Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fly to New Heights Via Songbirds

There is a place for individuals who would rather shop for jewelry with more character than what can be found in overpriced department stores or fine jewelers. For tobacco enthusiasts, the avid smoker would be equally as thrilled to know that this specific shop also carries Connecticut’s largest collection of glass pipes, hookahs, vaporizers and more.

Songbirds, located at 2551 Berlin Turnpike, has an eclectic range of handcrafted goods from all over the world. “The majority of our selection comes from overseas,” said Datura Damiano, who has worked at the shop for half of its two-year existence.

Privately owned by a couple who has traveled all over the world, the establishment is an eye-opener for true cosmopolitans. As a selection of music from different countries and time periods satiate the eardrums, your sense of smell is f looded with the fruity, musky scent of incense.

Sterling silver rings, bracelets and necklaces are on display in the glass cases, each embedded with varying gemstones such as moonstone, tiger’s eye, turquoise, amber and others. Gemstones have more personality than your typical 18K white platinum diamond ring, and Songbirds’ jewelry is reasonably priced and affordable. “We have jewelry sales every weekend,” Damiano said.

“Our stock is constantly new,” she explained while pointing out some particular pieces. Wooden drawers shaped like tree stumps are displayed throughout, which would be perfect to hold one’s newly-purchased gemstone jewels. These draw- ers were specially handcrafted and shipped by an artisan from Costa Rica. Near the drawers are handcrafted wooden layered puzzles, in shapes ranging from puppies to guitars.

Local artists’ paintings adorn the walls, from oil-based to prints, and elegant yet funky bells and wind chimes hang from the ceiling. Sculptures of ethnic faces stare up at you from display tables, balanced out with treasures from all over the globe.

There are even some cute odds and ends in the store, such as bowls made out of old records, bongos, tiedye shirts, hand puppets and natural soy wax candles made in Connecticut.

Smoking objects are in a room adjacent to the main section of the store, which is off-limits to minors under 18 years of age; individuals are carded as they enter. Songbirds represents the Illadelph Glass Company, which is a manufacturer of innovative hand-blown glass water pipes, sent here all the way from Hollywood, California.

Supporting small businesses and artists is crucial, and Songbirds understands this often forgotten fact. It’s beneficial to the consumer because of the quality, not quantity, and it can open up a world of insight to adventurous souls. Heck, it might even compel you to do a little exploration of your own.

Shady Glen: Keeping it Old School

February 27, 2008

Photo Cred: Stephanie Bergeron

Sixty years ago, one man created the world's first lactic attack of a cheeseburger that has become a historical, yet delectable monument to the city of Manchester.

As of today, customers at Shady Glen, located at 840 Middle Turnpike, frequently order this well-known burger, having been aptly named after its creator, Bernice Reig.

For newcomers, coming face-to-face with this edible masterpiece of art can solicit an odd reaction; to describe it in words isn't doing it enough justice. To really tell its tale is to explain the preparation process.

With an ordinary slab of meat and three to four pieces of your everyday American cheese, both are combined to make something extraordinary. The slices of cheese are carefully placed as a mosaic on top of the meat patty as it sizzles, so that the edges untouched by the meat melt directly onto the grill. Contact with the hot surface allows the edges to turn chewy and crispy, and when dolled up with a bun, curves around the sandwich as if a clam was sticking its tongue out at someone.

A rather fun aspect of Shady Glen is the customers' experience of getting to watch everything being prepared right in the middle of the old dairy bar. That's because the booths and tables rest around the restaurant's cooking area; waitresses adorned in 1950s garb of pine-green dresses with aprons take orders, while cooks and bus boys saunter around in white button down shirts, bow ties and hats.

Shady Glen Dairy Bar is accustomed to their old-fashioned appeal, because it is what keeps customers coming back, that and their delicious burgers and homemade ice cream.

A common favorite platter amongst visitors would be the Bernice Special. For nine dollars, a decent sized platter of French fries and homemade coleslaw comes alongside your cheese-nificent burger. The waitress then sets a caddy full of ketchup, mustard, onions and relish down so that the customer can decorate his/her burger however they wish. For just a small additional cost, tomatoes and lettuce can be added as well.

