Certain Coeur d’Alene natives often wheeze about how there’s just no reason to go downtown anymore. For many years, downtown was where you had to go for pretty much any and everything you needed. There were no hyper-mega stores, no super-ultra marts. You went to the bakery for bread, to the butcher for meat, and to the drug store for laxatives, valium, and root beer floats. Like many cities, Coeur d’Alene’s once-thriving downtown district went bust after people fell in love with the supermarkets and the shopping malls, where they could get all their necessary items in one convenient go. By the mid-80’s, half of the storefronts along Sherman Avenue sat empty and unloved, and what businesses did remain struggled to stay open. That is, with the exception of Hudson’s Hamburgers, which people would still line up for even in the midst of a nuclear winter.
As our fair city by the lake began to make its name as a world-class tourist destination, coupled with some appealing cosmetic renovations, the empty shops gradually began to fill up. However, many city residents weren’t too jazzed about the exclusive art and antique galleries and designer boutiques that began popping up, perceiving them to be full of opulent but useless merchandise aimed solely at the tourist dollar. Pretty much the only time certain local folks ever walk Sherman Avenue is once a year when they line the street with lawn chairs for the 4th of July parade. A friend of mine, who is a lifelong Coeur d’Alene resident, often complains about the lack of downtown shops selling anything of a practical, useful nature, lamenting “a guy can’t even find a place down there to buy some underwear!”
While that may be odd but sadly true, I disagree with the notion that our city center holds little use for us locals. Certainly, there are the more obvious things, like the fantastic new Coeur d’Alene Public Library, the top-rated dining establishments, and the Wi-Fi ready coffee shops. There are the classic standbys like the Iron Horse, Crickets and the Eagles Lounge, all of which have been given eye-pleasing makeovers recently. In addition, it seems like a veritable glut of cool places have emerged in the last couple of years, creating plenty of reasons for local residents to come down and rediscover their city’s core.
People everywhere are growing tired of the homogeny of malls and big-box chain stores and rediscovering the joys of shopping in quirky, independently owned stores in a lively downtown setting. Reflecting this trend, the Moose Market opened recently at the intersection of 4th and Sherman. It was initially touted as a grocery mart, something our downtown desperately needed. While they do sell a handful of staples, it’s primarily a specialty gourmet market and deli. They carry a wonderful selection of unusual, organic, and locally made food items, including any product you could ever possibly create using huckleberries. Most impressive are the coolers and coolers full of micro and import beers and the massive selection of unusual wines – this is the place to go if your looking for a nice cold Dead Guy Ale or a rare bottle of Gewurztraminer. Even if you’re just looking for a Green Squall PowerAde and a Baby Ruth, the Moose Market will hook you up.
Also newish downtown is Figpickels Toy Emporium, which is a store that causes jaws of all ages to hit the floor upon entry. Too much great stuff to play with! “Hands On” is the motto in this place- they actually encourage shoppers here to tinker with the merchandise. Figpickels is full of a ton of classic and retro playthings that will have you flashing back to memories of childhood. This funky, old-fashioned toy store is about as far removed from popular chains like KB and Toys-R-Us as possible. There are no mass-marketed, toxic made-in-China toys here – every item is high quality and unique. Come in just to see the stuffed grizzly bear, the hand carved rocking horses and the three-horse miniature carousel. You’ll be probably end up stuck there for hours and you’ll love it.
There are at least a dozen art galleries downtown I could mention, and although I’m sure they’re all fine and dandy, one in particular stands out in my mind for its totally unusual works. Truthfully, I’ve never actually been inside the Rivers of Art gallery on 4th Street because I always find myself there after closing time. However, I’ve peered in the windows often, drawn in by the drama of the spotlights reflecting off the weird silvery metal sculptures on display. There’s a lot of strangeness to behold inside Rivers of Art, but the most out-there piece has to be the one I call “that robot lady.” She’s about seven feet tall, made of shiny chrome, has pointy Madonna cone breasts, and is pointing a gun at the sky. She’s totally abstract and for some reason, she’s got a nice comfy hammock strung between her thin metallic hands. Or is it a large fish net? Either way, she must be seen to be believed.
I can remember a time when downtown Coeur d’Alene would become a ghost town once the shop keepers would lock their doors and go home for the night. These days, there’s actually a varied and vibrant music scene to take in. Whilst checking out intimate venues like Café Doma or Barrel Room No. 6, one thing becomes clear – popular artists like Dave Matthews and Jewel have inspired a seemingly endless cache of acoustic guitar wielding singer-songwriters willing to bare their souls for you while you sip your latte or vintage Riesling. Jazz and blues will never go out of style, and the Wine Cellar serves up some of the best in the area every night except Sunday, with regular performances by local favorites like Pat Coast, Laffin Bones, Emma’s Nasty Apple and Jim Tilden Brown.
Looking for something a little wilder? I mean a lot wilder? Sneak up to the Torch Lounge and get into the sensory overload of the place with its gargantuan floor-to-ceiling video screens, thunderous hard rock and rap music, multicolored liquor shots served in test tubes, and of course, the “dancing” bikini girls. It’s kind of like being trapped inside a Britney Spears video, but in a good way. Really, this form of gentleman’s entertainment is just a modern update of Geisha girls or Go-Go dancers, except with 90% less clothing. Never a dull moment at the Torch, but it’s definitely not a place for the meek and mild.
Make sure you don’t enjoy the downtown nightlife TOO much, for if you find yourself a bit on the tipsy side who knows what you could get up to? How about a dip in the water fountain at the foot of the McKuen Terrace condos? Maybe a naked 3AM photo session while riding the giant buffalo sculpture outside the Art Spirit gallery? Tour the alleyways directly north and south of Sherman Avenue and go dumpster diving. “Accidentally” trample the geraniums at the Coeur d’Alene Resort while looking for a secret back way into Whispers lounge. Go to the top of the Resort parking garage and throw your shoes over the edge, then go find them. Cruise through the Resort driveway, watch the valet run out towards you, then drive under the canopy and speed off into the night, cackling. I’m only kidding, Mr. Holstein. Seriously, I’m not actually recommending that anyone should try any of these antics or instead of exploring the quaint charms of downtown, they’ll be exploring the quaint charms of Kootenai County Jail.