Montreal's Cast of Characters

Is Montreal Canada's happiest city? I have wandered a lot of streets in a lot of different cities in my life and I have never encountered so many happy surprises. Indeed the city does have a "joie de vivre" that doesn't exist in other cities, or perhaps it is just the Holiday (Happy) Season. 

After wandering the streets of the city for the past 10 days Montreal has become my happy place.  I thought Portland and Austin were happy places, but Montreal wins hands down with its crazy cast of characters and shops.  

I am not just speaking of the people, who indeed seem to be happy even in winter when it is snowing but also the many man-made characters I encountered as I wander Montreal's Rues and Avenues.  

I hope these photos will convey to you how Montreal's sense of fun and surprise combine to create a happy sense of place.

 I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.    

I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.   

  These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

  Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.    They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.  They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

  This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

  This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.   

This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.  

  I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans.  

I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans. 

  These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

  I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

  Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

  Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

  I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

  For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

  Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

 We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

 Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

  Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

  Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

  Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

  Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Last Word

One the the key elements of a "happy city" in my mind is how friendly people are to strangers.  Montrealers couldn't have been more friendly to us.

From the store owner who offered to drive us to the St. Michel Market when we asked if we were going in the right direction (it was just 5 blocks away) to the couple who shared their bottle of wine with us at Les Jardins des Panos restaurant when they realized we didn't bring any wine (it is a bring your own wine only restaurant).  

Or how the young lady working at the LNF vintage store was more than willing to share her hot tips with us on where to get the best finds.  She even gave us her name, phone number and email if we wanted to contact her later. 

Don't believe people when they say Montrealers won't speak to you in English.  We never once encountered a local who when we said "Bonjour, do you speak English" wasn't willing to talk to us in our native tongue. We loved how many Montrealers said with a smile,  "You practice your French and I will practice my English!"  We loved that!

Next year Montreal is celebrating its 375th Anniversary, if you are looking for someplace interesting to visit, Montreal should be at the top of your list.   

For me, Montreal has definitely become one of my happy places.    

If you like this blog, you will like:

Mexico City: Full Of Surprises

Treasure Hunting In Portland 

Austin is more fun than weird

Austin: An insider's guide!

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.
If you are thinking of a fun fall, winter or spring North American getaway this year, Austin should be near the top of your list.

Austin has lots of bling....

Editor's Note:

Dacyl Armendariz on a sunny patio in Austin.

When I knew I was heading to Austin earlier this year I asked Dacyl Armendariz, External Communications Manager, for car2go (whom I met at the 2014 Calgary Stampede) if she might have a few insider tips.  She sent me a very comprehensive list of suggestions, that even in two  weeks I couldn't possibly do.  When I asked her if I could post her email to me as a guest blog, she said, "Yes, but I will need to rework it a bit to make sure I have included a few things I left out."  

The following are Dacyl's wonderful insider tips to Austin.  

DA's Insider Tips

If you’ve read any “Best Places to Live” article in the past decade you’ve probably heard of Austin, TX. Apparently people take those lists and their glowing recommendations seriously, because there are now more than 150 people moving to Austin each day in search of breakfast tacos and near-constant warm weather. It would be a Texas-sized understatement to say that the state’s best-kept secret is out.

The influx of newcomers is exciting and is largely responsible for the revitalization of some of Austin’s oldest neighborhoods as well as a booming food scene. But beware – it also means there are hordes of people who just moved here and can’t wait to point you in all the wrong directions based on their limited, albeit enthusiastic, exploration of the city. Bless their hearts – they just want to help. But the truth is, there are too many new Austinites out there who might send you to Guero’s on your quest for the best Tex Mex. My personal sense of Southern Hospitality just can’t allow that.

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.

I’ve watched Austin evolve from a sleepy city in the middle of Texas to an international destination.

Yes Austin is fun, funky, quirky and many say weird....

I was here before Trader Joe’s was a fixture, I went to the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival and I can actually remember a time where traffic on I-35 didn’t convert it to a parking lot.

As much as I love being in Austin, I do travel quite a bit. When I visit a new place my goal is to eat the best food the city has to offer and get a taste of the culture and activities the city is known for. With that approach in mind, the following guide focuses on Austin restaurants, live music venues – we are the live music capital of the world – and a selection of some of our best swimming spots.

If you visit between the months of April through October you’ll understand why there’s a section dedicated to swimming and you’ll thank me. For good measure, I’ve thrown in a few other treasures.

As much as I will playfully beg you not to move here, I really do want you to love my city as much as I do. If you stay away from Guero’s and hit up the spots in my guide instead, I feel confident you will.

 Music Venues

Austin has fun retro element to it....

The Continental Club – 1315 South Congress Ave

An Austin institution since 1957 on one of our best streets. Live music every night.  Expect to hear blues, country, rockabilly and loud rock music here. Make sure to check out The Continental Club Gallery, an upstairs lounge with art, jazz and cocktails. The Gallery doesn’t have clear signage, head a couple of doors north of the main entrance and up the stairs.

The boys can play...

Elephant Room – 315 Congress Ave.

A basement bar where you will find a different jazz combo playing every night. Rarely a cover, always a good crowd.

Broken Spoke – 3201 S. Lamar Blvd

The quintessential Austin honky tonk. Some land developers actually purchased the land where the Broken Spoke is located and threatened to tear it down, but there was an extreme uprising from Austinites and it escaped unscathed. You’ll see the contrast of the new businesses and condos all around this Austin mainstay as evidence. This is a great dive bar where a band plays country music almost every night of the week and they have two-stepping lessons Wednesday – Saturday from 8:30-9:30 for the uninitiated so you can be prepared when the music starts. If you do the dance lessons get there by 8:00 to sign up!

P.S. there are always a handful of regulars – older gentleman who go every night to dance. They are part of what makes the place great so if they ask you to dance be sure to take them up on the offer!

She can sing and dance...

The Mohawk – 912 Red River Street

This is one of the newer venues that have become a favorite for Austinites. The music lineup is eclectic and includes Austin mainstays as well as some of the best musicians passing through town.  

Guero’s Garden Bar – 1412 South Congress Ave.

I know this seems like a confusing recommendation, give the warnings above. I stand by those warnings. Do not eat at Guero’s, no matter how many “Austinites” tell you it’s a must. The food is mediocre at best, but they have a great garden area next to the restaurant where there is always a steady stream of live music. The link above is to the music calendar so you can pick something out. They have a bar out there so you can enjoy a margarita with the free chips and salsa bar provided. This is a popular venue on sunny weekends, get there early to snag a table.

Saxon Pub – 1320 S. Lamar

Saxon Pub has been a fixture of the Austin music scene since 1990. There’s music every night of the week. Expect a cover for the night shows, but there are also free happy hour shows, weekend matinee shows and late night performances.

Austin is full of surprises...

Strange Brew – 5326 Manchaca Rd.

This is a coffee shop, a bit off the beaten path, that also has a lounge where you can find nightly live music. You’ll pay a cover, but you’ll also see some great music in a setting that most tourists miss. I highly recommend it! The link above is for their live music calendar.

