Where you can get unique, local gifts this holiday season in Bloomington and Spencer

Holiday shopping venues that will keep you and your dollars close to home abound in Bloomington and nearby.

You can avoid big crowds, overamplified Christmas songs and predictable purchases by shifting to small, independent stores.

Check out Juniper Art Gallery, the new occupant of a former teahouse

A trek around the city might land you at someplace like Juniper Art Gallery at 615 W. Kirkwood Ave., which is much more than an art showcase. It’s a few blocks west of downtown and has six free parking spots behind the house, the former site of BloomingTea.

A piece of bamboo fashioned into a speaker of sorts, $40 at Juniper Gallery, that amplifies music from a cell phone placed inside.

The off-the-beaten path store is packed with the best and most eclectic items local artists have to offer, things you can’t buy anywhere else, such as LuAnne Holladay’s “Compost Diaries.” The 32-page publication, a “reflection on accumulating and letting go,” is handmade from recycled paper, including brown grocery sacks from Bloomingfoods and Fresh Thyme.

This $10 gem features poetry, short stories and composting insights. Although, Chapter 6 is about a 1964 Ford Falcon Holladay bought for $400 decades ago.

LuAnne Holladay's 2023

If you go just one place for holiday gifts, Juniper Art Gallery offers a unique shopping experience that’s a present for you as well as those on your gift list. Treat yourself to tea, lemonade, wine or beer, baked-on-the-premises cookies and Piccoli Dolci treats.

The store moved from the Owen County Courthouse Square in Spencer to the Kirkwood Avenue location in March, so this is its first big shopping season. Owner Jaime Sweany, who years ago owned the Wandering Turtle store in downtown Bloomington, has created her dream shop.

One room is a permanent gallery featuring works from 30 noted Indiana artists, including her father, Paul J. Sweany, known for watercolors depicting nature, often birds. A collection of greeting cards made from paintings created by her mother, Margaret L. Sweany, are for sale as well.

“You’re not going to find these anywhere else in the world,” their daughter said.

Sweany’s shop also features recycled drinking glasses and candlesticks created by another family member, sister Jenny Stankiewicz in Owen County.

Glass creations from Jenny Stankiewicz for sale at Juniper Gallery in Bloomington.

Most of the items are sourced locally, including an employee’s jewelry and refrigerator magnets made from discarded photography-related items such as instamatic camera flashcubes from the 1960s and ’70s and old film canisters.

Unique items for sale at Juniper Art Gallery.

‘Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, so go downtown’

The heart of downtown Bloomington is rich with unique places to shop. Around the courthouse square are many independent and locally owned stores. Among them: Argentum Jewelry, Book Corner, Caveat Emptor, Gather, Lola & Company, Bonne Fete, Tivoli Fashions, Elliemae’s, Mirth Market, Oh Child Boutique, The Briar & The Burley, and By Hand Gallery.

This is a partial list that covers a wide range of shopping options that includes gift items such as fine local ceramics, handcrafted jewelry, obscure books and the finest cigars.

Something, yes, for everyone.

Books, books, books: Caveat Emptor and Book Corner

Library ladders at Caveat Emptor in Bloomington make perusing the high shelves easier.

Per capita, Bloomington is bookstore heavy. The most eclectic of them all, Caveat Emptor, is on the east side of the courthouse square. It was in danger of closing this year, but was saved when Dayna and Jared Thompson bought the store, which opened in 1971.

Stacked on to-the-high-ceiling shelves accessible from rolling library ladders are about 50,000 resale books. The store first opened in Bloomington in 1971 and has become iconic in the book world.

“I’d say we have one of the best poetry collections around,” employee Alex Hamel said on a recent afternoon. He was putting aside a rare first-edition copy of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” a customer was on the way to buy for $45. Most books on the shelves are a fraction of that cost.

Caveat Emptor is a place you can fall into and find a treasure you weren’t seeking. There’s a children’s book room there that contains some classic titles from the past, such as the occasional 1940s Hardy Boys mystery.

A first-edition copy of Agatha Christie's

A few doors south at the Book Corner, owner Margaret Taylor sits before a computer in the back room of the store checking in inventory.

The store specializes in children’s books and related toys. Taylor will order any title not in stock and call you in a few days when it arrives.

Store employees also will wrap gifts, year round, and afix a coordinating bow. Customers get to pick the paper and ribbon.

Bows at the gift wrapping station at the Book Corner in downtown Bloomington.

During the holiday season, a surprising number and selection of jigsaw puzzles fill the 1,500-square-foot store at the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and Walnut Street. There’s no attempt at creative displayes: puzzle boxes are stacked just about everywhere.

Hundreds of puzzles for holiday gift giving fill the Book Corner in downtown Bloomington.

Head east for Arts Alliance, Spinners and Weavers, and Morganstern

Downtown isn’t the only independent local shopping area. Hidden inside College Mall for instance, is the nonprofit Arts Alliance Center. The store showcases and sells art created by its members and a baby grand piano sits in the middle of the room for anyone to play.

The mall is home to another local venue, the Bloomington Spinners & Weavers Guild store, a large retail space that has room for classes in the back.

Off the beaten path on the east side is Morgenstern Books at 849 Auto Mall Road. Events coordinator Matthew Woods said the shopping experience itself, the ease and joy of a store like Morgenstern, can be a gift to yourself.

“Someone who receives a gift card can come into our store and become part of our community,” Woods said, settling with a sci-fi novel into one of four comfy burgundy-leather wing chairs situated around the store.

Matthew Woods, events coordinator at Morgenstern Books, sits in one of the four leather upholstered wingback chairs placed in the store for comfortable reading.

Head on over to Spencer

How about a holiday shopping road trip?

The courthouse square in the Owen County town of town of Spencer has come alive in recent years with several locally owned stores and restaurants.

So if you want to get out of town to shop and not go far, consider taking Ind. 46 west out of Bloomington 17 miles or so until you reach the town of 2,400.

A Christmas tree at Spencer's CommUnity Center on the Owen County Courthouse Square is decorated with vintage jewelry for sale.

Spencer Pride’s CommUnity Center, beautifully decorated for the holiday season, offers a wide range of local handmade items and also a pretty cool vintage resale shop. Staffed by volunteers, the store is open 11 a.m to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Hand-painted Santa head ornaments on sale at the CommUnityCenter in downtown Spencer.

Walking around downtown, check out the murals Spencer artist Israel Hogan has painted on the sides of buildings.

Israel Hogan continues work on a mural in Spencer.

While in Spencer, where parking is free, don’t miss the Dragonfly Gallery, a gift shop located in the restored two-story 1882 Odd Fellows building. On sale there are items ranging from handmade knives crafted from mammoth teeth to sterling silver spoon rings.

The Dragonfly Gallery on the courthouse square in Spencer

Spencer also has a new clothing and accessory store on the square called The Lorelei.

Seeking sugary-sweet stocking treats? Visit Pink House Sweets, home of Fudge O’Bits.

And if you get hungry or thirsty while holiday shopping in Spencer, there are locally owned options on or just off the courthouse square: Main Street Coffee, Jit’s Thai Bistro, Civilian Brewing Corps. and Chambers Smorgasbord.

To find out about Spencer’s Small Business Monopoly game and local Owen County businesses, go to: https://www.go-owen.com/smallbusinesssaturday

Contact H-T reporter Laura Lane at llane@heraldt.com or 812-318-5967.

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