The Green Alligator: Fighting for your child’s soul in the toy aisle

28 Jan

If you’ve wandered the toy aisles at Target or Wal-Mart recently, it’s hard not to wonder where all the real toys have gone.

Aside from the occasional Slinky or Lego set, the shelves are dominated by long rows of products that are more movie tie-in than toy, and less about encouraging self-expression and curiosity than about getting kids to see themselves as a stereotype (present choices limited to fashionista, girly girl princess, skater dude, or revenge-crazed warrior). Whatever space isn’t given over to scowling BRATZ dolls or tiara-clad pampered pooches is assigned to overpriced “interactive” electronic toys that bleep, light up, talk in digitized voices, and make endlessly repetitive motions that we’re pretty sure encourage sensory overload and/or OCD.

That’s why a classic toy store like The Green Alligator is so refreshing.  As the store’s own website affirms, this super high-service shop is full of “carefully selected, well-made, safe products that capture the imagination, encourage growth, teach important concepts, and most of all, offer endless hours of fun.”

Owner Sandi White; photo credit:

The Avondale store is a pocket-sized toy Utopia, with expansive display windows, cheery green-striped awnings and a life-sized Playmobil toy pirate standing sentinel at the door. There’s a “Please Touch” vibe that encourages kids to tool around on the awesome Plasma Cars, take balls out to the sidewalk for a test bounce, and ask questions about which chemistry kit makes the best green slime. The selection is thoughtful and beautifully displayed, with toys that encourage active play,  as well as arts and crafts projects, puppets, puzzles and brain teasers, science and construction kits, musical toys, cute critter and Ugly Dolls, and even old-fashioned baby dolls (you know, the ones that look like real babies as opposed to future Hooters waitresses).

The GreenAlligator staff really knows their stock, too; they keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s popular with kids of all ages and offer excellent advice on which toys are appropriate for various age groups. Even better, neighborhood children are invited to make wish lists, which the store keeps on file to help harried parents trying to buy those last-minute birthday party gifts. (Note to moms: All purchases go into cute Green Alligator bags that are stuffed with brightly colored paper and tied with curly ribbon, eliminating the need for giftwrap when you’re already running late.)

photo credit: The Green Alligator

In a toy world that’s clearly lost its marbles (anyone think Pole-dancing Polly is even remotely appropriate?!?), it’s nice to know that places like The Green Alligator can resist the Disney marketing juggernaut and still flourish. If you’re looking for toys that encourage kids to learn new ideas, learn how to share, and just plain learn how to focus, then this charming store has exactly what you need.

The Green Alligator is located right next to the Brick Restaurant, at 3581 St. Johns Avenue in the Shoppes of Avondale. (A second store is now open in Ponte Vedra, at 330 North A1A.)


Burro Bags: Sewing success in downtown J-ville

25 Jan

If necessity is the mother of invention, then its father is creativity.

Sewing the next Burro Bag

A case in point is Burro Bags, a three-year-old downtown business built on its founders’ search for a durable bag that could withstand their daily bicycle commute between Springfield and UNF. Drawing on their respective skills (upholsterer and bike messenger/mechanic), Chris Williams and buddy Matt Bort experimented with a variety of materials, ultimately constructing a prototype messenger bag from re-purposed highway billboard vinyl. (The story of how Burro Bags got started is charmingly told in this video.)

The choice of material wasn’t made lightly: the vinyl’s strength and flexibility was one consideration; another was that the stuff would otherwise end up in a landfill (the company’s informal motto is, “Keeping retired billboards off the street by putting them on your back”). Happily, this decision to go green came with an unexpected bonus: When highway billboards and old street banners (advertising, say, the Florida-Georgia game) are snipped, folded and sewn, the result is strikingly graphic and unexpectedly chic.

This marriage of sustainability, style and urban biker Street Cred struck a chord with their friends, who soon started requesting bags of their own. As the orders began pouring in, Williams and Bort realized they had a viable business model that had outgrown their living room-based operation. After losing the lease on their first production facility in Springfield (next to Shantytown Pub), Williams worked with Downtown Vision and its Off the Grid program to secure space in the funky Letter Shop building on Forsyth Street (just up from the corner at Newnan Street).

