* The Monday after that, on Dec. 13, our destination is Philadelphia's y-axis: the Avenue of the Arts, newly flush with shopping opportunities.
* Finally, on Monday, Dec. 20, we venture out to University City, a happening neighborhood anchored by the Bridge movie theater and the new WXPN studios and World Cafe Live venue.
We wouldn't ride the "Polar Express" if you paid us. Tom Hanks' weird animatronic face creeps us out. But we're happy to board a SEPTA commuter train for a holiday shopping excursion to downtown Jenkintown: a funky suburban retail district that time forgot and out-of-towners rediscovered only recently.
A steep uphill walk on Greenwood Avenue from SEPTA's Jenkintown station brings you to the prime shopping area, which centers on the 300 and 400 blocks of Old York Road and includes Greenwood and West avenues, branching off to the west. There, you'll find a crazy jumble of worn old retail institutions and glitzy new high-end stores, with enough variety to take care of your whole gift list, including Hanukkah needs.
Wear comfortable shoes - that hill is a killer. But don't worry about running to catch the next train back to Center City. Jenkintown is the rare suburb with frequent SEPTA service. Four different Regional Rail lines stop here: the R1 Airport Line, the R2 Warminster Line, the R3 West Trenton Line, and the R5 Lansdale/Doylestown. If you miss a weekday train, another one will be there within 10 to 20 minutes. On the weekend, trains come through at intervals of 20 to 30 minutes during daytime shopping hours.
SUBHED HERE: Tie Eagles tie
Terrell Owens made news with a towel, and now Dhani Jones is turning heads with a smaller scrap of fabric: the bow tie. The dapper Eagles linebacker has just delivered his first batch of Five Star bow ties, which he designs and produces, to a very few upscale retail stores. Right now, Ventresca men's store in Jenkintown is the only local store that carries them.
These are not Howard Eskin bobbleheads (although Ventresca has one of those kitschy monstrosities behind the counter, in homage to a favored customer). Jones' ties are serious, high-end fashion - with a serious price: $65. The luxurious pastel prints will stand out, in a good way, at black-tie events this holiday season. We'd describe them as "pretty" if their maker weren't so big, so fast and so keen to tackle people.
When you visit Ventresca, don't be put off by the suit racks, where "sale" tags are marked $1,650. Owner Frank Ventresca is an Eagles fan, like all of us. Above the displays of Brioni shirts, Zegna suits and Moreschi shoes, his store's walls are lined with signed game jerseys bearing names a regular guy can relate to: Trotter, Vincent, Akers.
Ventresca outfits many Eagles coaches, including Andy Reid, and many players (although T.O. is not yet a client). The store's tailors make road trips to the NovaCare practice facility to take measurements. Although Frank Ventresca won't divulge inseam sizes, he is intimate with team neck sizes and can vouch that Jones' Five Star bow ties are "sized for regular men."
"Dhani is a linebacker," he said. "He's a big boy, but he's not lineman size. These would fit a normal neck."
Ventresca Ltd., 315 Old York Road, Jenkintown, 215-576-1178. Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.
SUBHED HERE: Ike would like this
At the Jenkintown Train & Hobby Shop, time has stopped. Judging by the merchandise on display, it's 1961. The stock includes Wiffle Bats and Wiffle Balls, balsa airplanes and gliders, Estes rockets, Gayla kites, model car kits, paint-by-numbers sets, and of course Duncan Yo-Yos.
And then there are the trains. As a regional magnet for model train hobbyists, the Jenkintown store carries everything a Christmas dabbler could possibly need for his little platform under the tree: monster O-gauge trains, minuscule N-gauge townspeople, piles of HO-scale locomotives, tracks and tunnels.
For the beginner, shop clerk Bob Tarlo recommends the Warbonnett HO Scale Train Set ($84.98), with a locomotive and four cars, a power pack, and enough track to build a 45-by-36-inch oval. He says move-up buyers might like a set of graduated risers to elevate their tracks ($9.98 for a pack) or a lifelike Styrofoam landform ($14.95 for a painted, HO-scale mountain.)
Weird but worth a look is the magazine rack, with esoteric titles like Model Railroader, Railroad Model Craftsman, and Railmodel Journal - some train porn to besmirch all that Eisenhower-era goodness.
Jenkintown Train & Hobby Shop, 620 Greenwood Ave., Jenkintown, 215-884-7555. Open Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday from 1-4 p.m.
It's invigorating to shop for Hanukkah in the usual hodgepodge of stores: You pick up your chocolate gelt at the CVS, buy your decorative ceramic latke platter at the synagogue sisterhood shop, cross your fingers there's a decent selection of Hanukkah storybooks at the big-box bookstore nearby. On the other hand, it would be nice if the menorahs and the wrapping paper weren't located in aisles several miles from each other.
Downtown Jenkintown is the rare local shopping district with two Judaica stores: Luda's Judaica and Rosenberg's Hebrew Bookstore, situated less than two blocks from each other on the same side of Old York Road.
Luda's specializes in handmade giftware from the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel. For Hanukkah, there's a dazzling array of rare and collectible dreidels, including painted wooden ones from Russia ($4.95) and delicately filigreed silver ones from Israel, inlaid with gemstones (starting at $45). Rosenberg's, known for its scholarly books and ceremonial items for observant Jews, also carries a huge selection of cheap holiday gifts for kids, including bendable Dreidel Man dolls ($3), sports-themed children's menorahs ($13 and up), and plastic stencils of the Hebrew letters ($3).
