Browsing through Kansas City's shops, you just can't help feeling that something is happening here, or is about to happen, or didn't quite happen—although it might anytime now. Country Club Plaza, America's first major shopping center, opened in 1922 and remains Kansas City's shopping hub. But many of the city's most creative retailers have staked out their own turf, often renovating shops in neighborhoods that have seen better days. The pioneer spirit of these entrepreneurs is apt. This is, after all, a city where wagon trains came to be outfitted before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.
Country Club Plaza
You can't fully appreciate Country Club Plaza without first taking a spin through the residential streets that branch off from Ward Parkway. This sylvan neighborhood was the home of Mrs. Bridge, the famously repressed upper-middle-class heroine and title character of Evan S. Connell's novel. As you roll past a seemingly endless supply of turn-of-the-century mini mansions, you'll remember the regimented codes of suburban conduct that forced poor Mrs. Bridge to make such a fuss about her powder-room guest towels.
As in Mrs. Bridge's time, local residents pilot luxury sedans down Ward Parkway to shop at the Plaza, which developer J. C. Nichols modeled after buildings in Seville. Shops are clad in mosaic and roofed with red tiles; walkways are studded with fountains. The names are mostly familiar: Eddie Bauer, Laura Ashley, Brooks Brothers. But a handful of retailers defiantly do their own thing.
The owners of Asiatica (4709 Central St.; 816/931-9111), Elizabeth Wilson and Fifi White, make regular trips to Japan to purchase vintage kimonos, which they take apart and inventively reassemble into their own designs, many of them made to order. (Asiatica also has a showroom at 4824 Rainbow Boulevard in nearby Westwood where you can select from an extraordinary array of Japanese silks and cottons.) When the patron who commissioned Claes Oldenburg's monumental shuttlecock sculptures at the city's Nelson-Atkins Museum wanted a vest, the shop was able to supply the perfect fabric: a silk patterned with badminton racquets.
Lined with majolica pottery from all over Italy, Toscano (610 W. 48th St.; 816/756-0222) is a den of grapevines, flowers, and dragons. Owner Jennifer Eggen spends two months a year traveling from Italy's northern border down to Sicily, placing orders with the country's best majolica painters. Her finds have attracted Joe Montana and Marion Ross, among others, but Eggen's best customer is a woman who ordered table services for 12 for each of her seven houses.
Next door, the Three Dog Bakery (612 W. 48th St.; 816/753-3647) is named for the owners' three dogs, Dottie, Gracie, and Sarah Jean. The delicious-looking baked goods—elaborately iced birthday cakes, Scotty Biscotti, Puppy Petit Fours—are made for canine enjoyment, with healthful ingredients such as whole wheat flour, unsweetened carob, and low-fat yogurt powder. Ask for a trial snack of doggy Peanut Brindle—grainy, but not bad, and sugar-free.
Mrs. Bridge would be reassured by the regal restraint of Halls (211 Nichols Rd.; 816/ 274-3222), the ultimate Plaza department store, owned by Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards. Inside, women in sporty daytime furs serenely browse the racks of designer clothing (DKNY, Armani, Chanel). For the most part, selection is limited to a few examples from each label; the Hallmark card department, however, is stunningly comprehensive.
This spirited neighborhood, a two-minute drive from the Plaza, caters to a style-conscious crowd of Kansas City Art Institute students and art-student look-alikes.
Everyone from Beck to Barry Manilow comes to the Music Exchange (207 Westport Rd.; 816/931-7560) for rare 78's, 45's, LP's, eight-track tapes, Edison disks, and CD's. Rummage a bit and you'll also find He-Man toys, underground comics, maybe even a Jayne Mansfield hot-water bottle ($450). And after June 1 there will be even more: the Music Exchange is settling into bigger quarters, at 4200 Broadway.
One of Westport's most eccentric mainstays, Loma Vista Hardware (311 Westport Rd.; 816/931-5846), has a split personality. Owner Chuck Dean presides on street level, selling mops and bathroom faucets in a traditional hardware store with a tin ceiling and creaky wood floors. Upstairs, Chuck's son, Todd, has transformed a dance hall into a stylish boutique showing Versace silk shirts ($460), Matsuda pants ($589), and Jill Stuart handbags ($60-$100). If you don't know a nightspot in Kansas City where you might wear your new black rubber mini-dress, Todd will point you in the right direction. "Tip the go-go boy," he says. "You wouldn't believe how much of our stuff he's got on layaway."