Once seated, little paper cups of water are served, but what drink complements the burger the best? An old-fashioned milkshake of course, filled to the brim in a tall silver cup. The waitress gives you the entire beaker, so that you may help yourself to a couple chilly refills. Milkshakes are available in every flavor; some are rather eclectic, and range from vanilla, to grape-nuts or even chocolate Almond Joy ice cream.

For desserts, Shady Glen offers sundaes and fruit ice creams, which are crammed with fresh fruit from local and regional farms. "From the ice cream to the burgers, everything is fresh," says William Hoch, the executive manager of Shady Glen. Hoch goes to work at the crack of dawn everyday, and is very dedicated to the business. "The cleanliness, product and service are what counts, even down to the 1950s atmosphere."

Let me describe one process in hopes of making your mouth water. Some of the ice creams are topped with a rich, gooey chocolate sauce that hardens upon impact with the chilly treat, causing an explosion of rich, fudgy chunks.

Six dollars can take home your very own selection of hand-packed ice cream, and around the holidays, a half-gallon of Christmas ice cream (with red and green cherries) or some Thanksgiving pumpkin ice cream.

Amidst the shiny, stainless steel communal counters and colorful murals adorning the walls, lay booths full of amazingly satisfied customers. "It has been a great business," Hoch said as he spoke about the 60 year annivesary. The food is the same as it was in 1948, and won't be changing anytime soon.

The art of Shady Glen's cheeseburger has made this roadside restaurant a must, and even if Bernice made his signature burger mistakenly, it proves that good always comes out of the bad.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Goldfrapp: Seventh Tree

Alison Goldfrapp's voice is mesmerizing. From the moment you press play on Goldfrapp's latest album, Seventh Tree, you are charioted away to an elegant sound-world of ambient, soothing tempos that are accentuated by Alison's sensuous, drawn-out notes and perfectly played-out pitches.

Goldfrapp's newest release stands out from most of their collection; before Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp was a bit more tantalizing. Their most recognizable hit on Supernature, "Ooh La La," was featured in commercials for the scintillating FX television series "Nip/ Tuck." Most of the tracks on Supernature resonate a Kylie Minogue feel, even a hint of Gwen Stefani. As if the crazy electronic party got a little too out of hand for Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree is seen as a bit of a 'rehab' album for the band.

"Clowns," the first track on Seventh Tree, has a Joni Mitchell appeal; lest we all remember Mitchell's impressive range, where she could dip low into false baritone and bounce back immediately to sharper, high notes. Alison shows her ability to do the same and could give Mitchell a run for her money.

Recorded out in the English countryside of Somerset, most of the album reflects that serene feeling that is evident in most of the tracks, especially "Little Bird" and "Happiness." They also have that psychedelic '60s feel, with a mix of reverberating sounds and noises in the background of Alison's lyrics, which feel very Beatles- oriented.

Every single track is as aesthetically pleasing as the next; "Road to Somewhere" and "Eat Yourself" are two dazzling gems of Seventh Tree, and in "Cologne Cerrone Houdini," a beautiful string arrangement sashays its way through four minutes of bliss, whilst Alison asks, "Could we be together in another world?"

Wild Bill's Nostalgia Center

Calling all collectors and novelty enthusiasts: search no longer for that vintage Hannah Barbara lunch- box or giant Pez dispenser! In need of a bobble-head or two? Look no further, and stop digging through your parents’ old junk in the attic!

There is a living monument to the unforgettable time periods that are well-passed and long gone: an ode to the pop culture that defined us as Americans.

Driving down Newfield Street in Middletown is quite ordinary; that is, until Wild Bill’s Nostalgia Center comes into sight. It is as if you began to trip right then and there, as the explosion of colors numb your senses.

The building’s exterior is difficult to describe; it is that intense. Each side has been painted with historical figures and cartoon characters, from Jim Morrison to Superman. Janis Joplin is seen hanging out by an unmarked entrance and next to it, a sign painted with the old phrase: “Hippies use side door.”

