Lyndsay Knecht Milne
Downtown Denton, just a 45-minute drive from Dallas or Fort Worth, offers hours of browsing for vintage junkies and picky boutique types alike.
HEAD START: Visit the ATM (Wells Fargo's close by on N. Locust St.) and head to the famed Downtown Mini Malls I and II (108 and 118 N. Locust St.), which unlock their doors at 10 a.m. to the kind of people who love estate sale finds but not the act of entering a stranger's home to get them. Whether you could use a needlepoint canvas for a White Elephant party or a '20s-era postcard for a collector friend, it's a safe bet there'll be something in the 30-plus booths you'd have to spend a year garage-saleing to find. During a recent visit, we came upon a bookcase full of kitty shrines: a tea tray painted with cuddling cats in vibrant colors, a homey kitty-topped coat peg panel and, of couse, an emroidered pillow featuring feline mugs. The experience is like going through your grandmother's closet -- your grandmother's two-story, obsessively organized, clean and dusted closet.
COFFEE BREAK: This college town rewards early risers, both with quiet streets and options aplently for stellar cheap breakfast. Try Banter (219 W Oak St.) where great bar food relies on -- gasp! -- fresh ingredients. The Half-Wit, a bagel with cream cheese, capers, red onions and usually marked-up Nova Lox for only $4.99, is a fave. And if a free 12 oz. coffee with your breakfast Monday-Friday before noon doesn't get those benevolent pockets flowing, your trip might should end here. If it's lunch or dinnertime, check out winter beers by Franconia and Rahr brewed in McKinney and Fort Worth, respectively.
SHOP ON: If the shops on the Square comprise a family, then 2nd Street would be the twenty-something sibling who stayed in the South for college and owns the most leather. A mix of vintage, reconstructed and new duds with equally stocked men's (pearl snaps!) and women's (motorcycle jackets!) sections make it a must-stop. Sought-after brands like Lucky, New Religion and Ben Sherman are sold here, and it should be said that we've not seen a better selection of urbanized cowboy boots within county lines.
YOUR TREAT: Another vintage haven serves the decades-happy crowd. Circa 77 (225 W. Oak), run by a mama-daughter duo who are consulted for their opinions as much as their stock, offers a cheap alterations service for that broad-shouldered blouse in the weird European size that you otherwise can't live without. Duck in just to witness the flashy and fabulous sequined wedding dresses or pick up a pair of jeans for the Britches 2 Bags contest, in which the proprieters challenge their patrons to make reusable shopping bags out of denim bought in the store. The winners get gift certificates to Circa 77. The deadline is December 3 at 6 p.m. with winners announced on December 5 at 3 p.m. amid a sidewalk sale.
LAST STOP: Look no further than Wine Squared (110 W. Oak) for an intelligently chosen host/hostess gift to keep on tap for holiday parties. Not sure where to start? Scoot over to the cozy wood-floored bar and have a glass of what's pouring that day, or enjoy one at a patio table for a gaze at the Courthouse across the street. Also, Brook Ray and the staff love to answer questions, so don't leave without learning something new. Besides Sundays when the shop opens at 2 p.m., the cork doesn't pop until 2:30 p.m.
MARK IT: The Holiday Lighting Festival is downtown Denton charm concentrate, featuring a wassail contest in which shops on the Square contend with their own brews, horse-drawn wagon rides, photos with Santa and entertainment on multiple stages, crowned with an annual performance by Brave Combo on the Courthouse Lawn. The whole shebang takes place on Thursday, Dec. 3, starting at 5:45 p.m. with the lighting of the giant tree in the center of the Square.