When you hear of Pittsburgh you probably think of Heinz ketchup, Batman’s Gotham City and those annoying Steelers fans (guilty!). Something that is frequently overlooked is the Strip District. The Strip District is essentially a Ma & Pa shop heaven nestled right in the city. They have everything from live seafood to stands selling Pens memorabilia. If you’ve never been, here are five reasons that you should visit.
1. They will treat you like family.
When I was back in Pennsylvania visiting family I had to stop in Pittsburgh to visit my best friend of 15 or so years. However, she had to work during the day, so I was going to be left to my own devices to get work done and do a little exploring. My first thought was “How am I going to have fun in a shopping district if I don’t like shopping?”. I love coffee shops though so I decided to wander into one that smelled quite delicious. I kid you not, they adopted me for a solid two hours while I nibbled on chocolate covered espresso beans, ate a breakfast burrito and laughed with the employees. After only two days the employees at Prestogeorge Coffee Selections (Presto) were sorry to see me leave and had been accustomed to my stopping by randomly (Breakfast, lunch, snack, 12th cup of coffee that day). They have an old coffee bean roaster from the early 1900’s that’s an original that school kids were coming in to see for a field trip, and they have the largest selection of coffee beans and leaf tea I have ever seen. My caffeine addiction was in full swing that day. They made suggestions of things not to miss on the Strip, and one employee even invited me to tag along to the Gay Pride Festival that was happening downtown that weekend (I, sadly, could not attend).
2. Meeting the Owners of the Establishments You Visit
As I made my way down the Strip, block by block. I started to notice a trend. Each store I went into I was bumping into the owners of the place. Not only that, but I found them working in their own stores. Not sitting at some desk as CEO at a big office, running 500 stores nationwide. No, I found them elbow deep in orange juice while they fresh press their own to sell, or laying out their goods on the table to make sure they’re neatly organized. They were even greeting people into their stores as if they were guests at a small bed and breakfast. To the point where you would think you’re just speaking with an employee but when you ask their name it matches the name of the store itself. I found myself inspired. People still care about finding their niche and making their own way in this world. They could pay someone to do that work, but it’s their product, their livelihood. So, there they stand, pressing their own orange juice. (The orange juice was at the fish market/farmer’s market Wholey’s Market)
3. Contributing to the Local Market
I don’t know a lot about the ins and outs of economies or the politics of the whole thing. What I do know is that generally speaking ,when you shop at a Ma & Pa type shops, the money you spend is going directly to someone who lives locally. Therefore, helping the local market rather than say spending your money at a big international shopping super center like Target or Wal-mart. I remember when I was a kid we visited the Strip District, and I remember there barely being anyone there, and the businesses were struggling to stay afloat. This visit in 2017 however, showed a completely different story. It was shoulder to shoulder foot traffic for most of the afternoon. People from all walks of life, professionals, college students, tourists, you name it. I know it sounds a bit silly, but just seeing people come out to support local business, it inspired me and gave me a glimmer of hope in the future of this country. People are starting to acknowledge the importance of Ma & Pa shops to the economy, even if, like me, they don’t know exactly how all that works.
4. Friendly Locals
I had completed as much shopping as I had desired and I was ready to get some work done. In the middle of a bunch of shops where it’s hard enough to find a bathroom (the only non-ma and pa shop is a McDonald’s, that always works). Where was I supposed to find free Wi-Fi and somewhere to get some work done? All the local shops had put Starbuck’s out of business (GOOD) and I didn’t want to be at McDonald’s at such a picturesque spot. So I wandered to a close by coffee shop, I don’t even remember the name of it, as soon as I walked in, the few plugs they had were being used and the electricity had just gone out! Oops…soo…what do I do? I’m looking around when this friendly fellow, that I later learned was named John, asked me what I was looking for. He very kindly offered to lead me to a place near by, 21st St. Coffee and Tea, where he took me and I learned that he used to be an editor for Amazon. They had outlets, free Wi-Fi and top notch coffee. It seems I always meet the most interesting people, he stayed to chat for a while before going back to his own business. I’m always surprised by how helpful people can be, almost no matter where you go in the world.
5. Last, But Not Least: It’s Like Doing a Round in Epcot at Walt Disney World
This place has quite literally everything you could ever dream of and all within just a few blocks of each other. Do you want to eat the local staple of Perogies? Well they have them in street stands, they’re even sold with local sausages slapped onto a locally baked bun. Looking for flowers? Buy a bouquet for $2 from the funny lady on the side of the street. There’s an Asian Market, a store dedicated to hot sauce, in the mood for Syrian food? The gentleman at the counter with the fabulous moustache will tell you all about how his mother made the fresh Kabee the old way from their kitchen at home. How about Mediterranean? Or the supplies to cook them yourself? Craft Beer? Local Vineyards? Yes, yes and yes. Woodworks, farmer’s markets, fresh seafood, elephant pants from Thailand (I have them now in teal, thank you). You can find almost anything you could ever want, and for a good price, just by wandering down an old steel forging town’s historic Strip District, holding strong since the late 19th century, and not planning on going anywhere any time soon. So please, even if you don’t visit the Strip District in Pittsburgh, try and shop locally, at the very least you’ll get an adventure out of it.
As Always, never stop exploring