-$8 range. If you go, check out the salmon wontons ($7).

Grab coffee ... Paradise Sweets (709 Gulf Way) sells ice cream, candy and coffees. For a real break from shopping, get it to go and walk across the street to the beach.

For a bite and a beer ... The beach's mainstays include the Hurricane (809 Gulf Way), which is known for its seafood and its third-story sunset views, and the the Black Palm (109 Eighth Ave.), which is a bit pricier, serving a Caribbean-Southern fusion.

Shopping perk ... Uh, hello?! Can you say 70-degree temps and a beautiful sunset?


These planned communities north of Tampa are organized around shiny new neighborhood shopping centers. While many are filled with services like dry cleaners, some have a nice complement of boutiques. We checked out West Park Village and the surrounding environs.

Shop at ... Looking to stuff a kid's stocking, find party favors for a grade-school holiday party or get some small gifts for friends' kids? Julianna's Fun Shoppe (9650 W Lindbaugh Ave.) is filled with plastic trinkets to delight little girls. An entire wall is devoted to Hello Kitty. The facing wall features Disney Princesses merchandise; there's also a rack of fun, gender-neutral stocking stuffers, most priced under $5. For gifts for the littlest, there's Mi Bebe, a boutique for babies and infants. Hand-painted ceramic picture frames would make a nice gift for a new mom. Stop at Glamour (9526 W Linebaugh Ave.) for older kids. The funky, trendy clothing boutique has high-quality versions of the clothes of the moment. Pieces can be pricey, but there also is a nice collection of earrings for less than $20.

Grab lunch ... Lots of Westchase's restaurants are chains, including Quizno's and Tijuana Flats Burrito Co. Tropical Smoothie Cafe (9556 W Linebaugh Ave.) serves sandwiches and wraps along with its fruity drinks.

Grab coffee ... Again, most of Westchase's offerings are chains. There's a Starbucks in West Park Village (10118 Montague St.)

For a bite and a beer ... Zen Bistro Grill and Sushi Bar (9620 W Linebaugh Ave.) has a large variety of sushi. One shopping center over is Catch Twenty Three (10103 Montague St.), a Latin and Caribbean-infused seafood restaurant. Entres are mostly priced over $20, but show up between 4 and 5:30 p.m. for an early dinner and the price is knocked way down. If you just want a beer, World of Beer (9524 W Linebaugh Ave.) can oblige with a selection of more than 500 beers from 30 countries.

Shopping perk ... If you live in Westchase, much of your holiday shopping is walking distance away. If you don't, wandering through the neighborhoods that surround the shopping centers is a treat: Many houses are decorated for the holidays, and you'll see families out in force to enjoy the neighborhood's green space. Also, parking is free.

Hyde Park

Old Hyde Park Village, at the corner of Swann and Howard avenues in Tampa, is one of Tampa Bay's shopping mecca mainstays, even if it has shrunk from its heyday. And, unlike many malls, it's outdoors. A full day there would cross almost everyone you need off your list.

Shop at ... Besides national chains like Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers and Pottery Barn, the Village also has some local stores: Milagros carries handmade soaps in scents and designs themed with everything from the seven deadly sins to a beach house or flamingo design. Soap can be customized for special occasions. Like most local boutiques, clothing at Georgette's can be pricey, but the store also has some more inexpensive accessories.

Grab lunch ... There aren't too many non-chain options within the village, so go with Nature's Table Cafe. The Florida-based franchise offers wraps and sandwiches at typical fast-food prices.

Grab coffee ... Indigo Coffee offers typical coffee drinks as well as wireless Internet for those who just can't let work go while they shop.

For a bite and a beer ... Restaurant BT is a Tampa original, serving Vietnamese and French-inspired cuisine. Dinners can be on the expensive side, with entre prices peaking at about $25, but lunches are in the $10 to $15 range. There's also an extensive wine list.

Shopping perk ... Shopping hours are extended until Dec. 23, so you can shop from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Village hosts Christmas carolers on Saturday nights.