Hanukkah party guests will find novel and thoughtful hostess gifts at both stores. Luda's has pretty linen cocktail napkins, sold in sets of four and packaged with a festive hors d'oeuvres knife, for $24. Rosenberg's sells unusual kosher wines from around the world, including a Spanish tempranillo and an Italian valpolicella, both about $10.
Luda's Judaica, 479 Old York Road, 215-884-9800. Open Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon-4 p.m.
Rosenberg's Hebrew Bookstore, 409 Old York Road, 215-884-1728. Open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Saturday.
Everyone likes getting candy for Christmas, but Jenkintown's miraculous Stutz candy store, one of five storefronts in and around eastern Montgomery County selling the Stutz family's "own make" candies, is also a treat for the gift giver. The cozy, old-timey shop smells like fresh chocolate, and its shelves are resplendent with cellophane-wrapped assortments decorated with red and green bows.
"It's all shiny and pretty and yummy," said store manager Rachael Castro, surveying her wonderland of handmade chocolates, almond bark, ribbon candy, chocolate straws, and old-fashioned hard-candy mixes. "You just don't find that at the Acme, you know."
New this year to the 63-year-old family candy operation is a line of prewrapped "pyramids": stacks of boxed candy bundled with ribbon and ready to go under the tree. For carb-watchers, the dietetic lineup has been expanded, and Castro promises: "The sugar-free tastes real close to the sugar-full."
Stutz Own Make Candies, 600 Greenwood Ave., 215-884-7212. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, with evening and Sunday hours as Christmas approaches.
Four different regional rail lines stop at Jenkintown Station: the R1, R2, R3 and R5. To save passengers the hassle of carrying four schedules, SEPTA offers the "Combined Schedule." Look for the handy black-and-white brochure at Jenkintown Market East, Suburban Station, 30th Street Station and the Fern Rock transportation center, where the Broad Street subway line connects with regional rail service. The "Combined Schedule" is also online, at SEPTA.org.
Honk if you love road rage!
Driving to Jenkintown is no fun. Leave 45 minutes to make the 10-mile trip up Broad Street, which becomes Old York Road eventually, after a long string of traffic lights - mostly red. Metered parking is scarce, so you may need to circle the block once or twice. On the other hand, the meters cost a bargain-basement 25 cents an hour.
Mr. Claus, Mr. Ferrell, Semper Fi
Santa visits the Hiway Theatre, 212 Old York Road, Saturday at 10 a.m., along with some U.S. Marines collecting donations for Toys for Tots. At about 11 a.m., the theater will screen the movie "Elf." Admission is free.
SUBHED HERE: Five lazy gifts
Prewrapped 1-pound boxes of mixed chocolates, $9.95 to $11.95, from Stutz Own Make Candies, 600 Greenwood Ave., 215-884-7212.
"One-size fits most" Christmas sleep shirts, $35, from Silhouette Shop, 419 Old York Road, 215-887-6363.
Epoch photo frames, with a two-way easel to display horizontal or vertical snapshots, $38-$70, from Framers' Workroom, 435 Old York Road, 215-884-4483.
Bobblehead Dog craft kit for kids, $14.99 from Allegheny Art Co., 318 Leedom St., 215-884-9242.
Prewrapped bath and body gift set, in lemongrass or tangerine fragrance, $38 from Cielo Salon & Spa, 728 West Ave., 215-884-8444.
SUBHED HERE: Five luxe gifts
Lula cashmere baby sweater, $100, from Aja & Alex children's boutique, 437 Old York Road, 215-887-3800.
Quilted silk throw blanket, $99, from Moderne Life Interiors, 325 Old York Road, 215-886-8490.
Japanese-style silk nightie and robe, $115, from Silhouette Shop, 419 Old York Road, 215-887-6363.
Black and platinum Montblanc "StarWalker" fountain pen, $235, Sack's, 201 Old York Road, 215-885-7070.
"Abbe" bracelet, with sterling silver and yellow-gold links, $250, from Rosnov Jewelers, 320 Old York Road, 215-885-4218.
Five cheap gifts that can pass for luxe
"Dazzler" enamel pill boxes, starting at $25, from My Jewel Shop, 411 Old York Road, 215-887-3881.
Thymes ginger-milk whipped body cream, $24 for 8 ounces, from Blue Body & Home, 707 West Ave. 215-576-7718.
Moss-edged "London window basket" with pretty winter plants, $40, from An English Country Garden, 709 West St., 215-885-0202
Embossed leather "key bracelets" ($20), customizable with rhinestone charms ($14 apiece) from Berta Sawyer, 306 Old York Road, 215-572-8826.
Silver pacifier clips ($22), for attaching binkies to clothing, from Aja & Alex children's boutique, 437 Old York Road, 215-887-3800.
Station Grill, inside the Jenkintown train station, 215-885-9000. Classy sit-down meals inside the Jenkintown train station.
Drake Tavern, 304 Old York Road, 215-884-8900: With pub food and good beer.
Fill-a-Bagel, 424 Old York Road 215-887-8577. Bagels baked on premises and assembled into sandwiches.
West Avenue Grille, 718 West Ave., 215-886-1540. Serving fresh and interesting foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mirna's Cafe, 417 Old York Road, 215-885-2046: A popular neighborhood BYOB, serving lunch and dinner and located across the street from a state liquor store.
Joshua's, 712 West Ave., 215-887-8796. Known for its natural and organic foods, including turkey club sandwich wraps and grilled veggie wraps.
La Pergola, 726 West Ave., 215-884-7204. With hummus, falafel and other Middle Eastern standards. *