Owls and Elephants

Eclectic jewelry wearers and boutique shoppers beware — you might find your wallet a bit slim after a trip to Louisville, Kentucky. Not because the numerous independent shops are expensive, but precisely because they aren’t. I dangled a fifth pair of handmade earrings against my earlobes in the vanity mirror at Cherry Bomb. Did I like the beets better, or the turnip? Maybe the garlic… And did I even need a fifth pair of new earrings? I certainly did not; but could I afford them? Yes, yes I could. And I knew I couldn’t afford them in New York, or Chicago, or L.A., or Paris, or just about anywhere else I could think of that routinely stocks super cool handmade earrings.

It was on Bardstown Road that I — in company of my friend Trish Feldkamp, a recent resident of Louisville — began to notice the owls. Featured in a few broach designs, they were imitated by several knit hats. The next shop, Hey Tiger, contained more owls — on pendants, rings, earrings, and even hidden in a fabric design. There was an Etsy t-shirt showing an owl riding a bike. He looked wise, solemn, coasting along knowingly. At this point, I began to notice owls everywhere; various manifestations of wide-eyed birds, looking cute while maintaining a low key vibe. Woodcut owls decorated business cards, cartoon owls were stickered on guitar cases, and painted owls adorned plastic barrettes. Dangly owls with gemstone eyes flashed from the ears of girls I passed on the street. Were owls also a Kentucky thing? Or perhaps they were some portent of up-and-coming hipster neighborhoods, appearing suddenly and in large numbers, like a jellyfish bloom.

On Louisville’s vintage clothing trail, a requisite stop was Bananas, a jumble of floral blouses, feathered hats, and tangled mounds of jewelry as only the most charming vintage retailers are. I always get a bad vibe from warehouse-like secondhand spots where T-shirts are organized by color. I paused for a moment outside and looked in as a cheeky mannequin in a paisley jacket and headscarf stared back at me. As the door dinged the store manager, Timothy, looked up from the sketches he was doing for his own clothing line and greeted Trish and me warmly.

“Remember that dress?” Trish asked me.

Hanging on her bedroom door I had seen a magnificent full-sleeved, floor length, breezy dress, radiating spots of color onto the carpet like a disco ball.

“That’s from here,” she explained. “Timothy picked it out especially for me. Another time, I came in looking for elephant jewelry for my mom’s birthday, because she loves elephants. He didn’t have any in stock, so he custom-made a pair of earrings for me. They were beautiful.”

I was impressed but not too surprised. Every one of the shops we had been in had treated us to friendly conversation and individual attention. My look fell on a handicapped-looking marionette by the counter. Timothy took it out and held up it up to me. “Don’t you love him? I love him. A customer brought that in for me. It’s kind of weird but I can’t bear to get rid of it,” he said. Trish and I spent ten minutes browsing in the small shop and another twenty chatting.

Downtown the eclectic home furnishings and accessories were slightly more upscale. I entered Scout, a marvelously decorated shop in Kunstkammer style filled with a veritable curiosity cabinet of valuable artifacts and artistic finds — and succumbed to yet more jewelry, cursing my good luck on finding the best selection yet. Sam Bassett, one of the store’s co-owners, explained to me later in a soft southern voice that they had never intended to sell jewelry, but after putting out a few pieces “it started selling like gangbusters.” It was easy to see why—there were some great finds, at good prices.

Originally from Louisville, he described the city as having come a long way. “We’ve seen a lot of people who have moved from places like New York. Couples in their late 20s, early 30s,” he said. “Young people are moving back here and staying.”

This was also easy to see why. Louisville was a trendy town, with blossoming independent businesses, music, and art — and all of this was very affordable to young professionals. There was room here to get in and find your niche. Perhaps, best of all, people were genuinely nice. Friendly, open, and unpretentious, they carried themselves in style — much like Louisville itself.

Red Penguins

On Monday, relaxed and refreshed from the weekend after a stroll around Waterfront Park on the Ohio River, Trish and I wandered into the West Main district of downtown, dominated by tall buildings in distinguished red brick. A waddle of red penguins clustered around the corner of one. Looking up, I saw them again, a line of penguins teetering on the rooftop edge. This was the 21c Museum Hotel, which is exactly what the name implies — an innovative combination of boutique hotel and contemporary art museum, hosting both emerging artists and well-established names such as Chuck Close and Kara Walker. We entered the lobby to see the current exhibition, Anthony Goicolea’s dark fairy tale photographs of groups of savage lost boys. Downstairs an enormous black-lit drawing enveloped a room like wallpaper, and above us a golden twister whorled out into pristine gallery space. Trish led me to a hallway and advised me to look carefully at a large mirror on the wall. I peered through and could make out the backs of urinals and toilet stalls. The men’s bathroom was walled in one-way glass. On the way out we made statues in front of a giant screen that projected our images back to us, under a rain of alphabet letters that seemed to be communicating some fleeting message before they dissolved.

Back in the Highlands was another unique Louisville art destination, albeit much smaller: Ultra-Pop, carrying art and design books by the likes of Mark Ryden and vinyl collectible toys. The storefront windows were decorated in honor of Valentine’s Day with plush candy heart pillows reading “BUTTERFACE” and “HO FO SHO.” Paul, the store’s owner, was busy sanding a miniature red Muhammad Ali (also a Kentucky native) cast out of resin when we walked in. He carefully verified its equilibrium on the glass counter, gave a few more strokes to one edge, and, apparently satisfied, tossed it into a bucket full of Muhammads, all in different colors. A bucket of KFC’s Colonel Sanders was next to it.

The vinyl toys niche is a narrow one. Edgy pop culture and designer toy shops thrive in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, along with a handful in the major U.S. cities. Collectors around Louisville are thankful for the presence of Ultra-Pop for a closer source than the coasts (or Japan). Others appreciate the selection of art books, prints, and witty tees, as well as a business that contributes to the unique character of the Highlands.

Paul acknowledges the challenges that come with such a niche market, saying, “I feel fortunate to have support from people in town. There’s a good little pocket of art appreciators in the Highlands.” I ask him how he likes Louisville in general and his tone is bright, “I like Louisville! I plan on being here for awhile.”

The last stop on my indie beat week was Trish’s grandparents’ house. I was already thinking of coming back for the Forecastle music, art, and activism festival in July. Grandpa mixed us a couple of gin and tonics while Grandma offered us Russell Stover chocolates from the Valentine’s Day sampler she had received, or what remained of it. It wasn’t even the day yet and she had emptied a third of the chocolates. I chose an apricot cream and sipped my drink. We talked jobs, travel, and politics. They didn’t know much about Louisville’s indie attractions or the booming local music scene, but they were content to continue their lives near their hometowns and glad their granddaughter was nearby to pop in for a drink every once in awhile. We seemed simultaneously worlds away from the hip, urban Louisville I had seen in the past several days and right in the middle of what ties it all together. My gaze fell on the framed painting behind Grandpa’s recliner. Wait — was that an owl?

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