C-Boy’s Heart and Soul – 2008 South Congress

A great, slightly divey, bar where you’ll find performances from some of Austin’s best musicians. If the company you keep truly says a lot about you, consider the fact that Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, Larry McMurtry and Jimmie Vaughn are often seen occupying one of C-Boy’s barstools. If you’re headed there for music, check their calendar before you go, they do have the occasional off night, but they have a band in residence playing every Tuesday night and they have live music every Thursday – Saturday like clockwork. Expect to hear blues, rock, country, jazz or soul music. If you are looking for a quieter place to get a drink, head upstairs to their cozy, red-lit lounge for a more intimate vibe.

Green Spaces

Town Lake is actually a reservoir of the Colorado River in Downtown Austin. It was renamed Lady Bird Lake in honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, but any true Austinite will tell you it’s still Town Lake to them. There’s a beautiful trail with several entry points and spots to rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards along the way. Visiting Town Lake is an Austin must.

Lady Bird Lake is a lovely oasis...

Zilker Park – 2100 Barton Springs Rd.

Zilker is our most well-known park. It’s right in the heart of the city with lots of space to roam, ride bikes, lounge, picnic, etc. The park is the site of the Austin City Limits Music Festival each September/October. Town Lake is also part of Zilker Park so you could easily fit both of these Austin icons into an afternoon.

A great time to visit is in early March for the annual Zilker Kite Festival.  The festival attracts hundreds of Autinites who fill the air with colorful kites.
Link: Austin's Kite Festival: Cheap, Colourful, Chaotic & Crazy
  One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free... .

One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free....

Zilker Botanical Garden – 2220 Barton Springs Rd.

A beautiful botanical garden in the heart of downtown.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden – 605 Robert E. Lee Rd.

A garden featuring sculpture artwork from a wide array of artists. They also offer events and free yoga.

Mount Bonnell

A great spot for gorgeous views of the city. Be warned there are A LOT of steps to climb to get to this spot – 102 to be exact. If you don’t want to tackle the climb you could also take advantage of the same views with a stop at Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock (4812 Mount Bonnell Rd.). The name is misleading, the only food they have are bags of assorted chips and there’s not actually a working boat dock, but this dive bar has a patio that provides the best spot in Austin to watch a sunset. Ignore all those people who tell you to head to the Oasis, that’s where you find a huge crowd, mediocre food and overpriced drinks. Instead, enjoy your view with a $2.00 beer at this dive.

Swimming Holes/Pools

Swimming gets its own section because when it gets hot in Austin – which is most of the year – you don’t want to be outside unless you are in or around the water. Some of these spots are not IN Austin proper, but the ones outside of our city limits are short day trips and totally worth the drive.

City Centre 

Barton Springs Pool – 2201 Barton Springs Rd.

This is my absolute favorite place in Austin. It’s a pool fed from an underground spring with an average year-round temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. There are always interesting people here and if you use the South gate entrance (700ish Robert E Lee Rd.) rather than the main entrance (2201 Barton Springs Rd.) you’ll see a collection of colorful Austinites – drum circles, people practicing acroyoga with a partner, hula hoopers and topless sunbathers. Barton Springs is synonymous with Austin. Entrance fee for non-residents of Austin is $8.00, but if you tell them you live in Austin the entrance fee is just $3.00. They never verify residence so you might as well save yourself $5.00 because when you are in Austin you become an honorary resident!

In Austin

Lake Travis or Lake Austin

You can rent boats/jet skis or even hop on a charter boat for a tour. If you’re not in the mood to swim you can also just head to one of the many restaurants/bars that offer beautiful views of these lakes.

 In Dripping Springs (50-minute drive from Austin)

Hamilton Pool Preserve – 24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs, TX

A gorgeous spot where a lagoon is fed by a small waterfall. It’s about a 15 minute walk down to the water, but it’s worth the effort. If you make the trip be sure to get there early – a limited number of people are allowed in so the lines get long in the afternoon when they start their one in, one out admission.

In Wimberley (45-minute drive from Austin)

Blue Hole – 100 Blue Hole Rd., Wimberley, TX

Hands-down one of the best swimming holes in Texas, Blue Hole is lined on both banks by cypress trees. There’s also a great rope swing if you’re so inclined. Be warned though, the local teenagers grew up on this rope swing and the tricks they perform for their swimming audience could make your attempt scream “rookie.” Blue Hole is open seasonally for swimming so check the website first for the hours.

In Spicewood (45-minute drive from Austin)

Spicewood – 404 Krause Spring Rd., Spicewood, TX

There are 32 springs and two pools for swimming as well as a lovely butterfly garden

Restaurants

The Austin restaurant scene has blown up and there are tons of great choices. The key items to make sure to eat are breakfast tacos (an Austin staple), Tex Mex and Barbecue. Austin is hugely lacking in good Asian and Italian food, so keep that in mind if anyone makes recommendations in that vein.

Breakfast Tacos

If you’re not yet familiar with the glory of breakfast tacos, prepare to be indoctrinated. See below for a list of the best breakfast taco joints in Austin. Don’t forget the salsa – each of the places below have several options to try. Most of these are also great options for lunch/dinner tacos!

**An important note about breakfast tacos – unless you are gluten intolerant, breakfast tacos are meant to be eaten on flour tortillas.

  Tacos are everywhere...

Tacos are everywhere...

Polvo’s – 2004 S 1st

In Austin, Tex-Mex – along with barbecue – is religion. There are tons of places to get your fix, but Polvo’s is my favorite. They have a killer salsa bar with lots of choices of varying heat levels. Make sure to try the queso here – it comes with accoutrements for you to add to your liking. My favorite item on the menu is the fish fajitas, but you can’t go wrong with anything you order here.

An important note about queso – If your previous experience with queso has anything to do with a jar or the description “cheese sauce,” that means you’ve never had queso. You’re about to have your mind blown. Pace yourself.

Other good Tex-Mex options: Tamale House East, Habanero (cash-only), Mi Madre’s, Vivo

For additional inspiration check out Austin Monthly’s recent Ultimate Guide to Tex-Mex

La Barbecue – 1906 E Cesar Chavez

You’ve likely heard of Franklin Barbecue – it’s nationally recognized as one of the very best barbecue places out there. The New York Times just did this story on it. People start queueing up for their amazing brisket starting around 6:00 AM every single morning, but if you want barbecue that’s equally great with a much shorter line, head to La Barbecue. The brisket is mandatory.

Other good barbecue options: Micklethwait Craft Meats, Stiles Switch BBQ, Freedmen’s, Lambert’s

  Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ – 7612 Brodie Lane

Valentina’s is the house of worship located at the intersection of the tex-mex and bbq religions. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll walk away wondering how you’ve lived this long without pairing brisket and traditional taco fillings.

Launderette – 2115 Holly St.

This is my favorite restaurant in Austin right now. Small plates – perfect for sharing – that facilitate trying a lot of the menu in one meal. If you like cheeseburgers, try theirs. It is perfect and simple. When the dessert menu comes fight the urge to order one of the fancier desserts and get the birthday cake ice cream sandwich. You can thank me later.