“It’s good to have high ceilings,” said owner Wild Bill. “Makes it easier to pile a lot of crap up.”

For 25 years, Wild Bill has been living a dream, owning sacred novelties that people constantly are pining after. As an early distributor of Funko, Bill started out selling Wacky Wobblers, otherwise known as bobble-heads. Funko has also made a bobble-head of Wild Bill, which resembles him with his long locks in an Uncle Sam top hat and peace sign necklace.

Bill then increased his store’s merchandise to hold rarities, ranging from hard-to-find vinyl records to recreations of old concert f lyers, along with the millions of posters and postcards.

Wild Bill’s past is as colorful and adventurous as his store. Having worked for the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, he then enlisted in the Air Force in 1966 while most were avoiding the misery that was Vietnam. After coming home, he settled down, got hitched, and had three children, all of whom work at the establishment as well. “My children and grandchildren work here; it’s strictly a family business,” Bill said.

Outside the store, on his 45-acre lot sit, 28 tractor-trailers full of rare finds. The store is already filled to the brim as-is, so Wild Bill takes out handfuls of loot from the trailers when he has the time, and the space. “This is what happens when you don’t throw anything away for 60 years,” he said.

One item in his store holds a personal meaning to Wild Bill: a life-sized, electronic, animated clown built in the 1920s, straight from Coney Island. As he plugged it in and turned on the semi-disturbing laugh track, I watched the clown’s haunting movements. “This is sentimental to me because my grandfather was a Barnum & Bailey clown,” Bill explained.

Random objects hang from the ceilings, whether it’s a giant Mini-Me (Austin Powers) or a section from a kiddy carnival ride from the 1940s. “Anything goes here,” said Wild Bill. “Whatever I find, I sell.”

While scouring the inside of the store, I stopped to gander at myself in a warped mirror, attempted to talk myself into purchasing a liquor bottle lamp and eventually ended up at a $550 Coca-Cola soda machine, starting at it intently and wishing it could reside in The Recorder office.

From vintage toys to wigs, suspenders, model cars, sunglasses and more, nothing in the store can be classified as “normal.” “It’s oddball stuff, but people do buy it,” Wild Bill said. “I started the kind of place I’d like to shop in.”

Distributors from all over the U.S. and Europe know about Wild Bill’s Nostalgia Center. “They know we’re here and that we buy strange things,” he said.

Even Rob Zombie knows; he used a Wild Bill’s poster in one of his latest movies. Speaking of great publicity, A well-known television station is noticing the store’s outer beauty as well. “MTV is shooting a music video here next Sunday,” Bill noted. “It should be interesting.”

Wild Bill is planning an action-packed summer full of outdoor concerts, f lea markets, and better yet, a fun house built behind the store that will be open to the public. “I was thinking of having a hot dog stand built into the fun house,” Bill said. “You’d order your hot dog, go through the fun house, and then receive your hot dog as you walk out.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Exercise Your Inner Dude At Bowl-O-Rama

Late at night when the city of Newington sleeps, there lies a place alive and thriving with the thunderous sound of a collision so recognizable, yet so rarely seen or practiced by the youth of today.

When thinking of an exciting late night out with friends, ever consider a few rounds of some bowl-on-pin action?

Bowl-O-Rama, located on the northern end of the Berlin Turnpike, is a 24-hour family owned and operated establishment committed to “an inexpensive way of having fun,” says owner Rip Callahan.

The alley, opened in 1959, is a way of life to the three generations of Callahans who have kept it af loat throughout the turnpike’s constant f luctuation. “We’ve seen [the turnpike] at its peak, its decline, and now current upswing,” said Rip, who has been a bowling aficionado since the age of 16.

Despite the turnpike’s ins and outs, Bowl-O-Rama has always had a constant inf lux of customers. Great for family get-togethers, celebrations and birthdays, the alley is surely a cost-effective, yet elating way of having some friendly, fun competition.

“It gets very busy on the weekends,” Rip admitted.

