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The Most Thoughtful Gifts

When I first looked at my initial itinerary for my recent visit to St. Joseph, Missouri, I have to admit, my heart wasn't exactly skipping beats. The Pony Express Museum? The house where Jesse James died? The Pattee Museum? St. Jo takes its history seriously. And that's important. But do you know what people do on vacation more than anything else in the Midwest? They shop. And it's Christmastime. So how does this proud city north of Kansas City pry travelers' attention away from that city's storied Country Club Plaza?

Pretty easily, it turns out, if you know where to look. St. Jo doesn't have a concentrated shopping district, but it does have a hardy band of artisans who run galleries and boutiques with handmade goods that rival the best finds on Etsy. Plug their addresses into your Google map app, and you could easily spend a half-day browsing (and the other half eating—more on that later). Tobiason Studio has a showroom for their handmade stained-glass windows, a gallery for local artists' works, a workroom for travelers who want to try making stained-glass ornaments and a tour that reveals the intricate details of their most recent church window restoration projects. It's a one-stop for combining all that travelers are looking for these days: They want to learn a little something, try making something, and buy something beautiful that they can't find anywhere else.

The frilly aprons, mah-jongg bags made from old ties and felt flower brooches were only some of the wearable art pieces that caught my eye at Mod Podge Design Studio and Boutique. Owner Casey Wallerstedt makes nearly all of the items for sale in her airy shop, where a sleepy Golden retriever named Addison lazily watches as I browse. Fair-trade scarves made from Indian saris tempt, but honestly, they can't compare to Casey's own scarf design: a seemingly impossible mishmash of ribbons, threads, yarns and scraps of fabric that somehow come together in a crazy-quilt style that looks sophisticated the instant I put it on. Another outstanding find. I get compliments on it everywhere I go (Casey's wearing it here).

For 60 years, Katherine's Distinctive Gifts has been the go-to place for hostess and wedding gifts, the kind that well-heeled women buy when they want to uphold a town tradition and eschew big-chain department stores. Some ladies still come in with calling cards, the way they did generations ago, and Katherine's keeps them, carefully preserving them in a back room file and marveling at the big impact a little storefront continues to have on a community of 28,000.

And then there's Jamie's, an enclave of themed rooms that appeal to foodies, fashionistas and those with a flair for decorating. Candles, ornaments, handbags, jewelry, body lotions, cookbooks—the owner curates her affordable collection from designers across the country and changes out the displays seasonally, paving easy paths for return trips. 

It only makes sense, then, to stay for dinner. Make reservations at the JC Wyatt House, an exquisitely restored Victorian mansion now known for its seasonally inspired dishes (the owners really should consider bottling and selling that pumpkin vinaigrette).

So book a room at the woodsy-theme Stoney Creek Inn or the elegant Shakespeare Chateau B&B. Because as it turns out, you really do need to stay the night to see all of St. Jo's best stuff, including the impressive Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art. And, you know, it doesn't take much imagination for someone with a Facebook account to examine the exhibits at the Pony Express Museum and wonder, Would I go to all of that life-risking trouble to share my latest news? I probably wouldn't. But the hardy ancestors in this proud town did, and that's a lesson worth pondering as you drive home with your handmade Christmas gifts.

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