Uchi – 801 South Lamar

If I had to choose my last meal in Austin it would be the chef’s tasting omakase from Uchi. A sushi restaurant started by now famed chef Tyson Cole, Uchi is an innovative take on traditional sushi. The focus on traditional rolls is diminished in favor of next-level small plates. Please be warned, there is always a wait for this restaurant so make a reservation if you plan to go. Another note of warning – this restaurant is also very spendy, but worth every last penny.

East Side King – Several locations, see website

Originally a food truck opened by Top Chef winner Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya (fun fact – both were Tyson Cole’s protégés at Uchi), East Side King now has two locations in Austin that serve the incredible original menu – one food truck at the Liberty Bar and a brick-and-mortar on South Lamar Blvd. The East Side King family also has two recent additions called Thai-Kun that serve a playful Thai menu that is not to be missed - a food truck at the very cool bar Whisler's and brick-and-mortar in The Domain's new "Rock Rose" district.  My favorite of these spots is the original East Side King food truck behind the delightfully divey bar, The Liberty Bar, on East 6th. However, if the idea of sharing a picnic table outside, with a group of hipster strangers who are smoking American Spirits and sipping whiskey doesn’t appeal to you, hit up the brick-and-mortar location on South Lamar.

Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club – 2406 Manor Rd.

Dai Due’s commitment to serving regionally sourced ingredients runs so deep that even the beer and wine list is stocked exclusively with options from Texas. The food is as good as the menu is imaginative and everything tastes like it was prepared just for you by someone who cares. Head here for thoughtful service from knowledgeable servers who act as your guide through the innovative menu.

Contigo – 2027 Anchor Lane

Contigo describes its menu as farm-fresh Texas fare. That’s not all that descriptive, but all you need to know is that the food and cocktails are great and the ambiance is quintessential Austin. What does that mean? It means that all of the seating is outside – only the kitchen is held within four walls. This qualifies as quintessential Austin because it’s warm enough here 95% of the year to get away with that. They have a great Happy Hour including $1 fried chicken on Thursdays starting at 5:00 PM until they run out!

  Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Additional Austin Treasures

South Congress Avenue

South Congress is one of the best streets in Austin. Lined on either side with shops, restaurants, music venues and galleries, you could basically spend a full day walking up and down the street and never run out of things to do. On the first Thursday of each month – aptly called “First Thursday” – the shops stay open until 10:00 PM. My favorite South Congress spots include, but are not limited to:

  We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

 Parts and Labour – a great place to pick up gifts to take back to jealous friends at home, a new eclectic piece of jewelry from a local artisan or some concert artwork from one of the many amazing acts that have performed in Austin. Parts and Labour only sells goods from local Texas artists, designers, etc.

 Jo’s Coffee – stop by to order an “Iced Turbo” and take your photo by the now famous “I love you so much” graffiti on the side of the building. Show up on Sunday from 12:30 – 3:00 to check out their weekly “Sinner’s Brunch” to listen to great (FREE) live music with your coffee & breakfast taco. However, if you want to be true to the name, order a beer along with your coffee.

 Maya Star – this boutique jewelry store stocks one-of-a-kind pieces from some of the most creative designers out there. They also have a selection of adorable clothes and accessories at affordable prices.

 STAG Provisions for Men – stop in and enjoy a free Shiner Bock beer while you peruse their selection of high-end men’s clothing and accessories.

 Big Top Candy Shop – a circus-themed old fashioned candy store and soda shop where you will lose track of time while you’re reminded of all the classic candies you loved as a child.

Link: Austin: Kid In A Candy Store

Big Top Candy Shop is really really big...

Alamo Drafthouse

The world’s best movie theater chain got its start right here in Austin. Book your reserved seats on the website and prepare to enjoy the best movie-going experience of your life. Alamo has a menu of pizza, sandwiches, snacks and an excellent selection of beer and cocktails to enjoy during your flick (servers bring your order during the movie – quickly and silently like ninjas). In addition to showing new releases, Alamo offers screenings of repertory films you never thought you’d see on the big screen and incredible themed events. Think Beyoncé sing-alongs and film themed feasts.

A note about Alamo Drafthouse – this theater was founded with the mission of keeping the film watching experience sacred. If you show up late for your movie you will not be let in (so you can’t disturb everyone who made it on time) and if you talk or text during the movie you will be ejected without a refund. They take these rules seriously – don’t test them.

Harry Ransom Center

Located on the University of Texas at Austin campus (UT), the Harry Ransom Center is a library, archive and museum that exhibits rotating collections of art, manuscripts, photography, etc. Recent collections ranged from art and costumes from Gone With The Wind to a collection of art and correspondence from WWII.

Bonus – if you go to the Harry Ransom Center you’ll also get a chance to check out the UT campus where you’ll see the latest in backpack fashion and ask yourself “did I look this young when I was in college?” no less than 10 times. 

Last Word 

There you have it, Dacyl's insider tips. Enough Said!

  If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...

If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...

Group Think Or Good Urban Planning?

Visually it is eerie how similar Austin’s 2nd Street District and Calgary’s East Village look.

On a recent trip to Austin I was amazed at how similar their 2nd Street District’s recipe for urban renewal is to Calgary’s one for East Village.   The 20-block includes numerous high-rise condos, mixed with a few mid-rise, and dashes of - a new library, city hall and signature pedestrian/cycling bridge over Lady Bird Lake (aka long narrow reservoir on the Colorado River).

While Calgary’s East Village has an old Simons Mattress building as its signature historic building on the river, Austin’s 2nd Street has the historic Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant, currently being transformed into a mixed-use building with condos, offices retail. 

Austin's downtown skyline is dominated by condo towers.

City of Austin Power Plant that is being repurposed as part of the mega makeover of their downtown next to Lady Bird Lake. 

The Simmons Limited warehouse building has been transformed into multi-tenant restaurant, cafe and bakery on RiverWalk next to the Bow River. 

Austin’s 2nd Street District, like East Village, is still a work in progress. But it is perhaps a five year head start as it already has two grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and boasts 50+ upscale places to sip, savour and shop – East Village has three.

From a housing perspective, 2nd St. District has several completed high-rise condos including The Austonian a 56-storey currently the tallest building in Austin. There are also several condos under construction including The Independent, a funky chunky tower, that surpass The Austonian by 2-feet.

Calgary’s current tallest building The Bow, office tower, is 58-storeys.  And though technically in East Village, in reality it faces southwest into the downtown central business district and turns its back on East Village.

The major difference is that Calgary’s East Village has direct access to the Bow River, while Austin’s 2nd Street District is cut off from the Lady Bird Lake by a major highway (Cesar Chavez Street).  However, Austin’s 2nd Street District has much better connectivity to it’s neighbouring districts than Calgary’s East Village which is cut off from its neighbouring districts by the Municipal Building and CPR railway tracks.

Austin's 2nd Street District is cut off from the waterfront by a major highway. 

Road connecting Austin's 2nd Street District to major road along the river similar to Calgary's Memorial Drive. 

Calgary's East Village condos this summer. Residents are now moving in and new mixed-use projects are commencing construction. 

