Shop ’til you drop: the independent side of Edmonton’s retail culture

While we might be famous for a really big mall, Edmonton is also home to some fantastic independent shopping districts. Galleries and boutiques house unique wares and are an appealing antidote to the madding mall crowds. Not only is selection generally more interesting at these independent shops, you can also often find attentive service and flexibility that simply isn’t possible in the chains.

As a professional shopper and retail therapist, these are my favourite areas to take clients. Not only are you sure to find interesting and unique pieces, but it’s also a grand way to spend the day. So before you head to the mall by default, be sure to check out the following.

Whyte Avenue summer Edmonton
Whyte Avenue during the warmer months.

 Whyte Avenue:

Yes. Old Strathcona is Edmonton’s mainstay when it comes to independent shopping. Whyte Ave is known for its funky clothing, shoes and home decor, as well as, shall we say, specialty items, from corsets to bongs. The coolest area has always been from roughly 106 Street to Gateway Boulevard, but the cool is fortunately being pushed further east and west, with a crop of fun new shops popping up around the new Roots building on 102 Street, and old faithfuls like the vintage clothing shop Decadence on 107 Street. But my favourite stretch is the blocks between 105 Street and 103 Street, an area devoted to lovely women’s clothing stores. Special shout outs to Avenue Clothing Company, C’est Sera, Etzio, Plaid Giraffe, Mars and Venus, Bamboo Ballroom, Original Apparel, Noul and Lucid Lifestyle, all found within a block of each other. Other must-sees include: The Junque Cellar, Blackbyrd Myoozik, Gravity Pope Shoes, Sanctuary and Polly Magoos. Just a few blocks south is the enormous Old Strathcona Antique Mall, right next door to United Cycle, one of Edmonton’s most beloved sports stores.

And of course, there’s the year-round Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market, which hosts a fantastic array of fruit and veggies and baked goods, and funky hand-crafted art and odds and ends.

And always watch out for events and festivals in the area — events like Art Walk make for an extra special, if busy, shopping day.

High Street on 124 Street, Edmonton
The High Street, part of the 124th Street Business Association.

124th Street:

Once a strip mall wasteland,124th Street is now one of Edmonton’s most popular destinations. Again, women’s clothing stores and art galleries dominate, and the best shops are found from Jasper Avenue to roughly 107 Avenue, as well as the wonderful ‘High Street’ area, one block to the west on 102 Avenue. For bang for buck, High Street may just be the best in the city, as it’s home to my very favourite consignment store, Vespucci. There you’ll find phenomenal deals on gently worn women’s — from designer to discount — and the store takes a good hour or two to do thoroughly. If upscale threads are your thing, check out The Pear Tree next door, or Red Ribbon a few doors down.

If you need a little candy break, the venerable Carol’s Quality Sweets relocated to High Street after a terrible fire on Whyte Avenue, and you’re guaranteed to find that specialty kitchen gadget at Call The Kettle Black. And if the thought of all this shopping makes you sleepy, you’re in luck, as Cloud Nine Pajamas offers the most decadent sleepwear in the city.

It’s sad to see Notables — a flagship of High Street for many years — close their doors, but it will be exciting to see Carbon relocate from 104 Street to fill the space.

124th Street proper also has its share of interesting shops, like Miss Boss, Black and Bold, and Frog Kisser’s Den. And if art is your thing, you’ll find a smattering of spaces like the Daffodil Gallery and Front Gallery.

EDMONTON, ALTA.: OCTOBER 9, 2010 -- at the downtown farmers market located neat 104th St. & Jasper in Edmonton on October 9, 2010. (Ryan Jackson / Edmonton Journal).
104 Street during the outdoors farmers’ market. Photo courtesy Ryan Jackson/Edmonton Journal.

104 Street/Jasper Avenue:

Central “downtown” hasn’t had a great deal of independent retail for many years, but it’s now starting to pop up again around downtown’s favourite street. While the selections are primarily the highest of high end, largely due to the high rent in the area, it’s great to see this area becoming more walkable, especially thanks to the fantastic restaurants nearby. Retail is still a bit of a tough bet here, as many stores have come and gone, but shops like Wener Shoes, The Helm and Coup all seem to be making a go of it, and if you have a big budget, their wares are more than worth it.

The area comes alive on Saturdays during the summer, when the City Market takes over several blocks. It’s a great reason to spend time in the area, and local brick-and-mortar shops see a significant amount of business on those days. Keep this in mind if you need especially attentive service, as you might be (literally) better-served on other days of the week.

A delightful new addition to 104th Street is Jacek Chocolates. Jacqueline Jacek will soon open a new location next to Credo Coffee (which is no doubt a match made in caffeine heaven).

Independent retailers 23 Avenue Rabbit Hill Edmonton
Hidden gems in the form of independent retailers found in the 23 Avenue and Rabbit Hill area.

23 Avenue and Rabbit Hill Road:

The suburbs are not generally the first place you’d think to look for independent shops, but there is a great complex just east of Terwillegar Towne that is home to several local specialty shops, from flowers to fashion to pots and pans. Jilly’s Home and Lifestyle, while on the more expensive side, is full of gorgeous ways to make your house a home, not to mention really lovely clothing and jewelry. Window shopping at the Refinery Clothing Company is also recommended. You may need to be an oil exec to shop here, but there are plenty of drool-worthy fashions that make it worth a trip. And if your kitchen needs some work, try Hillaby’s Tools for Cooks. Even as a non-cook, I loved browsing their well-packed aisles.

Highlands Edmonton Mandolin Bookstore
The historic Highlands district is also home to interesting shops and retailers.

Highlands District:

Highlands is just starting to get the attention it deserves. One of the most historic areas in the city, it has long had a slightly down-at-heel feel, but boutiques, coffee shops and galleries are popping up, making it a fun ma-and-pop-type destination. Be-a-Bella boutique is one of my favourites, as is Mandolin Books and Coffee. Chickies Antiques is full of treasures, as is Apple Box Boutique, Moon River Mercantile and Sabrina Butterfly Designs.