Where's one of the best places to shop in Denver if you shun crowded malls and bustling Wal-Marts? Why, Denver International Airport, of course. USA Today, along with Executive Travel magazine editor Janet Libert, recently ranked DIA one of the ten best airports for shopping, thanks to its "locally made goods" and "Rocky Mountain-themed shops," including five of which have "Colorado" in their title.
Having just booked my flight home to Chicago to see Mom, Dad and the little sisters on Christmas, I decided to put their research to the test. If America's largest newspaper was right, I could buy everyone's presents at the airport, and nobody would be the wiser. If my very risky hypothesis failed, however, I'd be arriving for Christmas armed with worse than nothing: cheap stop-over chatchkes.
I start out on Concourse A, at Colorado West, one of the stores referenced in USA Today, which is owned by Carol Howell -- of Minneapolis. Like her second location on Concourse B, the shop carries the typical, you've-been-to-Colorado mementos: cowboy hats, moccasins and Native American art and jewelry. Don't expect 16th Street Mall prices, however: The turquoise pieces, all handmade in the Southwest, range from $16 to $1,695 (for an all-turquoise cross with a three-foot chain). The Albuquerque couple that owns Way Out West, a few shops down, has the market cornered on cheaper, cheesier Western-themed gifts such as "synthetic look-alike jewelry" and $2.99 Fool's Gold.
Holiday shopping at DIA
Concourse B has DIA's widest selection of shops. There's the Discovery Channel Store, the Body Shop, the Tie Rack, the Sports Terminal and Sunglass Hut/Watch Station, all of which could make for excellent last-minute shopping. But I set my sights on the one-of-a-kind local boutique Susan Vale Sweaters, owned and run by Vale's husband, Rani Shalmoni. Though clothes shopping can be difficult to do in a hurry, I quickly spot a pair of $29 jeans with a sexy cut and beaded design that would work for one of my skinny sisters.
I take the escalator upstairs to find BikeKulture, which rated a USA Today mention. It's one of three kiosks all owned by the same local company; the other two are Colorado Creative Arts and a stand dedicated to all things Ferrari. Emphasizing the art, history and culture of cycling, BikeKulture carries a wide selection of cycling-related books, T-shirts and posters. My favorite find is an $18 black-and-white print from the Tour de France circa 1920 showing Vervaeke and Geldhol sharing a cigarette while leading the pack.
Also on the upper level of Concourse B is Pawsitively Pets, another locally owned one-of-a-kind find. Perfect for the pet-obsessed people in your life, it's the kind of place where you can find $60 jeweled dog collars, doggy and kitty clothes, and pet treats masquerading as people food. It even carries breed-specific door mats with sayings such as "Protected by Shih Tzu Home Security System" or "A Spoiled Rotten Dachshund Lives Here."
Next door, the Images of Nature Gallery, featuring the photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen, calms me with its mountain landscapes. It's one of sixteen galleries across the country selling Mangelsen's work, and the only one located in an airport. Sherry Hartman, a sales associate, says customers schedule their flights to stop in Denver just to hit the gallery. What they can't fit on the plane, the gallery ships. Hartman's favorite is the mammoth 29-inch by 90-inch panoramic "Colors of the Smokies." "I know a lot of people look at this and think it's just a bunch of trees, but he took a bunch of trees and made them a piece of art," she says. "Look at the depth. It's like you could walk right through." Price tag: $3,975. Framed eight-by-tens run $115.
Located out of the way at gate B44 is the Colorado Collection. I enter to the familiar sound of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." "We get to pick our own music. Can you tell?" asks Daniella Ba Rashees as she perfects the display inside a jewelry case. She uses the word "groovy" incessantly. "Do you know that word? Your mom probably used it," she laughs. She's been working at the Colorado Collection since it opened with DIA, in 1995.
This locally owned shop must be what USA Today remembers fondly about our airport. The Colorado Collection started in 1987 with goldsmith Lauren Wahlstrom selling her own work in downtown Denver. It's since grown from a venue for local artists to one featuring work from around the world.
Ba Rashees shows me the bracelets from "designs of the IAM," a local beader named Irene A. Mooris who uses silversmithing and wire wrap with semi-precious minerals and stones. There are earrings from Denise Bloch of Breckenridge, who hand-blows her own glass beads. Ba Rashees's favorite jewelry designer, Tabra Tunoa, is an anthropologist who studied Mayan and Aztec art. The watches designed by Eduardo Milieris of Watchcraft catch my eye. The Uruguay-born artist uses oxidized metal and only makes 1,000 of each design. For a numbered piece of art, the price ($250 to $325) isn't too shocking. When I spot the handbags by Tutela, I start calculating my checkbook balance, wondering if I can buy myself a gift. Two Denver women make the bags out of Asian silks and vintage and retro fabrics they collect.
Before leaving Concourse B, I have one more stop: Colorado Colors. Its local owner, Laura De Varona, has been in the airport-gift-shop business since the '70s, but this is currently her only store. It, too, has been at DIA since the airport opened and features jewelry and gifts made by local and regional artists, both contemporary and Native American. The entire back wall is devoted to T-shirts, including ones hand-painted by a local artist for $26.
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I press on to Concourse C and into Earth Spirit, which is owned by John and Kathleen Azila, the same Albuquerque couple that owns Way Out West. It's a pleasant surprise. The shelves are stocked with attractive pottery, and my eyes are drawn to a display of hanging wind chimes with softly clanging spoons instead of chimes. The largest has a silver teapot base from which the spoons dangle. It costs $159.99. The saleswoman says it was made by a Navajo woman in Albuquerque; the tag says Tempest in a Teapot, a company based in New Jersey.
Finally finished, I realize I've spent three hours shopping -- a little much for even a lengthy layover. Not to worry, though: Travelers stuck in security lines can buy at 30,000 feet in the air -- if they're flying Ted. United's discount carrier began selling retail items on its flights December 1. Passengers can select from a list of on-board gifts that includes an origami set, $5; a box of Fannie May Pixies, $10; a "Ted" bear by Russ, $15; an electronic twenty-questions game, 20Q, $20; or a pair of chameleon earrings, $25.
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski has her eye on the earrings; the cubic zirconia pieces look like diamonds indoors and change into shimmering pink sapphires in the sunlight. Urbanski doesn't have to go far to get a pair, as all of the Ted products are available onboard every plane. Because Ted has no first-class section and no ovens for food preparation, Urbanski says there's plenty of space to keep the planes stocked without worrying about being overweight and the resulting high fuel costs.
All in all, I think I could have pulled off a successful shopping trip without resorting to the cubic zirconia. The $29 Susan Vale jeans for my youngest sister. An $89 Tutela purse for the other sis and a $75 sterling bracelet for Mom, both from the Colorado Collection. For poor Dad, well, I could always run into one of the airport bookstores to get him a couple of history books or crime novels, more than likely at a marked-up price. But he enjoys that stuff. Grand total: under $250.