Calgarians have direct access to the Bow river from East Village.  

Fostering Urban Vitality

Interestingly the streets of Austin’s 2nd Street District were devoid of urban vitality weekdays and weekends despite thousands of residents. It was only around the James D. Pfluger pedestrian bridge and the reservoir pathway that we experienced Austin’s urban vibe. 

Like Calgary, the pathways along Lady Bird Lake were packed with people of all ages - running, walking and cycling.  I dare say they are used even more than Calgary’s. Austin’s pathways are literally just a wide “bare ground” path that weaves its way naturally along the heavily treed shoreline. There is no separation for different users.  This is very different from Calgary’s expensive, highly designed, hard-surfaced Eau Claire and East Village pathways.

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge doesn't feel like a bridge, more like a promenade. 

  East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

Austin's river pathway near 2nd Street District on the weekend.  

Lady Bird Lake is very animated with canoes, kayaks, fishing boasts and other water craft creating a colourful and animated sense of place. 

St. Patrick's Island in East Village is quickly becoming a popular hang-out spot for families in Calgary. 

Calgarians love to stroll along the Bow River near downtown. 

St. Patrick's pathway along the Bow River in Calgary's East Village also offers passive places to sit, think and reflect.

Too soon to judge

One can’t help but wonder if there is a real urban planner group think when it comes to creating early 21st century urban villages as they all seem to have the same formula – lots of high-end, high-rise condos for young professionals and empty nesters with a smattering of grocery stores, retail and restaurants at ground level and anchored by major public spaces and one or two mega public buildings.  

Rendering of Austin's new public library located in the 2nd Street District. The library is under construction.

Rendering of Calgary's new public library in East Village, which is also under construction. 

Austin's 2nd Street retail streetscape. 

East Villages street retail is just starting to take shape. 

  View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

Billion Dollar Experiments

I am reminded of some of the lessons of Jane Jacobs community vitality activist and author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities that has become the bible for many urban planning. She warned, “beware of planners and urban development plans that try to encourage orderly city planning.”

I hope these billion-dollar experiments in city building in both Calgary and Austin work as planned. Only time will tell.  Calgary’s East Village experiment is looking good now, but it won’t be until 2040 that we will really know if the East Village master plan has resulted in an attractive, sustainable, vibrant urban community.

Calgary's East Village emerging skyline from St. Patrick's Island. 

Austin's downtown condo skyline at night.

Last Word

The time to judge the success of any new master planned community, urban or suburban, is about 10 to 15 years after it has been completed.

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine. 

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Lo-Burn: Austin's Vintage District

Mid-century flaneuring always makes me happy. I think it is the cheerful colours – bright oranges, baby blues, spring greens and sunshine yellows.

If you are into vintage and visiting Austin the Lo-Burn (Lower Burnet Road) district is a “must see.”

You can't miss Top Drawer Thrift with its huge floor lamp, lime green facade and drawers on the roof.  

Lo-Burn IBIZ District

We stumbled upon this up and coming district when we entered “thrift stores” on Google Maps and saw a cluster on Burnet Road (pronounced “Burn-it” by locals) from 49th N Street to North Loop Boulevard. Conveniently, it was in the car2go home area, so off we went.

Here you will find not only three thrift stores, but two mid-century furniture shops, an antique store and an outlet designer women’s clothing boutique, as well as local eatery favourites - Torchy’s Tacos and Tiny Pies. If you walk further south there are some other places that look interesting…but who has time to eat when there are treasures to be found.

Top Drawer Thrift (SW corner of Burnett and W 49th St)

Top Drawer Thrift was the best thrift store we found in Austin by a long shot.  While it isn’t the largest it had great quality and selection of vintage clothing, home accessories and art. The displays were fun and exotic. The staff were friendly and the prices were great.  The electronic section was the big surprise with unusual items from a huge pile of vintage radio tubes (Brenda couldn’t resist adding one to her collection) to old film projectors.  I got a framed kitschy artwork with a Cowboy face and Old Made cards background.

Vintage radio tubes at Top Drawer Thrift

Vintage electronics at Top Drawer Thrift

Vintage Fun

Uptown Modern (5111 Burnet Rd) is like walking into a mid-century furniture art museum.  The show room is spacious and the displays are grouped by colour.  If I was starting an art collection, this is where I would head.

Gypsies Antiques (5202 Burnet Rd) is a traditional antique store with many very interesting vignettes under glass domes.  And Vin Taj (52,000 Burnet Rd) has not only interesting furniture and home accessories, but some great paintings that we would have loved to take home.  Darn those airline baggage size restrictions!

Learn more about Austin’s mid-century modern scene

Uptown Modern has a wonderful collection of vintage furniture, home accessories and art. 

One of several glass dome pieces at Gypsies Antiques

Spring Frost Boutique (5101 Burnet Rd)

Though Spring Frost is not a vintage shop (it stocks designer clothing and shoes at deep discount prices), it is worth checking out. The staff were friendly and let me take all the photos I wanted. I love photographing women shoes – to me some are like works of miniature works of art.

Spring Frost shoe fun!

American League Alliance (4901 Burnet Rd)

Across the street from Top Drawer is a large American League Alliance thrift store, which is definitely worth stopping into. checking out. They had some great deals on cowboy boots when we were there. It is staffed by charming retired ladies who are very attentive to creating wonderful displays that give the store a vintage, grandmother-like atmosphere.

Savers (5222 Burnet RD)

Savers is Austin’s equivalent of Value Village and is just three blocks north of the Top Drawer.

American League has everything including the piano. 

Refreshments

I am told Torchy’s Tacos (5119 Burnet Rd), an icon in Austin, started with a single food cart. It now has several stores across the city.  The Burnet Road eatery’s patio is good place to recharge your batteries. 

Tiny Pies (5035 Burnet Road) - Zagat says, “The pies are just like mom used to make, only much much smaller. The petite offerings are modern twists on family recipes and include everything from breakfast pies to strawberry-basil pies, plus quiche, pie pops and mason-jar desserts.”  We loved the pecan pies after our Torchy’s tacos.

There is also a fun food truck hub village across the street from Tiny Pies. A bit hidden in the parking lot at the back, but it is worth a look with its own playground and a barbershop up front. How cool is that?

Pinthouse Pizza, Apothecary Café and Wine Bar, Pinthouse Pizza and Phoenicia Bakery and Deli south of W 49th Street all looked interesting.

Torchy's Tacos hit the spot!

Lo-Burn's food cart lot includes several food carts, a barber shop and playground. Very Cool!

IBIZ 101

Of Austin’s eight IBIZ (Independent Business Improvement Zones) Lo-Burn was the most interesting.

The criteria for an IBIZ district include:

  • At least 75% locally owned businesses (currently, all districts host 95% to 100% locally owned businesses)
  • Have 20 to 100 businesses (current districts have 23 to 90 businesses)
  • No more than one mile in walkable distance (current districts range from .4 to 1 mile)

Top Drawer Thrift fashions!