Beer koozies with local pride

The location houses not only the Burro Bag production and fulfillment facility, but also a small retail shop that showcases the full line of Burro products, from trendy messenger bags, backpacks, hip-bags and wallets, to bike pedal straps, cute illustrated beer Koozies, and edgy screen-printed T-shirts. (Although billboard vinyl is still used to add accent and graphic interest to the product line, most of the bags are now constructed of indestructible military-grade Cordura.)

Home-grown style

The store’s graffiti-painted walls (by graphic artist Shaun Thurston) provide a striking backdrop for the work of other local brands, too. Burro carries Threat Wizard, Tact, Arturo, Faction Habit, Granny Machine and more, making the retail store a must-stop shop for anyone interested in buying handmade items crafted by local artisans using recycled materials. This is also the place to inquire about Burro’s limited-edition Artist Series bags and their fabulous one-off items (recent products include a custom Burro drumstick bag and a totally stylin’ arm sling.) A final inducement to visit (as if you need one!) is the terrific old-school music that pumps throughout the space; because Burro Bags shares its retail location with Budget Records (the urban core’s go-to place for vintage 12-inch vinyl and hard-to-find LPs), you’re in for a sonic as well as visual treat.

Three years after its founding, Burro Bags has definitely grown up. Bag prices can range as high as $250 (although you can still score a quality, limited-feature model they call the Broke Ass bag). Orders come from as far away as California, and Japanese distributors have expressed an interest in bringing Burro Bags to Asia. Fully 90% of the company’s sales come from online and wholesale orders. The Burrow Bag story has even gained coverage on a popular National Public Radio show. But despite its impressive growth, the founders of Burro Bags have kept their feet firmly planted on the ground.

These are small business owners who strive to source all of their materials domestically. They support the local bicycle community and are a perennial presence at the First Wednesday Art Walk. They’ve established their center of operations, not in some distant suburb, but right in the heart of Jacksonville’s urban core. Just like the animal for which the company is named, the folks at Burro Bags are doggedly productive and endearingly loyal, proving that Going Local is not only stylish, but also pays huge dividends to the larger community.

part of Shaun Thurston's mural

GoLO at the Delis of Riverside Avondale

20 Jan

Riverside Avondale boasts some of Jacksonville’s best locally owned, locally operated delis.  These lunch-only, casual eateries are some of the best places to witness our city’s personality and local color and load up on riders, burgers, and cherry limeade.

Riverside’s Whiteway Deli has been a bastion of local color since 1927, when the Ramallah-born father of current owner Sam Salem opened a café in Whiteway Corner (the deli recently moved to a newer, bigger, brighter spot on King Street).  The names of many sandwiches – most of which are made with pita pockets – are influenced by local politicians and other local icons.  Try the Late Bloomer’s Special: turkey, bacon, tabbouleh, avocado spread, banana peppers, and provolone in a toasted pita.  Spice it up with a few sprinkles of Louisiana hot sauce. Don’t miss the archive of candid customer photos near the cash register.  If you look closely, you’ll see the “hidden” camera behind the counter.  Owner Sam can operate the camera remotely, with the push of a button – you’ll never even know he captured your image for posterity.  He’s essentially documented Whiteway’s customers for the past 30-some years, and the photos fill boxes and boxes (labeled by year) that you can browse through.  1237 King St, Jacksonville. (904) 389-0355.‎

Pinegrove Market & Deli, located on Pinegrove Ave in Avondale, has a definite old-school feel.  The deli’s website claims it has been a neighborhood icon for over 60 years.  It’s in a tiny building in an otherwise residential neighborhood, and both the exterior and interior are no-frills.  Who needs frills when you can get some of Jacksonville’s best sandwiches, burgers, and fresh meat here?  Pinegrove’s burgers and cubanos are the stuff of local legend, as are their heavy pita sandwiches like Da Fritz (grilled pita with pastrami, turkey, provolone, and tabbouleh).  It’s local gourmet without any stuffiness or pretention.  1511 Pinegrove Place, Jacksonville.  (904) 389-8655.

