Shopping in Madison
In this colorful college town, materialism and muckraking co-exist.
© Beth Gauper
State Street, between the Capitol and the university, is the shopping thoroughfare.
In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!
But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.
Madison — sometimes called the People’s Republic of Madison — is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate
that a Starbuck’s caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.
Aside from the Starbuck’s, and a Gap whose windows often are plastered with political graffiti, State Street is nearly franchise-free — meaning it’s lined with small, locally owned, one-of-a-kind businesses.
That makes Madison a great place to shop. My consumption — inconspicuous, I hoped — started at Germania, in the
Hotel Ruby Marie, with $4 pint glasses from Wisconsin breweries — Capital, Angelic, Gray’s, Sprecher.
From there, I walked downtown, passing the offices of Progressive magazine, which has been agitating since it was founded in Madison in 1909; on its windows hung a sign: “Justice, Not Vengeance.’’
Then I rounded Madison’s beloved, blindingly white Capitol, topped by a gilt damsel called Ms. Forward — Forward is the state motto — with corncobs behind each ear and a badger sitting on her head; her rear end, notes local smart-aleck Michael Feldman, is the highest point in town.
State Street is one of 16 streets, mostly one-way, that radiate from Capitol Square and trap unsuspecting tourists like flies in a web. Cars aren’t allowed on State Street, but there’s nothing pedestrian about it; somehow, the flavor of the ’60s still wafts from its slightly tatty storefronts.
At Urban Outfitters, two foreign students were giggling over Jesus action figures, $8. Near the cult-fiction section at Canterbury Booksellers, pamphlets lambasted the World Trade Organization, the media and space weapons, $6-$10.
At Sedona, a glass case held rhinestone tiaras, $50: “The drag queens buy those,’’ said manager Tracy Gundlach. “We actually sell quite a few.’’
But the alternative goes only so far. Sedona also had racks and racks of beaded and sequined party dresses, snapped up by sorority girls to wear clubbing. Across the street, Sassafras carried black-leather sheaths, $695, and Italian camisoles, $65. In the window of Fanny Garver Gallery, lavish art-glass vases glimmered expensively; I didn’t ask.
© Beth Gauper
Madison's State Street is lined with museums, restaurants and interesting shops.
My finds were a string of paper lanterns at Urban Outfitters, $24, and pants from the Land’s End Inlet, $17.50. At the State Historical Society Museum, I bought die-cast pencil-sharpeners in the shapes of paddleboats and typewriters, $2.50, but admired the Ojibwe boxes of birchbark and porcupine quills, $80-$225.
At the end of State Street, carts were selling Thai, African, Jamaican, Greek, Southern and Cuban take-out.
I bought a $3 tray of Thai noodles and ate them on the steps of the campus library, listening to a man with a wispy white beard play the “Flintstones’’ theme on a piccolo and watching students with the Wisconsin Public Interest Group paint affordable-housing slogans on plywood.
From State, I drove to Monroe Street, another street of old brick storefronts filled with shops, galleries and coffeehouses just south of Camp Randall Stadium. At Orange Tree Imports, I found tiny glass candy-cane and bonbon ornaments, $2.25; chocolate Advent calendars from Germany, $1.95, and classy but inexpensive cooking utensils.
At Calabash, I bought a painted-glass platter from South Africa, $22. The shop was filled with African items: a Namibian wood giraffe, $1,200; stone carvings from Zimbabwe, $75; and pop-can Peugeots fashioned by Soweto teen-agers, $18.
“I love the artwork and culture, but not the politics,’’ said proprietor Leah Kessel, who grew up in Johannesburg and came to Madison with her professor husband. “I wish it were different.’’
That evening, a Broadway production of “Les Miserables’’ was playing to a sold-out crowd at the Overture
Center for the Arts.
I was at the other end of State Street, listening to national folk artist Utah Phillips — imagine Garrison Keillor as a white-haired, rail-riding anarchist — tell anecdotes about class struggle and sing songs with such refrains as “Dump the bosses off your back.’’
“In a mass-market environment, a revolutionary song is any song you choose to sing yourself,’’ Phillips said wryly.
I doubted there was a single truly blue-collar worker at the performance, a benefit for Wisconsin Wetlands Association. The Wobblies had a table in the lobby, though; the Industrial Workers of the World may be a footnote in history elsewhere, but they’re alive and kicking in 21st century Madison.