Last Word

Don’t expect a lot of streetscape improvements - banners, hanging flower baskets or street furniture – along Austin’s IBIZs.  And while the distances are walkable, the sidewalks may not be in the greatest shape (nor might there always be one) and streets are more vehicle-oriented than pedestrian-friendly.

But for the urban wanderer, these are interesting places to explore. We went to Lo-Burn twice!

Bonus: We were lucky enough to have the same car2go we’d parked 3 hours ago, still parked in the same spot we left it. 

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Austin's Kite Festival: Cheap, Colourful, Chaotic & Crazy!

For a long time I have been saying Calgary needs a kite festival. What the heck every city needs a kite festival.  Here in Calgary, a kite festival would be a great signature event for Fort Calgary and East Village.  When I knew we would be in Austin in early March, I was thrilled to discover we could attend their annual kite festival – the world’s oldest.

Each year Austin’s Kite Festival attracts over 20,000 people of all ages and is one of the city’s best-known annual events. Held on the first Sunday of March, (the second Sunday of March is the alternate day if weather doesn’t cooperate),

Family fun for everyone at the Austin Kite Festival.

 

It is the kick-off to springtime in Austin

Everyone is welcome – there is no admission to attend, no obligation to participate in the contests or even fly a kite.  Most folks do try their hand at flying a kite, but some just come to see the spectacular sight of thousands of kites in the sky and to enjoy a spring day in the park. It is perhaps one of the most inclusive events I have every seen.

Too Much Fun

The festival lived up to my expectations. There was lots of excitement in the air when I arrived at 11 am in the massive park (350 acres i.e. 16 times the size of Calgary’s Riley Park). 

I overheard one kite flyer say he was there at 6 am to get the best spot. (Hmmm – sounds like something one would here on Stampede Parade Day in Calgary.)  Another guy said he had driven six hours to get there and does so every year. Many young families, pulling wagons with food, coolers and assorted paraphernalia (some even with their dog) came out for the day.

The kids were all smiles with lots of room to run, twirl and look at all of the dancing kites. I was shocked at how many young kids were actually able to fly the kites.  And while it looked very chaotic with people scattered everywhere and invisible strings being manipulated at every which angle, I saw only a few injured kites and no injured kids.  It was a Sunday miracle.

I think the photo and video speak for themselves.

A sense of the chaos that is the Austin Kite festival. 

Photographers love to get just the right perspective.

The kite festival is pure joy for little ones. 

Bubble making fun is also part of the kite festival.

It is not just kids and families that enjoy Austin's Kite Festival. 

History 

The ‘Kite Tournament’ was created in 1929 by a men’s service club called The Exchange Club of Austin with a mission to encourage creativity in children. Exchange Club President Ed St. John came up with the idea to give kids a constructive activity the community could participate in. The first Tournament was held in Lamar Park, which is thought to have been close to the intersection of Congress Avenue and 1st Street in the middle of downtown.

In 1936, the Exchange Club partnered with the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department to bring the event to newly opened and larger Zilker Park. In 1956, the Kite Tournament was opened to competitors of all ages, and to this day contest events have changed very little.

Austin’s Zilker Park Kite Festival is the longest continuously running kite festival in the United States and continues to be sponsored by the Exchange Club and the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department every year. Its lead corporate sponsor for 2016 was ABC Home and Commercial.

Last Word

Austin’s Kite Festival is cheap, colourful, chaotic and crazy – all in a very good way. 

Wouldn't it be great if this open field at Fort Calgary became the home for an annual kite festival and perhaps an informal kite flying park when not in use for festivals. 

car2go tips for the savvy urban traveller

The savvy urban traveller today has more transportation options when s/he is travelling than ever before. It used to be the options were to walk, take transit, hail a cab or rent a car.  Now the list often includes things like car2go, Lyft, Uber and bike rentals.

A big walker, I usually just give myself enough time to walk as I often find hidden gems along the way.  And given most of my holidays are spent wandering the streets of the city centre, walking and public transit are my norm. However, I am finding more and more I want to travel beyond the city centre to find those hidden urban gems.

When researching Austin TX, I quickly discovered many of the music venues I wanted to go to and the thrift stores Brenda wanted to dissect were not easily walkable from our Clarksville neighbourhood Airbnb. 

Also quickly figuring out public transit in Austin wasn’t great and Brenda not being a bike rider, our options were quickly becoming more limited.  That was when I thought this holiday would be a good time to give car2go a try.  There had been many times in Calgary when I had passed one of their “funny little cars” and thought how quick and easy it would be to hop into one rather than walk the 50 minutes each way to a downtown meeting from our house.

So like all good travel writers, I contacted car2go, which just happens to have its head office in Austin, and asked if they would be willing give the Everyday Tourist some free minutes while we were in Austin in return for texting out about where we took our car2go.  There was no obligation (or pressure what so ever) to do a blog and write something nice about them. They were genuinely happy to simply have us tweet out how we used car2go.

They even offered – and I readily accepted an orientation in Calgary so we could hit the road “driving” when we arrived at the Austin airport.

Big Savings:

During our two-week Austin stay (Feb 25 to March 8, 2016), our car2go costs added up to $317.82 US for our 44 trips. Renting a small car would have cost us about $800 US, plus gas and parking.  The $500 savings paid for one of our airfares; that’s being savvy traveller.

Lessons Learned:

Yes, you can fit two good size pieces of luggage in the back of a car2go.  (Car2go currently has airport parking access in six of their 13 North American locations - Austin, TX; Columbus, OH; Vancouver, BC; Calgary, AB; Toronto, ON and Minneapolis, MN.)

I loved that I could reserve a car for 30 minutes on my phone and know exactly where it would be waiting for me. I even found I didn’t mind that 5 or 10-minute walk to my car as it felt I was getting some exercise – walk and ride vs. park and ride! And it sure was much nicer than walking to a nearby bus stop and waiting 5, 10 or 15 minutes. 

I loved the ability to park just about anywhere, as you need only a little space and the cars maneuver easily to park. (Caution: The parking rules are different in every city so be sure to review the parking information on their local website for the city you are visiting before you go.)

Only in Austin can it be 30 C and they still call it winter (we were there in late February and early March and it sure felt like summer). Brenda loved that the air conditioning was “instant on.”

car2go allowed us to check out off the beaten path places like Black's BBQ. Now that's a rib. 

But what we loved most is car2go gave us the freedom to quickly explore places in Austin we probably would never have done without using car2go. This can be particularly good on short vacations when time is limited. It also meant we could visit three, sometimes four, districts a day, jumping in and out of the car all day long as if we owned it.  Yes, we would get a car in the morning and often have the same car to drive home.  (Caution: You can’t assume that you own the same car for the day so be sure to take all your belongings with you at all times.)

We even used the navigation system at the beginning (we don’t have one in either of our cars) and it worked well (except we couldn’t figure out how to get it to talk to us) but by the third day we had the lay off the land, so didn’t need it.

It was great for grocery shopping as we could walk there and grab a car2go for about $4 and be back with our bags of food and adult refreshments in our Airbnb apartment in minutes.  

We also found by using car2go rather than walking 15 to 20 km a day, we were more rested and keen to check out Austin’s music venues at night.

