Category Archives: Niche Stores

Visiting the Mall of America


Photos via Mall of America

Earlier this summer, I attended a travel blogger conference called TBEX North America 2016 primarily because of its location – the Mall of America. Yes, because the conference location was adjacent to this mall.

Located in Bloomington, Minnesota, about 15 minutes from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, the Mall of America is far more than a place to shop. Featured on travel shows, the Mall of America is a hybrid of retail stores and tourist attractions. And it’s a big place, at 4.87 million square feet. Really big. To put it in perspective, this mall can fit seven Yankee Stadiums, 32 Boeing 747s, and 258 Statues of Liberty.

Besides massive space, here is what else you find during a visit to the Mall of America.


Photo via SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium

SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium
Underneath the mall, the SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium is a 1.3-million gallon aquarium featuring a 300-foot ocean tunnel and being home 10,000 sea creatures. The low-lit, lower level location is easy to explore, with stops along the way for observing marine life such as jellyfish, seahorses, stingrays, and sturgeons. One neat attraction to take your time going through is the Shark Discovery exhibit. Here, you walk through a glass tunnel and view sharks and other ocean neighbors swimming below or alongside you. There are daily feeding times, where for a small fee you can buy food to hand to certain aquarium residents like stingrays.


Nickelodeon Universe
In the center of the mall, Nickelodeon Universe is a fun indoor theme park with 27 rides and attractions. When I was there for TBEX, my friends and I spent time going on rides that fit with our style (there’s a number of ones with paces that go smoothly or get a little twisted). While we were there around Memorial Day Weekend, we got to try a new park attraction called FlyOver America. FlyOver America is a fully immersive, flight simulation ride that takes riders on an aerial tour of well-known U.S. landmarks and regions. Nickelodeon Universe also contains an indoor zipline that takes you 60 feet above the ground, and features special visits by costumed TV characters like Sponge Bob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.


Specialty Stores/Restaurants
The Mall of America has a good mix of major retail brands (think clothing, electronics, cosmetics, accessories, etc.) plus regional finds. Among them, the LEGO Store is where kids of all ages can let loose on this Danish toy with its Pick-A-Brick wall, play areas, and larger-than-life models such as over 34-foot-tall robot. Fans of American Girl will not just find the store but also an American Girl ® Bistro. And being in Minnesota, and near neighboring Wisconsin, find stores carrying everything from locally made cheese to Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers gear or other state-inspired products. As for dining, there are 50-plus restaurants, including national chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Hard Rock Café, Rainforest Café, and Buffalo Wild Wings, to more regional brands like Caribou Coffee and A & W All-American Food. Consider Pizza Studio, where you can have a custom pie made; Crave American Kitchen & Sushi Bar, for a sit-down meal or Noodles & Company, which prepares noodles in Asian, Mediterranean or American style.


Photo via Radisson Blu Mall of America

Hotel Accommodations
There are more than 50 hotels in various proximity to the Mall of America. The most direct one is the Radisson Blu Mall of America, as it’s connected to the mall via a skyway. I paid to stay here for the conference and liked how you could literally enter the mall from one of the hotel levels. It’s definitely convenient, for when you, um, realize that you need a last-minute extra pair of pants. That you pick up along with some Wisconsin cheese sticks and a cup of Caribou Coffee.

In short, if you happen to be in this area or thinking of a different kind of weekend getaway, the Mall of America might be the place to be. And shop.

Still Turning Pages: Connecticut’s Independent Bookstores

As much as online retailers and chain stores make shopping for books more convenient, I’m glad to see that independent booksellers aren’t fading away. Like many states across the U.S., Connecticut has a good number of stores successfully staying in stock. They have mass selections or promote specialty genres, carry a signature look and know the importance of good customer service.

While I’m trying to hit up as many book sellers as I can around Connecticut, start off with these two “good reads”:



The Book Barn, Niantic

Many friends of mine have driven up to this fun place. So I had to see it too. It’s right off of I-95, and I made it the first of two stops on my literary day trip.

In 1988, Randi White and his wife Mo turned a new chapter in their lives when they co-founded The Book Barn, an always-evolving book business that is a collection of amusements. Literally.

photo-33On the grounds adjacent to a three-story barn, which is called the Main Barn and contains nonfiction, teens and children’s, The Book Barn has a fun approach to stacking. Whimsical makeshift homes along the property shelve various paperbacks and hardcovers by category or subject.

Named after the famous landmark, Ellis Island is a depository for new arrivals (the public can bring books for potential sale) to be sorted. Some section names are fitting, others fun. The Haunted Bookshop has mystery and suspense, while Hades holds romance and chick-lit. As for books, the inventory contains a wide range of rare finds and popular titles, dating back to the 1600s up to this week’s bestseller.

Along with its main location on West Main Street, there are two other venues in Niantic: Book Barn Downtown and Book Barn Midtown.

RJ Julia Bookseller, Madison



This second stop is not too far from I-95. Though a Main Street fixture in Madison, RJ Julia Bookseller gets visitors from all across the United States and some even from overseas. They photo-38are authors who frequently come in for lectures and signings. Wall photos show off many guests such as the late writer Nora Ephron and celebrity TV chef and local resident Jacques Pepin.

Opening its doors in 1990, owner Roxanne J. Coady founded her store in an empty brick building with the notion of caring for and calling her customers as what they are: readers. With two levels and a separately run café and bistro, the store is graced wooden panel shelves and a neat green ceiling above the main cash registers.

An attached yellow building extends RJ Julia’s holdings with a children’s section and has space for visiting authors that come in for appearances at least a few times every week. Recently the bookstore invented its own Espresso Book Machine to encourage aspiring authors to bind personal writings and mementos into freshly made paperbacks. I understand that Coady has been looking to retire and sell her store. However, as a staff member told me, she’s waiting for the right buyer to come that will stay in line with her shop’s mission.

So, tell me. What’s your favorite “indie” bookstore?