Gina’s Delicatessan in Five Points is just what a deli should be – simply decorated, no frills, casual.  And full of local pride.  On the wall behind the condiments station is an eighties-inspired spray-painted mural that reads, Gina’s Welcomes Jaguar Fans.   The friendly owner is happy to sit down and chat about her family, which hails from Palestine, and the deli, which has been in Riverside for fifteen years.  The menu is bursting with fresh salads and Middle Eastern goodies that the owner and her staff make from scratch every morning.  Gina’s tabbouleh rider might just be the best in town.  The pita is thick, warm, and chewy and generously stuffed to the brim with hot kibbeh and fresh, lemony tabbouleh.  And the tabbouleh is where the freshness of the meal really shines, with its grassy parsley, hearty bulgur, crunchy squares of cucumber, ripe tomato, and hint of mint.  818 Post Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 353-9903.

Michael’s Deli is another excellent lunch-only deli in Riverside.  The eatery mainly offers classic sandwiches made with Boar’s Head products, plus salads and soups.  There are a few Middle Eastern options available, and you can choose to have your sandwich made on a number of different breads or have the fillings stuffed into a pita pocket.  The steak-in-a-sack is overflowing with substantial slices of juicy steak and sautéed onions with a good amount of mayo thrown in. Even during the lunch rush your sandwiches and fries are finished very quickly and delivered to your table by a very friendly member of the staff.   Don’t miss the awesome Jags paintings on the wall!  1639 Barrs Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 384-3909.

Goal Post Sandwich Shop is a classic deli located in a plaza on Herschel Street in Avondale.  From the outside, it looks like this eatery has been around for a long time.  Indeed, it has.  According to the deli’s Facebook page, it’s been family-owned and -operated since 1979.  Goal Post claims to have founded the tabbouleh rider, and it is hailed by many as the best around.  The tabbouleh at Goal Post is tart and grassy, and they don’t skimp on it.  They toast the pita pocket with two kinds of cheese inside, so the cheese gets all melty and warm and the pita gets crisp.  They also throw some mayo in there for good measure. 3984 Herschel Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 384-9262.

Richard’s Sandwich Shoppe is an old school deli hidden away on Oak Street just behind Riverside’s Five Points neighobhood.  It has a certain old timey charm with its green and white checked curtains, fake greenery hung on the walls, and framed articles from Jacksonville newspapers that date back almost twenty years.  Oh, and there is liverwurst and Waldorf salad on the menu!  Go for a rider, a regular deli sandwich or a chef salad, and check out the white board near the cash register for daily specials on sandwiches, soups, and desserts.  This would be a great spot for lunch if you work in the area, especially because your sandwich will be ready literally within thirty seconds after you pay.  And you won’t find friendlier folks working at any other deli in Jacksonville.  Richard’s has a good flow of lunch clientele, and many of them seemed to be regulars.  As they walk in the door, customers are greeted with, “Find a parking space today?” and as they leave, “See you tomorrow!”  1030 Oak Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 358-3120.

San Marco’s Affair on the Square Kicks Off for 2011

18 Jan

Affair in the Square is back with more to see and do in 2011. Thursday, January 20, and every third Thursday, from 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., the Square will be filled with activities and  entertainment for all ages.

Pick up an event “Passport” for your map to the evening’s wine pourings in front of Square One, then head on your merry way around the Square for fun and adventure!

Grown-up can look forward to:

  • extended shopping hours & wine tastings in participating shops & boutiques
  • art showings at SMART Gallery
  • model search by San Marco Magazine & Performer’s Academy (at storefront between Square One & Miriam’s)

Kids can enjoy:

  • Face painting by Pink Ivy (in front of SMART Gallery)
  • Model search by San Marco Magazine and Performer’s Academy (at storefront between Square One & Miriam’s)

Kids and adults can both enjoy:

  • DJ music spinning in Balis Park
  • Photo booth at SMART Gallery
  • Special outdoor dining options & happy hours at participating on- and off-square restaurants

For more information head to

Third Thursday's "Affair on the Square" in San Marco

Third Thursday's "Affair on the Square" in San Marco

A celebration of San Marco

14 Jan

Erin Thursby at EU Jacksonville has written a great piece this month on how to GoLO in San Marco:

photo credit: jaxlass @

“Following up on our commitment to the GoLO initiative, we’re encouraging folks to buy local, shop local and eat local. This month, our GoLO spotlight is on San Marco.