One of the biggest surprises in Austin was that the residential streets (at least in our area), have poor or no sidewalks and lighting is minimal.  I mean the streets are pitch black (“bring a flashlight” black).  There is no way you want to walk home after dark. Car2go was the perfect way to check out Austin’s music venues, which often start with a Happy Hour at 6:30pm, then a headliner at 10pm and a nightcap band at midnight.

  Sunday afternoon at Saxon's Pub was a definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We probably wouldn't have made it here if not for car2go.

Sunday afternoon at Saxon's Pub was a definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We probably wouldn't have made it here if not for car2go.

Last Word

Overall, car2go allowed us to make better use of our time and energy, and develop a better appreciation of all Austin has to offer. Using car2go and staying in an Airbnb, we really felt like we were locals for two weeks.

I can definitely see us using car2go in Calgary and when we are planning future trips. 

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Half Price Books: Disneyland For Bibliophiles!

I love browsing used bookstores - you never know when you will find a hidden gem you didn’t know you needed.  Brenda loves to browse thrift stores and can do so for hours, but a typical thrift store book section for me is at best a 5-minute exercise. 

I knew I was in some place special when I saw this note on a bottom shelf almost as soon as I walked into HPB.

When researching Austin, we knew it had lots of thrift stores, what we didn’t know is it has the mother lode of bookstores. We only found that out when we parked our car2go at the Goodwill on North Lamar and I noticed next door was a big box store called “Half Price Books.”  It didn’t look anything special, just your typical suburban big box store with what I expected would be full of the typical publisher’s remainder books.

Backstory: Remainders are books that no longer sell in sufficient volume for a publisher to continue promoting economically. Therefore, the publisher sells whatever inventory they have on-hand to book remainders distributors and book wholesalers at deep discounts who then sell them to the public for as much as 90% off the publisher's suggested retail price. These books may still have a lot of life left and can be very profitable for Internet booksellers and brick and mortar retail stores. If chosen wisely, you can have a nearly inexhaustible supply of near perfect books acquired at bargain basement prices.

This was the smiling face that greeted me as I walked into the North Lamar HPB.

Boy was I wrong….

So I headed into Goodwill with Brenda and thought I’d check Half Price Books out once I had done my thrift store browsing.  Sure enough after about 15 minutes I said to B, “I’m heading over to the bookstore, see you in about 10 minutes.”

I first checked out the book bins outside and the prices were good and the selection was surprisingly interesting. Once inside, I had to give my head a shake, as the store was Disneyland for any book lover.  For those of you who live in Calgary, it is like Fair's Fair Books in Inglewood times 10 - maybe more.  And it works a bit like Fair's Fair with people selling them books for cash - there is no store credit option.

As you can see HPB is very serious about buying books and music.

Feeling the Love

I wandered in a daze for bit, trying to take it all in. Finally I asked, “Can I take pictures” as this was definitely blog worthy.  It took awhile, but I got permission and everyone was very helpful when I asked about books on urban planning, biographies, music and golf. 

When I went into the Rare Book section (the size of most used bookstores) I was greeted with “how may I help you” and she really meant it as she tried to find something that might interest me. I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of the staff, everyone really loved their job.

However, I walked away empty handed, but full of lasting impressions. So much so, when I figured out Austin’s south side the Goodwill and HPB are across the street from each other I said, “We gotta go there before we leave.”

Two days later we were there for door opening.  And it was the same thing the staff were welcoming, knowledgeable and attentive.  This time I hit the mother lode for my book collection.  In the clearance section I found a first edition Ansel Adams biography by Mary Street Alinder. Guess how much? rallod eno (read backwards). But that is not all, it is signed by the author. 

This is the Clearance section in the South Lamar HPB where I found my steal of a deal. Thanks HPB. 

HPB 101

I decided to get in touch with HPB marketing, communications and public relations team to find out more about the history.  I provided them with a list of questions and within 24 hours Zachary Nash, Community Outreach Specialist Half Price Books North Lamar emailed me back with answers to all of my questions.  How impressive is that?

Everyday Tourist: Where is your biggest store?

Zachary: Our largest store by far is the flagship location on Northwest Highway in Dallas. It is 54,000 square feet and is also the location of HPB’s corporate offices.

As you can see, HPB is more like a library than a bookstore.  The shelves are all perfectly organized and books are clean and prices clearly marked. 

Everyday Tourist: How big is Austin’s North Lamar store?

Zachary: The North Lamar location is the second largest in the entire company, with about 20,000 square feet of bookstore goodness. It also sport the company’s only Rare Books Room, a special annex that houses rare, collectable, signed, first edition, and out of print books, records, and ephemera.

Also, North Lamar features a sizeable community space where we host various events, including author signings, independent publishing seminars, pet adoptions, figure drawing workshops, and virtually anything else for which our community might find reasonable use.

Just one of the many collector book displays. 

A rare book indeed.

Everyday Tourist: Where is your smallest store?

Zachary: Our store with the least square footage is a petite shop of 5,600 square feet located in the lovely town of Apple Valley, Minnesota.

The Children's section is bright and cheerful.

Everyday Tourist: What is the most valuable book the North Lamar store has ever sold?

To my memory, the highest priced, most exciting item we sold was a 1659 first edition of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, occult philosopher/sorcerer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

The tome is a manuscript unearthed from his home and published by Meric Casaubon, whose apparent motives were to criticize and slander Dee. However, the book was a huge success and cemented Dee’s reputation as a legendary mystic.

We wound up selling it about a year ago to the owners of a private museum in England who intend to restore it to its original splendor using the book’s original plates.   

Yes there are good deals to be had.

Everyday Tourist: What is the strangest request you have received or questions asked? A funny story?

Zachary: We get some colorful characters at our location. Something about bookstores draws in personalities you might not encounter elsewhere in the world. I’ve seen people come here on dates, for meetings, or even just to kill an afternoon.

And we have regulars whose tastes we’ve gotten to know through their years of patronage, so like a good bartender who has your drink ready as soon as you walk in, we can often show off cool new merchandise tailored to their interests we know they’ll appreciate.

A strange request came about when I was recently stationed at our information counter. A woman approached me to ask if we had any books that would help her trap a ghost in a crystal. I wanted to help, because there’s obviously a fascinating story there and my curiosity was definitely piqued. I asked her if she knew what that technique was called, because that information might help me locate something for her.

She smiled and said, “I don’t know what it’s called, I just need to know how to do it.” At this point our employee who runs the Metaphysics section stepped in to help her sort out the request and I didn’t hear any more about it, but I like to think she was able to find a crystal big enough to suit her needs.

It really doesn’t take much effort on our part to keep Austin weird ‘round these parts.

Imagine selling books by the yard. That Pat is a genius.  

Everyday Tourist: Approximately how many books do you have in inventory at any given time for all of your stores? Records? Comics?

Zachary: Our inventory fluctuates in amount pretty frequently, but it’s usually over 200,000 items. Since we buy the majority of our stock directly from the public, our merchandise changes daily.

I do know that last year HPB donated over a million books to schools, charities, and non-profits, and our inventory did not suffer, so we’ve got plenty of goods to go around.

