I'm not talking about the go-kart track or the Westfield Shoppingtown or the bland suburbs that ooze from the outer edges of North Portland all the way to Hazel Dell. Vancouver, the real Vancouver, has an old, stroll-friendly downtown with a slew of newer shopping options. Christened "Uptown Village," it's a cozy hamlet of brick and stucco storefronts, generous sidewalks and ample parking.
True, Main Street is no Pearl District--yet. The area is still a bit gritty, dotted with sleepy sew-'n'-vac shops, locksmiths and any number of shuttered restaurants and lounges (you know something's awry when the pawn shop is for lease). But when coupled with downtown Vancouver's new motto--"Historic Roots, New Beginnings"--these shut-ins and for-sale signs could actually be good business omens. Unlike the growth enjoyed by some recently "revitalized" Portland neighborhoods, Vancouver is booming on its own sweet timetable.
"This community is actually surprisingly young and artistic," says Chris Jochum, a former audiologist who took over a 4-year-old vintage store/espresso bar, the Urban Eccentric, at the end of last year. "Young people are buying all the affordable old houses," she says in regard to how the area is slowly changing from down-and-out to up-and-coming. "I meet businessmen who come in here in the morning, musicians, all kinds of people. It's a community that supports small business."
Jochum lists a few of the big changes happening in her 'hood: a block of smart live-work townhouses going up across the street, a recently organized art walk. In fact, according to Jochum, First Thursday was chosen as the night for the art walk only after hot debate among local business owners. It seems that Vancouver is torn between craving Portland's patronage and doing its own thing. Meanwhile, "its own thing" is pretty cool. Here's my clip-and-save guide to discovering the little fort to the north:
Mint Tea (2306 Main St., 360-699-4991) Abdelmoughig Akdi and Jenna Eckert's shop specializes in imported Moroccan handmade goods for the home. Step inside the cool, incense-scented space and be greeted by rich rugs, kilim throw pillows and a riot of Pacifica candles. Help yourself to a pair of handcrafted baboosh (pointed slippers) with jaunty embroidery ($42) or even stop in for one of their weekend henna parties (call for dates).
The Urban Eccentric (2411 Main St., 360-694-2934) Jochum's vintage store has a funky, clubhouse vibe, from the array of scented oils on the counter to the distant whiffs of nag champa permeating the clothes. A rack of mod wedding dresses in the back has some satiny scores, while the prominently displayed yellow-and-blue, Swiss-made '70s ski suit is almost too pretty to touch. Almost.
Willows/Contessa (302 W 8th St., 360-993-1318) These adjoining boutiques showcase girly-hip women's clothing and shoes, respectively. Finds at Willows include silk dresses by Tessuto and Betsey Johnson ($158-$248), Michael Stars thongs ($12.50) and Hard Tail terry jean jackets ($76). A small selection of chic baby gear shares an alcove with beauty products by Burt's Bees and Dirty Girl. Don't miss the display of essential-oil-scented cleaning products by Caldrea. Contessa has scads of Franco Sarto slides and cool pink and blue distressed leather handbags by Francesco Biasia ($260).
Beyond Bliss (1400 Main St., 360-750-1887) Open since March, Jo Ann Erickson's day spa offers massage, facials, skin treatments, nail services and Pilates. An hourlong massage ($55) takes place in a serene, spring green chamber with exposed brick walls and softly filtered sunlight. Don't miss the exhaustive array of Dermalogica skin products or the "fancy chair"--a padded lounger for facials that contains a built-in foot-soaking tub.
A 'Couv traveler's tip:
Vancouver parking meters hide secret treasure. If you turn the dial hard to the right, then release, you get 20 minutes.
Wedding Bells at Clark County Museum
Clark County Historical Museum presents "Wedding Day: A Look at Bridal Fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras."
1511 Main St., Vancouver, Wash., (360) 993-5679. Reception Saturday, June 14. $15.