Spending a day, or even a weekend in the San Marco neighborhood isn’t difficult. Some of Jacksonville’s finest dining, best independently-owned shops and entertainment from live music to staged theater can all be found there. Even the movie theatre isn’t a chain, but is the locally-owned historic San Marco Theatre.

San Marco began as the grounds of the lavish Hendricks estate on the Southbank in the late 1800s, but wasn’t actively developed until the Acosta Bridge (then called the St. Johns River Bridge) was built in 1921. Telfair Stockton, who owned the land, decided to model the business district after Venice’s Piazza di San Marco in Italy. The fountain lions, which have become an icon of the area, were added relatively recently, in 1997. They’re a nod to Venice’s mascot, found in the Piazza and all over the city, the winged lion of St. Mark. While our fountain lions don’t have wings, you will find winged lions adorning the manhole covers throughout the business district.

Shop Local

The San Marco shopping strip is cornucopia of non-chain retailers. As a bonus, it’s pretty, with its bricked walkways, fountain and bronze statuary. Bibliophiles can pop into San Marco Books, the fashionable can check out clothing store Olive’s new, trend-cutting home section and there are plenty of other places for the fashion addicts to shop (Rosie True, Reve and Lelia’s, to name a few). Gift seekers should always hit up Edward’s, the Ward Room and the Write Touch.

One of the newer shops on in the San Marco Business District is My Best Friend’s Closet, a consignment shop for ladies sized 14 and above. It was opened in April 2010 by Sandy Myers, who has been a resident and business owner in the neighborhood for over 20 years (she’s the former owner of Edwards, which is still in operation). Myers loves living and working in San Marco. Says Myers, “ I actually walk to work most days, and shop (except for groceries) in San Marco. I am a proponent for buying local, supporting small business. I love the feel of a neighborhood, where you go to a restaurant, a shop, a bank and you know someone there– like a small town in a big city.”

Beth Handline of Dance Trance finds San Marco to be “a very energetic and active place… It is great to have so many unique shops right in your own neighborhood.”

Krista Nilsson of Therapie says of those that shop local: “They get the one-on-one attention they deserve,” and that she enjoys getting to know her customers, “something that big-box retailers don’t often do.”

Read more.

How ’bout a little history with that haircut?

12 Jan

Cecil Vignutti Salon for Hair, a.k.a. Col. Cay's Carriage House

When a local business opens up shop in one of our historic urban neighborhoods, it doesn’t just add to the area’s diversity and vibrancy; often, its owners also become custodians of unique historical structures that might otherwise have remained vacant or fallen to a wrecking ball.

The Cecil Vignutti Salon for Hair, located at 1545 May Street in Riverside, is a vivid case in point. The charming rusticated stone building that houses the salon dates to 1905, and is the sole surviving relic of one of Jacksonville’s grandest estates.

When Colonel Raymond Cay moved to Jacksonville in 1904, he commissioned noted architect Rutledge Holmes to design an exotic Mediterranean-style mansion at 1249 Riverside Avenue (to the right of where the San Juline Apartments are today). Colonel Cay was a proud son of the Confederacy and a typical southern gentleman of the old school. His mansion on Riverside’s famed “Row,” with its Rococco ceilings, ornate woodwork and colorful stained glass, hosted many a glittering party attended by the top tier of Riverside society.

Col. Cay's mansion, circa 1960

Regrettably, numerous business failures ended up bankrupting Col. Cay and after the Colonel’s death in 1915, the home was sold to his next-door  neighbor, Julian Prewitte. (Prewitte lived in the mansion while building what became the San Juline Apartments in his former front yard.) The Colonel’s wife ended her years living a life of genteel poverty in Georgia, cared for–and, as some records indicate, financially supported by–an elderly black couple that were longtime family servants. Although the mansion was demolished in the 1960s (after serving for more than a decade as the Jacksonville Art Center, forerunner of the present MOCA Jacksonville), the carriage house survived.