Next, venture around the corner to inspect Pennsylvania Street. John Bull (4112 Pennsylvania St.; 816/ 561-3383) is a tobacco shop specializing in accoutrements making a comeback: vintage martini shakers, cherrywood humidors, and expensive cigars. For Indonesian temple doors ($1,000), Thai bug-in-a-nut toys ($4), and Kansas City folk art, the source is the World's Window (4120 Pennsylvania St.; 816/756-1514), where much of the stock is purchased from Third World not-for-profit crafts programs. Last stop on the street: Re-Runs (4126 Pennsylvania St.; 816/561-4425), a tiny vintage clothing store that provided period outfits for Robert Altman's Kansas City.
For more antiques and things for the home, head to the outskirts of Westport. Robert Raymond Smith & Bruce Burstert (1612 Westport Rd.; 816/531-4772) carries nice old Oriental rugs and wonderful garden ornaments—a pair of British stone spheres goes for $800. Across the street, the florists at Bergamot & Ivy (1721 Westport Rd.; 816/561-5599) stock well-chosen accessories such as Jonathan Adler's two-toned vases ($45) and mercury-glass candle holders ($33). More antiques shops line three blocks of 45th Street, starting at Bell. The one not to miss is Christopher Filley (1721 W. 45th St.; 816/ 561-1124), a charmingly arranged hodgepodge of French tole letter boxes ($115), Turkish marble washbasins ($450-$1,250), and sets of lobster dishes ($275).
The commercial heart of old Kansas City, which grew south from the Missouri River, is about a 10-minute drive from Westport. You're not likely to come away laden with boutique bags in this somewhat glum (but architecturally interesting) part of town. Still, several shops are worth visiting, as much for their time-burnished atmosphere as for their offerings.
Olde Theatre Architectural Salvage (2045 Broadway; 816/283-3740) sells chunks of city history: a cast-iron ornamental head from the turn-of-the-century Orpheum Theatre, wood-and-glass store display cases, claw-footed bathtubs. Shore up your finds with tools and parts from Harry J. Epstein (301 W. Eighth St.; 816/ 421-4752), a hardware store dedicated to the hard-to-find where all the prices are written backwards.
At City Market (Fifth and Walnut Sts.; 816/842-1271), farmers sell produce while vendors in stalls hawk plastic toys, pork chops, and caff lattes. Planter's Seed & Spice (513 Walnut St.; 816/842-3651), next to the market entrance, has catered to growers since 1924. Though most of its customers are now residential gardeners, the store still has the feel of a farmers' supply depot.
Housed in an old warehouse at the edge of the City Market area, JoAnn Meierhoff Stained Glass (210 Wyandotte St.; 816/421-4912) is a dark, moody place with isolated beams of light filtering through colored panes. At least as vibrant as the glass is the venerable Meierhoff, a pioneer retailer in this historic district. With the demeanor of a benevolent monarch, she will permit you to look at her collection of old Kansas windows, lamps, and doors, some of which are for sale. Consider her shop a museum with a couple of price tags.
39th Street The block-and-a-half restaurant row, between Genessee Street and State Line Road, is well sited for hungry shoppers coming from Country Club Plaza and Westport. Worth trying: Tribal Grill (18081/2 W. 39th St.; 816/756-5566) for Middle Eastern mezze; Vietnamese Saigon 39 (18061/2 W. 39th St.; 816/531-4447); and Café Allegro (1815 W. 39th St.; 816/561-3663).
Downtown For the consummate City Market breakfast, grab a counter seat at Cascone's Grill (20 E. Fifth St.; 816/471-1018) and watch the cook turn out masterly pancakes, bacon, and hash browns. Next pit stop: Savoy Grill (219 W. Ninth St.; 816/ 842-3890), a classic in the old Hotel Savoy, for steak, martinis, and murals of steamboats.
Barbecue Detour One could happily devote a shopping trip to the bottled sauces for sale in Kansas City's rib joints. But if you have time for only one barbecue stop, make it Arthur Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn Ave.; 816/231-1123), south of downtown. The perfection of the place lies in its beige Formica and red vinyl simplicity—and its fast-paced kitchen. The sauce ($2.89 a pint) is the best souvenir in the city.
JOSHUA DAVID, a New York-based writer and editor, recently completed his first novel.