Avoiding the mall?

These neighborhoods are well worth a holiday shopping trip

click to enlarge T.M. Samarkos shows off his alabaster nativity scene. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
T.M. Samarkos shows off his alabaster nativity scene.

TARPON SPRINGS

The left onto Tarpon Avenue off the big-box mecca that is U.S. 19 may be the best left in all of Tampa Bay. Within a few blocks you're transported back in time: downtown Tarpon boasts 14 antique shops and several stores that are antiques themselves. The town seems cut off from the rest of the Bay area — Tarpon Springs is mostly chain-free, and every road is two lanes wide. The disconnect is most pronounced on the famous sponge docks that lead out to the gulf — a small, heavily Greek neighborhood filled with bakeries (sweet baklava), restaurants (show me the souvlaki) and knick-knack shops (stick to the food). Here are a few spots that you've gotta hit the next time you're able to spring for the half a tank it takes to get out to Tarpon.

Faklis' Department Store & Shoe Repair (139 E. Tarpon Ave., 727-937-3602). Family owned and operated since 1912, Faklis' may offer less than your local mall's department store. But what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. Looking for some grandpa pants that'll go up to your nipples? Faklis' has a whole rack of 'em ($20 and up). How about some '50s PJs for the kids? Faklis' has all the rocketship and Sugar Daddy prints you could want, and each pair is still in the original packaging ($9.99). Faklis' is also an official dealer of U.S. Postal Service gear, though a sign claims that you have to actually work for the post office to buy anything with a patch.

Unique Designs (218 E. Tarpon Ave., 727-943-0440). While all of Tarpon Springs' antique shops have treasures to be found, most of the stores are indistinguishable. But Unique Designs focuses on bigger pieces — furniture and wall hangings — and carries the kind of hip, weathered stuff Urban Outfitters tries to mass-produce. The prices are reasonable, and starting soon, owner Mike Fazeli will open a salon in the back. Where else can you get a decent haircut and a sweet dining room table in one stop?

Samarkos Brothers (700 N. Pinellas Ave., 727-937-5830). Just before you get to the sponge docks, hit up the Sarmarkos Bros. for some shells and sponges. The prices are a little cheaper than you'll find at the tourist shops down the road, and the Samarkoses take pride in selling all-natural (i.e. unbleached) sponges, which are hard to find. Plus you can pick up a nativity scene carved into alabaster ($5-$10), which owner T.M. Samarkos promises nobody else has. "They're perfect for the holidays," he claims. "They say holiday all over them."

Gift World (557 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-938-3225). Gift World isn't the best name for this sponge dock tchotchke bonanza — Greek World would be more apt. These folks have anything you might want from the land of the Acropolis. Greek Scrabble? Check ($36.95). Greek soccer jerseys? Uh-huh ($64.95). And, of course, the Greek-language DVD of My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($19.95).

Getaguru Handmade Olive Oil Soap (777 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-937-8193). Beauty Products Abound On The Sponge Docks, But Nobody Does The Ancient Olive Oil Soaps Better Than Getaguru. They're 100-percent Natural, Handmade And Range From Grapefruit To Patchouli. Even If High-grade Hygiene Isn't Your Thing, The Wonderful Smell Makes A Stop-in Worthwhile.

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