The next day, I shopped in earnest. The Winter Art Festival was being held at Monona Terrace, a convention center first designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 and finished in 1997. With ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking Lake Monona, and a Jetsons-go-Greek rooftop garden, it’s already one of Madison’s favorite spots.
Inside, more than 140 Wisconsin artists were selling their wares; my prize was a walnut coat rack, $125, from Marcus and Penny Neal of Cassville, Wis.
At Matthias James’ pottery booth, Mary Tonti of Milwaukee was buying a $350 double-glazed jar, “a bargain for the price.’’ In the afternoon, she planned to hit Monroe Street, which she’d discovered the previous day driving around the Arboretum.
© Beth Gauper
The Arbor House B&B is on Monroe Street, near Lake Wingra.
“Madison has all these great little shops to stop at,’’ she said. “I think it’s because of the diversity of the university, all the students they attract. You’ve got this great cross-cultural thing going on.’’
Then I headed for Middleton, Madison’s western suburb. That’s the home of Clasen’s European Bakery, which
has been making pastries and breads since 1960.
Its building is modern but its baked goods are Old World — Linzertortes, apfelkuchen, stollen and lebkuchen, as well as chocolates, cookies, cakes and a big tray of blueberry-streusel bars to sample.
I headed home, having dutifully consumed and stocked up on all things Wisconsin: frozen custard, Clasen’s brotchen, New Glarus beer. Then, I spotted a black-and-white spotted building, and a sign: Fresh Cheese Curds. I was tempted — but only for a minute.
Trip Tips: Madison
Getting around: Driving on the isthmus can be frustrating, and parking is strictly enforced; read meters and signs or you may be towed. But at night, parking in city ramps is just $1.
Accommodations: Hotel rates are higher on weekends and go through the roof for Badgers games and other special
events. But from the first weekend of December to late February, hotels offer Winter Getaway deals on weekends.
The Hilton, next to Monona Terrace, overlooks both Lake Monona and the Capitol, 608-255-5100. Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club is right on Capitol Square, 800-356-8293.
Hotel Ruby Marie, four blocks from Capitol Square at the point where U.S. 151 (East Washington Avenue) comes out onto Lake
Monona, has 15 attractive rooms with mini-fridges, and some with fireplaces and whirlpools, 877-690-7829.
The Dahlmann Campus Inn is a boutique hotel a block off State Street and a block from the campus. 800-589-6285.
© Beth Gauper
In July, thousands of shoppers come for Art on the Square and Art Off the Square.
On Monroe Street, the Arbor House is a very well-run B&B that is renowned for its "green" practices. It has eight very attractive rooms and offers the use of mountain bikes and a canoe pass for nearby Lake Wingra. 608-238-2981.
On the northeast edge of town, the Speckled Hen Inn is on 50 acres, has four rooms and also has been certified by Travel
Green Wisconsin, 877-670-4844.
On Monroe Street, Bluephies is cheerful and serves a nice brunch. Michael’s Frozen Custard, a block away, is a good place for fast food and a sundae.
For more dining ideas, check the Daily Eats at the Isthmus newspaper.
Brewpubs: Angelic Brewing Co., just off State Street on West Johnson, is a convivial place, as is Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., a block from the Capitol at East Doty and King Drive; both offer beer samplers. The Come Back In, next to Hotel Ruby Marie, has 26 beers on tap, including the local Gray’s, New Glarus and Capital beers.
Shopping: Monroe Street, which heads south from Camp Randall stadium, has lots of fun shops and places to eat. If you're there during rush hour on a weekday, be careful where you park or you'll be towed.
Atwood Avenue, just northeast of downtown, has many shops, including Absolutely
Art, which sells the work of more than 200 local artists.
On the first three weekends in November, shoppers can catch the Madison Holiday
Market in the Alliant Energy Center, then the Winter Art Festival
in Monona Terrace, followed by the Holiday Art
Fair in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street.
Nightlife: Overture Center for the Arts, a block from Capitol Square on State Street, hosts international artists and Broadway shows as well as the local symphony, opera, theater and dance troupes. 608-266-9055.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens: This conservatory on the north shore of Lake Monona offers Sunday-afternoon concerts in December. The gardens are a breath of warm air and well worth a visit, 608-246-4550.
Clasen’s European Bakery: It’s on the
corner of U.S. 12 and Donna Drive on the northern edge of Middleton, 608-831-2032. During the holidays, it shows a
10-foot-tall gingerbread house.
Badgers schedules and tickets: 800-GO-BADGERS.
Information: Madison tourism, 800-373-6376.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.