Smile Politely

Holiday shopping off the beaten path, pt. 1: Against Black Friday

Notwithstanding cheap deals, Black Friday is notoriously horrible. It’s all about waking up outrageously early, milling around in fluorescent light for hours on end, and battling sleepy, zombie-like fellow customers for identical copies of the exact same products.


I’m sympathetic to the looming pressure of holiday shopping, but I can’t see the appeal in swarming malls and box stores at odd hours of the morning in the hopes of snagging something that looks exactly like what everyone else has.

Here’s an idea: avoid the traditional Black Friday agenda and do your shopping elsewhere this year.

There are plenty of local businesses in C-U that would love to see you bright and early (or, really, anytime) on the Friday after Thanksgiving. They’re friendly, relaxed, and un-crowded. And they’re stocked with unique things that would make thoughtful gifts for the people you care about.

What kinds of things, you ask? And who would want something from these places? That’s what this guide is all about.


Record Swap, 114 E University Ave, Champaign

This is the place to go in C-U for that moment of euphoria you get when you’re digging through a bin of vintage vinyl and pull out a pristine copy of a record you’ve been tracking down for years.

Record Swap’s volume inside is overwhelming. The place is jam-packed with new and used records, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and more. The downstairs is brimming with goodies, and if you’re up for getting on your hands and knees—literally—there are tons of boxes full of $1 LPs upstairs.

This place has been in business in C-U for over 30 years, and the depth of its history is almost as overwhelming as the slews of recordings you’re faced with as you walk in the door. In its early days, it was one of seven record shops in Campustown. Bob Diener, Record Swap’s owner, moved the business to Midtown about 10 years ago and changed the store’s focus to used music to meet the needs of his changing clientele. “In the ‘90s everyone was downloading things for free on the Internet,” he said, “so Record Swap started focusing on used stuff.”

Now that vinyl collections are making a comeback, Bob is increasing his selection of new music. He says customers shopping on Black Friday can look forward to a number of new label releases.

And, even better: Bob says he’ll give Smile Politely readers 10% off used items on Black Friday.

What to get:
– vintage vinyl
– blues, jazz, and soul
– classic, old-timey favorites
– hard-to-find records
– used DVDs
– world music

Who to get it for:
– angsty teen siblings
– hipster friends
– self-identified “music snobs” with complex tastes
– grandparents who still know what’s up
– any nostalgic folk in your life

More like it:
Exile on Main Street
Error Records

Le Shoppe (see below)
Go Retro
Corson Music

Walnut Street Tea Co., 115 S Walnut St, Champaign

Walnut Street Tea Company’s delicious fragrance makes it worth the trip alone. It has that homey smell that’s somewhere between freshly baked cookies and warm candle wax. If you’re not in the holiday mood yet, walk in, take a whiff, and you will be.

This small shop is surprisingly packed with specialty food and drink items, including basically every type of tea you could ever imagine. In addition to shelves loaded with prepackaged tea, there are dozens of jars full of bulk teas ranging from strong Earl Grey to delicate herbals.

This place has a lot more than just tea, though. You can also find Amish jams and preserves, locally roasted coffee beans, fudge, shortbread cookies, teapots and kettles, and many other hard-to-find kitchen items.

Owner Betty Elliott has been in business for 33 years. She told us she “doesn’t do the internet,” so go there and chat with her in person. She’d be happy to help you sift through the treasures in her store.




What to get:
bulk tea (obviously)
– freshly roasted coffee beans
– fancy chocolate
– tasteful china

Who to get it for:
– domestic goddesses
– caffeine addicts
– coworkers who like edibles
– nibblers
– Anglophiles
– your mom

More like it:
Herriott’s Columbia St. Coffee
Fannie May

Circles Boutique
Ten Thousand Villages

Plant Mode

Plant Mode is so off the beaten path that it’s not technically on the path yet. This brand new business specializes in well-edited home products and, most of all, plants.

These aren’t the kind of plants you’ll find at a Home & Garden section in a box store, though. Owner Matthis Helmick has carefully selected arrangements of small succulents and cacti, tropical plants, aquatic moss balls, and tillandsia, which are those whimsical little plants that look like this:

(Tillandsia in glass bulbs, by the way, make charming Christmas tree ornaments.)

In addition to plants, Plant Mode offers a small vintage collection of select design objects, local ceramics, and ceramic and glass vases from a design house in Toronto. You can contact Matthis for custom pottings, including terrariums, for the gift-giving season.

Starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Plant Mode will have viewing/retail hours by appointment only. Contact [email protected] or Facebook message the business to set up a time on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. or Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2-6.

For more images, check out Plant Mode’s instagram.





What to get:
– air plants
– succulents
– terrariums
– sensitive plants
– cacti
– bud vases

Who to get it for:
– gardeners
– green and not-so-green thumbs
– decor aficionados
– outdoorsy types
– Green Party voters

More like it:
Farm Town
Prairie Gardens

– the entire internet

Le Shoppe, 110 E University Ave, Champaign

It’s kind of hard to sum up Le Shoppe, which I think is one of the best businesses in Champaign. It’s tiny, but if you’re in the mood to browse, you’ll quickly get lost in the racks of funky vintage dresses and the stacks of unusual shoes, costume jewelry, knickknacks, and more. The atmosphere is relaxed, vibrant, and effortlessly cool.

Owner Stan Lee took over Le Shoppe a few years ago, but this place has been a staple of Midtown for the past twenty years. You might have noticed the rotating fashion displays outside the store on University, which vacillate between cutting-edge vintage and audaciously shabby.

Stan is gearing up for the holiday season by stocking enough Christmas sweaters to clothe a small village (which are on sale for the next few weeks… hello, ugly sweater parties!).

If you’re thinking ahead to New Year’s Eve, this is the best place in town to find sequined anything and five-inch heels in every neon color.






What to get:
Christmas sweaters
– leather
– cowboy boots
– lamps
– masks
– old cameras
– sequins

Who to get it for:
– Macklemore fans
– fashion-forward friends
– youngsters
– drag queens, cowboys, bikers, and recyclers
– your dad, if he was hipster before you were
– The Person Who Has One of Everything

More like it:
Go Retro
Furniture Lounge

Record Swap (see above)
Go Retro
Corson Music

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