And I know serious record and comic collectors who shop our stores on the regular because it’s almost guaranteed they’ll find an elusive gem in our stacks. I think one of the best things about our merchandise is that we carry materials that simply do not exist anymore. In addition to the more traditional printed and recorded materials available, we also stock VHS tapes, 8-track and standard cassettes, and laserdiscs.

Some things go out of print almost immediately, and you have virtually no chance of finding them again at other stores. But you can find them at Half Price Books. And we can search our entire chain-wide inventory and ship books from any location, so for instance, if you’re a diehard Golden Girls fan, we can track down Rue McClanahan’s My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away for you. I just checked, and as I write this there are at least eleven copies available. Incredible.

Another example of one of the shelves to give you an appreciation of the quality and diversity of the books available. 

Everyday Tourist: What book do you currently have the most copies of?

Zachary: I really don’t know! We have lots of books and the amounts of individual titles fluctuates as they sell. I do know that some current hot sellers are The Girl on the Train, the Martian and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Everyday Tourist: Any other fun fact, figures etc. would be great.

Zachary: Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson cofounded our company in 1972 in a renovated Laundromat stocked with books from their personal libraries in Dallas, TX.

I’ve heard that Pat was a brilliant woman who used pencils all the way down to nubs, with fully intact erasers because there was never need to correct her work. They have some of her pencils at the corporate offices.

The company is still family-owned, with Pat’s daughter Sharon steering the ship.  She goes by her nickname, Boots.

I’ve heard that Michael Jackson once arranged a shopping spree at Austin’s Northwest Highway store sometime in the 1990s, arrived after hours in sunglasses and spent thousands of dollars on art books (rumour, but from a good source).    

Oh, and some of our employees are gifted authors. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Because of Winn-Dixie is a former HPB employee. My coworker Dale Bridges published an excellent collection of short stories called Justice, Inc., which has been a best seller out of our Local Authors consignment section.

Everyday Tourist: How big is HPB’s inventory?

Zachary: Chain wide we have more than 20 million items. We’d estimate at any given time we have about 14,000,000 books, 775,000 comics and 470,000 records, the remainder being cards, dolls and other collector items. 

HPB should also be called Half Price Music.

While there are lots of chairs around some people just make themselves at home and sit on the floor. 

Last Word

When researching other cities to visit in the USA, I will be sure to check the HPB site to see if they have a store in that city, or if on road trip I will see what HPB are on the way. I am not sure I can call a 20,000 square foot store a hidden gem, but HPB seems like a hidden gem to me. 

I am not usually a big fan of chain store, but in the case of HPB I will make an exception. In both of the stores I visited, they seemed more like independent local stores than impersonal, cookie-cutter, big box stores. 

I should also give thanks to car2go as without a car I doubt we would have ventured as far out of the City Centre as need to get to Half Price Books.  Full Disclosure: car2go gave us free minutes to use while in Austin in return for tweeting about our adventures. 

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University of Texas: Backpack Fashion Show

One of the things we love to do when visiting a new city is to flaneur the university campus. We love the youthful vibrancy and are usually rewarded with a few surprises. We made some very interesting discoveries when flaneuring post-secondary campuses (see links at end of blog).  

So when in Austin, we decided to spend a Thursday morning checking out the Blanton Art Museum (free all day Thursday) and then flaneur the campus to see what hidden gems we cold find.

After finishing wandering the museum (highly recommended), we just followed the student pedestrian traffic into the centre of campus. Quickly we were swarmed by students trying to give us free stuff.  I still have no clue what was going on or why they were giving away things.

I think there is only one student in this photo who doesn't have a backpack.

Button Making Fun For Everyone!

Eventually, we did stop for four young women, who didn’t want any money, who asked us if we wanted to make personalize buttons for free. Who could resist?  In the end we made five and took a sixth one from their pre-made bin.  They didn’t want to take any money, but we gave them a donation.

Who could resist these smiles and the opportunity to make art buttons?

Backpacks Gone Wild

We wandered a bit further and the foot traffic was incredible, it was literally like an ant farm. Maybe a better analogy would be like a NYC subway station at rush hour.  We decided to just sit and absorb the amazing energy.  

After a few minutes I said to Brenda “I bet 90% of the students are wearing backpacks.” She looked around and said, “I bet it is higher. I am having a hard time finding a single student who doesn’t have one.”  

We then wondered when did the backpack become such an integral part of our everyday lives.  We often laugh when we walk by elementary schools and the backpack is almost as big as the child. It seems like people young and old don’t go anywhere these days without a backpack.

Backpack as a fashion statement!

If you Google “ What does your backpack say about you?” you will get over 34 million results in 1 second. 

I am not going to bore you with what they had to say. But I have integrated some fashion quotes with the postcard images that I thought might stimulate some backpack as a fashion statement thinking.

Has the backpack has become not only critical to our everyday life, but is it also a fashion statement. 

Below is a small sample of the backpack fashion show we experience at lunch at the University of Texas, Austin, campus on March 3, 2016. I hope you enjoy the show. 

Coco Chanel

'Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.'

Marilyn Monroe

'Give a girl the right shoes (backpack) and she can conquer the world.'

Christian Dior

'You can never take too much care over the choice of your shoes. Too many women think that they are unimportant, but the real proof of an elegant woman is what is on her feet (should that be her back).'

Alexander Wang

Anyone can get dressed up and glamorous, but it is how people dress in their days off that are the most intriguing.'

Orson Welles


Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.'

Backpack makes subtle political/social statement.

Love me, love my backpack

Michelle Obama

'If I can have any impact, I want women to feel good about themselves and have fun with fashion'

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As chance would have it the next day I was heading to Cafe Medici for a cup of java and passing the Mathews Elementary School I was treated to another back back fashion show. 


Austin is more fun than weird!

While Austin’s moniker is “Keep Austin Weird,” I have not found anything about this city that I would call weird. On the other hand, I have found lots of fun things, which in my mind is even better as “Fun” appeals to more people than “Weird.”  

One of the first things we encountered as we headed out on the sidewalks was a neon sign “Wiggy’s Beer Wine” and thought “That’s Fun!”  Then we came upon a giant gorilla on the next block, which was an obvious “Kodak Moment.” And from there it was some fun fruit sculptures on the top of a parkade. This was all within the first 30 minutes.

One of Brenda’s observations about Austin is that it is a bit like Vegas with lots of neon signs everywhere.  While Austin’s neon signs are not big, bold and flashy like Vegas, they are fun and charming. And yes there are everywhere even in the ‘burbs. Neon is always fun.

For the first few days it seemed like it was just one fun thing after another. Here are our baker’s dozen “Austin is Fun” postcards.  

Established in 1973, the Wiggly Beer Wine neon sign marks the entrance to a tiny liquor store at the gateway to downtown along 6th Street West. 

Every city needs a good local fried chicken spot, Austin has many. Fresa's is take out only and is just a block from the Hope Outdoor Gallery, making it a popular spot with the picnickers. 

I told you Austin had more than one fried chicken spot.  This sign has is the most literal reference to Vegas. 

The name says it all - WAHOO!