The carriage house, built at the rear of the mansion of similar materials as the main house, faces May Street–one of the few surviving brick-paved streets in the city. Over the years, it had been home to a number of residents and businesses, most memorably a 1970s-era shop known as The Mole Hole. When its former owner put the building up for sale 17 years ago, Vignutti, who at the time owned a salon in a “contemporary village concept” development out on the Southside, leapt at the chance to buy it, having long admired the building.

The carriage house, circa early 1900s.

“When we acquired the structure,” says Stephanie Vignutti, “it had a kind of Heidi thing going on,” with rustic barn siding covering every interior surface. Still, it had “everything we needed,” she notes, including abundant natural light from huge iron-cased windows, high ceilings and great character. The couple renovated the interior of the two-story structure, taking it back to the original brick walls and carving out space for a separate retail area stocking high-end hair products, and the jewelry, handbags and other lifestyle items the couple finds on their frequent buying trips in Europe. “This place is just perfect for us,” notes Stephanie, “and we really see ourselves as its caretakers.”

Since purchasing the carriage house, the Vignutti family has become eager students of its history. Many years ago, one of Colonel Cay’s relatives entrusted them with a box of personal family records, material that then became the primary resource for a son’s school research project. (Among the son’s discoveries: Although Colonel Cay had proudly flown no fewer than five Confederate flags in his mansion’s grand entrance hall, his military rank was an honorary one, awarded to him by Teddy Roosevelt for providing lumber and other supplies to Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders.)

Today, the salon is a bustling business in the heart of Riverside, just steps from beautiful Memorial Park. Its first floor is divided into retail space and stylist stations, while the soothing, neutral-toned second floor holds Cecil’s work area and a small room for spa services. The space is truly stunning, feeling both urban and historic, with a timeless organic quality that brand new stores, with their drywall and harsh artificial lighting, will find hard to mimic.  Those looking for a little history with their haircut (or perhaps just a little serenity and style) will want to seek out this impossibly quaint salon.

Salon’s 2nd floor

Continue reading

The Economics of Happiness

6 Jan

Why buy local? It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the environment. Oh, and by the way, it can make you happier.

That’s the premise of a new documentary, The Economics of Happiness, that drives home the importance of “localization.” We all know that globalization has radically transformed where we get our goods and how we shop. It has also, the directors argue, brought the world to the brink of environmental and economic catastrophe by creating an unsustainable system of obscene waste and a massive expansion in the scale and power of big business and banking.

The solution? Bring our economies back home. Localization, as defined in the film, is essentially a process of de-centralisation–shifting economic activity back into the hands of local businesses instead of concentrating it in fewer and fewer mega-corporations. The film’s directors view localization as a “strategic solution multiplier” that solves multiple problems: “In order to respect and revitalize diversity, both cultural and biological, we need to localize economic activity . . . . A systemic shift-–away from globalizing economic activity and towards the local-–is an almost magic formula that allows us to reduce our ecological footprint while increasing human well-being . . . [by helping] us to re-discover those essential relationships-–both with the living world and with one another-–that ultimately give our lives meaning and joy.”

So what should we be doing here in Jacksonville to be part of the solution? The folks at GoLO believe the first step is to rebuild a sense of reliance on what’s available locally–whether it’s food, handmade goods, or simply a store that’s in close proximity rather than a long car ride away. Simply by remembering–and taking advantage of–what’s available in our own backyards, we strengthen our local communities.

Of course, we recognize that we’ll rarely be able to buy everything we need or use from exclusively local independent businesses. But by thinking local FIRST–looking first to local and locally owned sources for the things we need and want–we can maximize the impact of our daily actions and purchasing decisions.

It’s a small step, really, but a big one for the future of the communities we love–not to mention the planet itself.

%d bloggers like this: