Everything you need is on Westminster Street

Heart of the city
By PHILIP EIL  |  December 5, 2012

I guarantee you nothing in here is in the mall," Amy Vitale says.

She steps out from behind the counter at CRAFTLAND (235 Westminster Street, craftland.myshopify.com) — the indie-arts consignment shop downtown — for an impromptu tour of the store, pointing out earrings made from butterfly wings (they died a natural death, she promises); blown-glass nightlights printed with penguins and rabbits; leggings hand-printed with a squiggly, fluorescent orange pattern by local artist Muffy Brandt; and a Girls Rock! coloring book, featuring black and white outlines of Nina Simone and Patti Smith. Vitale pauses at a stack of mini-towels with the words "barf" and "spit" sewn onto green patches. "We have them in the kids section," she says, "but I have a feeling, being in a college town, they probably get used elsewhere."

With a mantra of "local" and "hand-made" and a manager who knows suppliers by first name, Craftland is typical of Westminster Street nowadays. Indeed, the thoroughfare, home of America's first indoor shopping mall — the Westminster Arcade, opened in 1828 and scheduled to re-open in early 2013 — is feeling refreshingly un-mall-like.

True, there are a few brand-name banks and a lone Dunkin' Donuts. But the street is mostly lined with vibrant indie merchants, quirky restaurants serving fresh ingredients, and bookstores that don't suck. You might even say Westminster is an anti-mall: a place where spending money actually feels good.

It is, in short, the perfect place to take your holiday dollars.

A Fraggles and Friggles T-shirt

On weekends in December, there is an unlikely wellspring for this cleansing commercial energy: the empty lot at the corner of Westminster and Union Streets where, for the second year, the PROVIDENCE HOLIDAY MARKET is setting up camp on Saturday afternoons. The PHM was founded by Mike Hutchison, of Saunderstown's Robin Hollow Farm, after a spark of inspiration from the 24-hour markets that annually invade Daley Plaza in Chicago. Walking among beer gardens and bustling vendors and Santa Clauses in the Windy City, Hutchison thought, "Well, we can do that in Providence!"

He was right. Stroll down to the market on a Saturday afternoon between 11 am and 4 pm and you'll be pulling down your scarf so you can scarf down a taco from the TALLULAH'S TACOS cart or a handful of PROVIDENCE GRANOLA PROJECT's crunchy product. Hutchison, himself, will be a few yards away, manning his winter farm stand stocked with moss gardens and home-grown wreaths.

Among tents selling jewelry and soaps and artisan wooden toys, you'll find Elizabeth Mermel, a 27-year-old epidemiologist who tracks swine flu and "Triple-E" virus for the Rhode Island Department of Health. She's not there to dole out inoculations, though; she's representing her mini-company FRAGGLES AND FRIGGLES ("For the science nerd in all of us," the banner says), purveyors of T-shirts that read "Darwin is My Homeboy" or "Beard Diversity In the Animal Kingdom," with sketches of schnauzers, emperor tamarins, and big horn goats.

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