Falling snow drifts past The Permanent Collection’s plate-glass window, collecting on the sidewalk along 6th Street in Des Moines’ East Village. Shoppers sipping warm drinks from the nearby teahouse pause to peek through the window and watch Sarah McCoy work.
She operates a gently clanking machine with ink-stained hands, placing a single card just so and pressing it over a bed of carved wood blocks with the turn of a crank.
Behind Sarah, holiday shoppers browse cards and posters bearing impressions made with bright ink: bikes laden with prettily wrapped packages, plump owls, the alphabet in a vintage typeface. When the shoppers are ready to check out, Sarah stops her work on the press, wipes her hands clean and rings up the sale.
“We’re always on screens, doing everything on little computers. It’s nice to get a break from that, see something made slowly and with care,” Sarah says. “And letterpress, it’s tactile—there’s a softness there when you touch it.”
Across the Midwest, practitioners of the sorts of messy, loud, ruin-your-carpet hobbies that require anvils and ink are setting up shop in neighborhoods where bargain-basement rents make brick-and-mortar storefronts a viable option. To anyone seeking handmade gifts, the letterpress shop acts as a beacon of sorts: This neighborhood offers presents with heart.
In the East Village, Sarah’s hands join the pinpricked fingers of dressmakers at Dornink (whose custom dresses have appeared at presidential inaugural balls) and the grease-slicked palms at Ichi Bike (in addition to custom bikes, they build inexplicably comfortable bike seats from old skateboards). In Detroit, artistic prints fill shelves at the letterpress workshop Signal-Return, near stores selling artisanal cheese and a fine art gallery in the century-old Eastern Market. And along St. Louis’ Cherokee Street, The Firecracker Press joins silk-screen printers and record shops in a business district that blends Latino community staples with hip shops.
In these neighborhoods, shopping is a sensory experience. The wares can be touched, tasted, test-driven—purchased with the same thoughtful care that went into their creation.
“When people pick it up, it’s like, ‘Wow, you made this?,’” Sarah says. “It’s exhilarating to say I did this, thought it through and worked with it from concept to design to print to finishing it. Every aspect, someone’s touched it.”
Sarah McCoy and the tools of her letterpress trade.
East Village, Des Moines
This eight-block shopping district sits at the foot of the state Capitol, but don’t be fooled: It cares not a whit for power plays and legislation. Whimsical, irreverent and arts-minded tenants find their peers in the polished storefronts along Grand Avenue and Locust Street.
Holiday Promenade | Santa lights the Brenton Plaza Christmas tree; carolers and dancers stage impromptu performances on the street; and shops show off their fresh holiday-theme window displays–not to mention, stage great sales. The annual event happens November 20 this year. eastvillagedesmoines.com
Shopping & Dining
Alba | In a 1950s Art Moderne building, dine on seasonal entrees or house classics like gnocchi or pan-roasted hanger steak. The intimate wine bar makes a great stop for postshopping drinks and dessert. albadsm.com
Domestica | Find a mishmash of modern, handmade home decor, cheerful prints and personal accessories in a bright, white-walled store. We like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg greeting cards (“You have been judged supreme”), brass bee earrings and the selection of small-run indie magazines. ilovedomestica.com
Gong Fu Tea | Canisters of white, green, oolong, black and herbal teas (many custom blended) line the shelves of this serene and sweet-smelling tea shop. Pick up a few ounces and a brightly colored infuser as a gift, or grab a mug to sip in a nook by a picture window. gongfu-tea.com
The Permanent Collection | Sarah McCoy puts her graphic design background to good use creating custom invites and limited-edition art prints; Andy McCoy keeps the vintage machines humming in this boldly colored storefront and workshop. thepermanentcollection.net
Raygun | Supersoft T-shirts bear pithy sayings celebrating all things Iowa (“Iowa: for some reason, you have to come here to be president”) and pop culture (“You’ve cat to be kitten me right meow”). Don’t miss the inexpensive test shirts, which bear a jumble of colorful screw-ups and look like impressionistic art. raygunsite.com
Clockwise from top left: salad at Alba, shopping at Domestica, herbal brews at Gong Fu Tea
Eastern Market, Detroit
Visitors might struggle to make sense of the nation’s largest continuously running public market—it’s a shopping complex, but also a neighborhood. Begin in the six sprawling market sheds, with stalls for chefs, farmers, butchers, gardeners, antiques sellers and cheesemakers. The surrounding buildings and streets support more businesses and special events, including food trucks, art fairs, art galleries and more. Expect consistent crowds, inconsistent temperatures and an abundance of unique gifts.
