Big Shopping in Small Towns

By Mary Bergin

Some cities feel pretty much the same because of their similarities in retail offerings, but that’s less the case in small towns where merchants think creatively and a strong sense of community identity reigns. Most of these favorites have a population of far less than 5,000, and each is worth a day trip. Bring plastic.

Fish Creek

Door County’s a charmer during any season, especially in Fish Creek, where many shops stay open all year (at least on weekends) and are within a walk of each other.

Located on the north end of Fish Creek, the Top of The Hill Shops presents a group of 23 specialty shops in a park-like setting. Among the shops are toys for cooks (The Main Course), clothing for adventurers (What Next?) and gifts for newborns (Pure Joy Baby, Baby Bella). Others specialize in handcrafted jewelry, cutting edge fashion, and eclectic home décor. The Shops can be found at the corner of Highway 42 and County Trunk F.

And you can’t leave Door County without a great local meal and something sweet. Grab lunch at The Cookery, a restaurant with a priority in making from-scratch fare using locally grown ingredients. Plus, always stocked with wine and cherry products is Lautenbach’s Orchard Country, a family owned market.

Mineral Point

A penchant for art and pride of history combine to make this long-ago Cornish mining town distinctive. The entire community is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; notice the many restored sandstone and limestone structures, made by immigrants in the mid 1800s.

About 20 artists converge downtown, so look for sculptors, potters and painters at work while hopping from galleries to boutiques. A personal favorite: Longbranch Gallery which sells the work of many regionally and nationally known artists.

Take a break at Brewery Creek a brew-pub with B&B accommodations upstairs, or the Red Rooster Café which for decades has served the traditional Cornish pasty (meat and veggie pies).


The combined population of these two communities, just six miles apart, doesn’t quite total 1,000. Don’t let that fact sway you. The pretty Lake Pepin towns attract entrepreneurs who value the tranquility of rural confines.

Stockholm especially contains pleasant surprises, from Ingebretsen’s av Stockholm, a Scandinavian gift shop, to Abode Stockholm, a fun and classy art and home furnishings shop. Think hand-carved furniture to from-scratch pies. Not bad for a population of 97.

In Pepin, shopkeepers stock artwork and antiques, locally made foods and metalwork as lawn décor. A popular stop for dining: Harbor View Café, open seasonally. 


This quiet community operates in the shadow of tourist magnet Green Lake, which is 10 miles east, but has enough interesting businesses to draw a crowd all on its own. One source of inspiration: Tracy Porter, a Princeton native whose designs of personal and home accessories show up everywhere from Neiman Marcus to Target stores nationwide.

Check out Embellisheddaisyeye and other downtown enterprises located on West Water Street. Antique stores also are in abundance; Princeton’s weekly and sprawling outdoor Saturday flea market adds foot traffic when a new season begins in April.

For lunch, head to Once in a Blue Moon where the signature salad comes with mandarin oranges, almonds and maple poppyseed dressing.


Woods and water surround Washburn County’s largest community, population 2,653, which makes it easy to overlook.

Business owners are friendly and proud of their Northwoods location. For evidence, take a look at the art sold at the Purple Pelican . Also, check out the reading materials showcased at Northwind Book and Fiber which also sells arts and crafts from dozens of craftspeople. Use a Northwest Heritage Passage map to find other rural artisans.

Shopping for an outdoorsman? Expand his wardrobe beyond blaze orange at the 6,000-square-foot Spooner Outlet, which has specialized in sporting goods and attire since 1962.

Treat yourself to a meal at Spooner Market and Grill, where the chef also conducts cooking classes.


Venture into the Driftless Area for amazing terrain that’s about as close to mountainous as Wisconsin becomes. Viroqua calls itself the doorway to this region, replete with organic farms, enough to support a year-round farmers’ market on Saturday mornings.

Sold at lovingly restored buildings is everything from art and wine to antiques and fossils to avant-garde literature and fine jewelry. Watch for clever retail names on Main Street – Ewetopia Fiber Shop, – and global awareness at Viroqua Food Co-op, where sales of imports provide Third World craftspeople with a living wage.

Order quiche, pizza or the daily plate at Driftless Café where customers laze and linger because it feels like home.

Mary Bergin is a syndicated travel columnist.