Found this on a bottom shelf at HalfPrice Books at 5555 N Lamar.  Now that funny!

Found Lucy on the roof of a shop along South Congress. Lucy is fun and the play on the Beatles song is also fun. 

I have not clue what these are doing on the roof of parkade. This you could call "weird." 

Another fun name and sign of a business along South Congress in Austin. 

Every city has painted utility boxes these days, but Austin's have a fun twist.  Found these in the Clarksville community where we are staying in an apartment Airbnb. Love the cartoon narrative.  

Even the thrift stores get into Austin'd spirit of fun.  This is just one of dozens of chandeliers in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on South Congress. 

How fun is a bowling ball fence? 

This was the best thrift store we found in Austin. Very good product, lovely displays and good prices.  What is with the roof-top artworks? 

Airstream trailers are everywhere in Austin. You can find them in backyards and front yards on Airbnb. You can find them downtown selling custom designed boots. You can find them selling Big. Fat. Donuts! I even found one at a construction site office. 

West Austin Park pool looks lovely in winter but it only open in summer.

Last Word

We did find one weird thing about Austin and it is that  the lovely neighbourhood pool in the West Austin Park near our Airbnb (aka Austin home) is only open for two or three months in the summer.  What is weird is there is beautiful clean water in the pool year-round and it is +30 in March why wouldn't it be open now.  We asked locals and they also thought it was weird. 

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Austin: Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden

From Zilker Garden website: "Opened to the public in 1969, the Garden was built by Mr. Taniguchi when he was seventy years old. Working without a salary or a contract, Mr. Taniguchi spent 18 months transforming 3 acres of rugged caliche hillside into a peaceful garden. As is often done in Japan, the ponds were designed in the shape of a word or ideogram. In this case, the ponds in the first half of the garden spell out the word "AUSTIN", reflecting the fact that these gardens were constructed as a gift to the city. The remains of the Mother Tree, which inspired Mr. Taniguchi to complete his building of the garden, overlooks the pond.

The Togetsu-kyo bridge or "Bridge to Walk Over the Moon" is theoretically positioned so that, when the moon is high, it reflects in the water and follows you across the bridge. The idea is that as you gaze at the reflection of the moon on the water's surface, ultimate universal beauty will be revealed to you."

Indeed, the Japanese Garden was the highlight of our visit to the Zilker Park's Botanical Garden. In fact, the rest of the garden was a bit of a disappointment even though irises and some trees and shrubs were flowers were out in the neighbourhood gardens there wasn't any flowers in the rest of the garden.  In fact, much of the garden looked like it needed a good weeding.  The children's garden was just sad.  Enough said!

Here are a baker's dozen of postcards from Isamu Taniguchi's Japanese Garden. Hope you enjoy!

under bridge

Austin's Wonderful, Wacky & Weird Outdoor Art Gallery

I had read about and seen pictures of Austin’s Hope Outdoor Gallery (HOG), but they did not prepare me for the three-storey outdoor graffiti gallery located on an abandon inner-city lot on the side of hill over-looking downtown.

Backstory: I love graffiti art. I even travelled from Gleichen, Alberta to New York City in the early ‘80s to experience graffiti art in its heyday - from subway cars to upscale art galleries. I came back and created several graffiti murals on the sides of buildings in Gleichen as well as incorporated it into my studio painting.  That was another life.

The view from the top gives you a sense of the height and scale of the project.  

From The Top

Found this spray can at the top of the Gallery, inviting me to contribute.  I am tempted to go back. 

We entered from the top of the gallery, which is not the usual entrance, which is at the bottom along Baylor Street at 11th Street. We were walking from our Clarksville Airbnb apartment so I knew we could get there taking the back route, but couldn’t quite find it. 

Knowing we were close and seeing a fireman getting out of his car at a charming historic fire station we asked him how to get to the outdoor gallery. He pointed and said, “Go to the end of the No Outlet (aka cul de sac) street that we had just passed and you will be at the top.” He also warned us to be careful if we tried to walk down as the area is badly washed out. Oh those fireman, they are always looking out for everyone’s safety.

Heading down the street we first came upon a wonderful castle-looking estate over looking the city. We soon found out its the offices of Castel Hill Partners and wondered how they liked being next to a graffiti park?

Fast-forward: When I got back to do some more research on the park, turns out Castel Hill Partners own the land, are land developers and are obviously just waiting to develop it.  I could help but wondered why they aren’t worried about the liabilities associated with letting people climb up and down their property. Somebody could easily get hurt and there are no signs saying, “use at your own risk.”

Jackson Pollock & Graffiti Art

Once we reached the edge it wasn’t as dangerous as the fireman suggested, but yes you have to be careful.  The view of the city was spectacular and the park is a kaleidoscope of colour.  It is definitely more of a graffiti park than a street art park as there are only a few areas where an individual artist’s work has been left untouched. Rather it is just layer upon layer of lines, squiggles and words in a cacophony of random colours - a Jackson Pollock-like mega 3D painting.

This was my favourite spot as you could play with the perspective of the window opening in the concrete foundation.

The intensity can be a sight for sore eyes.

Found this young lady hiding in the shadows. One of the few artworks that hadn't been covered with graffiti. 

Perfect place to sit and chat.

Found this artist putting some final touches on his contribution.

Perfect place to meet friends for a picnic.

The Gallery has many walls to create lots of different galleries. Note you can see the castle in at the top in the background.

This is the proper entrance to the Hope Outdoor Gallery on Baylor St. at 11th St. 

Better Than Public Art

I loved the scale, the energy, unique sense of place and randomness of the Hope Outdoor Gallery (HOG). While we were there a street artist was being interviewed about his work, there were lots of people milling about and even friends having a picnic.  We went by the next day which was a Saturday and it was even busier. It is heaven for urban photographers.

HOG is better than most public artworks that quickly become just a part of the urban landscape and ignored by pedestrians. HOG is an ever-changing artwork that challenges people to literally explore it and to participate.  I have now visited three times and each time I have discovered something new and always there are a dozen of so people actively looking at the art and trying to make sense of it. 

I am thinking it would be a wonderful and weird place for wedding pictures. Hey this Austin, I am thinking it has happened more than once.

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Austin: Kid in a candy store fun!

Every city should have a “must see” candy store!  Until this week my favourite was in downtown Helena, Montana, but now it just might be The Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress in Austin, Texas. 

Everyone, young and old will love its colourful candy/circus theme. Here are some postcard photos of The Big Top Candy Shop....love to hear what you think!

PS. Be sure to scroll to the bottom as there are some surprise candies for adults near the end.

Who can resist a candy shop with the name The Big Top? Not the Everyday Tourist. 

Sit down and enjoy the show.

The store is jam-packed with artefacts and fun displays. It is like a museum.

Doesn't every parent want to have a Gummi Boy!

I hope I never have to meet the Rubber Skin Girl. Yikes!

Love the sense of humour. Laughter is the best medicine. 

Who is up for a double bacon chocolate bar? 

And for dessert how about Fox's Candied Bacon.

Even the ice cream cones are special...this one has a gummi on top.

I don't think these people are ever leaving.