It is a rarity to find any place open much later than 10 p.m. on most nights, especially weekdays. Having begun its 24-hour, seven-day-weeks ritual in 1960, Bowl-O-Rama caters to night owls and insomniacs alike. This works especially well for college students, who are always on the lookout for some excitement after their long, class-filled days.

There are plenty of perks to selecting a night out bowling compared to some ritualistic club or party. With a bar open till 2 a.m. on weekends, a legal bowler may sit back and sip a cold beer as they watch their partner-in-crime bowl a goose egg. What can a college ID get you? A free pair of bowling shoes. Being a mere five miles away from campus, it’s friendly on your gas tank. Need any more convincing?

Rip’s son, Fred Callahan, wants to organize leagues for colleges within a 15-mile radius for a bit of a “Best Campus Wins”-kind of competition. “It would be very flexible,” said Fred, in terms of working around class schedules. “I think it would be awesome to attempt.”

Bowl-O-Rama also offers normal leagues, which take part in winter and summer sessions. “There has been a decline in league bowling,” Rip said. “Luckily, we still have around 1,600 to 2,000 members.”

With that said, there’s no stopping you from bringing out your inner Dude (think The Big Lebowski) and creating your own team, or just taking a night out to enhance your chances of attaining a turkey (three strikes in a row). Just remember, bumper bowling will not impress your date.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Alchemy Juice Bar Cafe: Something for the Stomach and Mind

February 6, 2008

Photo Cred: Conrad Akier

Sequestered away amidst the hustle and bustle of Hartford's busy streets is a place of rejuvenation and relaxation.

The Alchemy Juice Bar Cafe livens up a rather dismal-looking section of New Britain Avenue, serving as home to an assortment of vegan and organic treats from fruit smoothies to soups and sandwiches.

For the past five years, Alchemy has opened their doors to individuals seeking a different alternative to large chains that serve anything, and leave their customers clueless as to what is in it or how it is prepared.

The Juice Bar, which has won numerous awards from the Hartford Advocate and Co-op America, has forever committed itself to only using fresh, organic, raw produce that has been locally grown.

"This is basically the way we live," says Alchemy's owner, Imani. 203 New Britain Ave is not just a restaurant, it is what she, her husband and their six home-schooled children call home. Imani, who has a Master's Degree in Early Elementary Education, raises her children with a "green" awareness, stressing the importance of an eco-friendly lifestyle.

With this knowledge, her children will go into schools to teach others about the wonders of organic food, and other elements that surround a healthy way of living.

With an oxygen bar, yoga studio and an eco-boutique included on the premises as well, it's hard to stay narrow-minded at such an eye-opening place. Herbal remedies, dried fruits and even non-toxic cleaning supplies and hemp-made journals are scattered throughout the site for purchasing; and, of course, there are freshly-made delicacies.

Speaking of smoothies, Alchemy's selection includes some interesting mixes, from the Antioxidant Acai ($6, with acai, banana, coconut and pineapple juice) to the Tantric Love ($10, with cacao, goji, strawberries, banana, coconut, dates and berry tea), and one could even select a milkshake smoothie ($6) made with dairy or vegan ice cream.

It is a definite must to get a bowl of the Soup Du Jour ($5) and, from a personal standpoint, the Veggie Miso was excellent, especially with its fresh mixture of potatoes, carrots, tofu and scallions.

What is so great about an oxygen bar? Pure oxygen "gives you energy, calms your mind, and stimulates your senses," read a handmade sign next to the machines. It is $7.50 for 15 minutes of use and should definitely be tried at least once for the sweet smells of lemon grass and cedar wood proliferating ones nostrils.

"We are committed to this neighborhood and are aiming to revitalize Hartford," said Imani eagerly. She and her husband, John Vito, are planning to create a co-op for sustainable living, aptly named The Growing Green Project.

"I would love to see more young people involved," she admitted, hoping that college students will stop by, enjoy the atmosphere and learn more about the cause. What you do spend, you gain in health, knowledge and empowerment. It's a good feeling.

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