Holiday Market | Sheds 3, 4 and 5 take on a holiday theme on three Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and vendors stock wreaths and poinsettias, hand-knitted slippers, charmingly ugly holiday sweaters, polished wood cutting boards and more. easternmarket.com
Blue Velvet Vintage | Kory Trinks collects (then repairs and displays) a vast collection of vintage women’s wear, including pieces from as far back as early 20th century to as “new” as the mid-1980s. Don’t miss the parasols on the ceiling. bluevelvetvintage.com
Detroit Mercantile | To get on the shelves of this well-curated store, products must be made in the U.S.A. (or even better, Michigan). Pro-Detroit T-shirts, buttons and totes join Stormy Kromer hats, aviator sunglasses and vintage maps of D-town. detroitmercantile.com
Red Bull House of Art | The energy drink manufacturer gives eight local artists unlimited supplies, a vast workspace and eight weeks to create a new body of work in this warehouse-like place. The results get displayed with pieces from up-and-coming national artists in an open-to-the-public gallery. (Why Detroit? Why not? The company moved the program here from its former home in São Paulo, Brazil.) redbull.com
Signal-Return | A retro-industrial space blends a store with a letterpress and bookmaking workshop. While students learn how to handle wooden block letters, lead type, copper plates and a cast-iron book press, shoppers browse the collection of colorful posters, greeting cards, thank-you notes and journals made by the workshop’s artists-in- residence and open-studio attendees. signalreturnpress.org
Signal Return and Detroit Mercantile
Cherokee Street, St. Louis
Cherokee Street, a boulevard of brick storefronts and shade trees, unites a district of diverse personalities. Antique Row, six blocks of shops carrying vintage wares, occupies the eastern half. And integrated into the heart of the city’s Latino community on the western half, boutiques with modern wares teem with STL pride.
Shopping & Dining
Dead Wax Records | Flipping through vinyl in this cozy store feels like perusing a musician friend’s collection. Browse 2,500 LPs across rock, jazz, soul and more, including new releases from local artists. A bust of Hank Williams Sr. watches over the checkout stand. Staff keeps a record playing just loud enough that tunes spill out onto Cherokee. vinylhunt.com
The Firecracker Press | The smell of ink permeates this award-winning printery. A brick wall displays a 15-panel print of the solar system across from a poster of Busch Stadium, and racks display buttons and cards. Owner Eric Woods founded Firecracker in 2002 to unite his graphic design work and interest in craftsmanship under one roof. firecrackerpress.com
The Mud House | Beans from Midwestern roasteries (like Blueprint Coffee in St. Louis and Madcap Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan) get the pour-over treatment; the menu also features an extensive list of espresso drinks, teas and served-all-day from-scratch breakfast. themudhousestl.com
Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage | Throwback clothing and decor span two floors and most of the 20th century in this store, named the city’s vintage retailer of the year by St. Louis Magazine. Cocktail dresses, hats and coats from a bygone era fill the first floor. The basement stocks midcentury furnishings: Think Danish chairs, mod lanterns and bowls of wooden fruit. cherokeeantiquerow.com
STL-Style | Graphics with retro flair adorn made-to-order shirts lauding St. Louis (“You can’t spell style without STL”) and its suburbs (“Life is good in Maplewood”). The shop’s stage provides a platform for events, such as rock concerts, burlesque shows and political forums. stl-style.com
Clockwise from top left: STL Style, The Firecracker Press, The Mud House