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Times Shopper: Washington

You Can Shop Till You Ride at Union Station

March 26, 1989|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer

For seven years Washington's Union Station, a beautiful 1907 Beaux Arts structure on Massachusetts Avenue just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, stood idle and decaying. Not anymore.

Last fall, after a $160-million restoration replete with gold-leaf trim and repolished marble, this landmark reopened as the capital's modernized train terminal and its choicest shopping and leisure center, with more than 100 shops and eateries and a nine-screen cinema complex.

Union Station's enormous Main Hall, with a magnificent vaulted ceiling and 36 life-size statues of toga-clad Roman soldiers on the alert in the galleries, has been preserved as a mostly empty space, adorned only with two groves of indoor trees, several benches and a circular fountain.

Festive Showplace

The Main Hall is available for private parties (one of this year's inaugural balls was held there), and on weekends it becomes a festive showplace for jugglers, mimes and musicians who entertain shoppers and travelers.

Most of the merchandising is in the main concourse on three levels of shops near the ticket counters. This is convenient for travelers in need of buying last-minute gifts. Additional shops are in the east and west halls.

Many regular shopping mall retailers have outlets there: The Limited, Brookstone, Foot Locker, Hoffritz Cutlery, B. Dalton Booksellers and others.

Of greater interest, however, are the individualized specialty shops offering a wide variety of gift items--from clothes made from imported fabrics with intriguing patterns to handcrafted jewelry, from vintage posters and book plates to dinosaur bones and from potpourri to pretty paper fans.

One of the most intriguing shops is the Great Train Store, a haven for railroad buffs. The range of merchandise includes a variety of model trains, tracks and train paraphernalia, as well as such items as railroad logo tumblers ($2.50), caps for would-be B&O or Oshkosh conductors or engineers ($7), pull toys, lanterns, signs and a modest amount of memorabilia. A miniature train circles the shop with a perpetual clicketyclack.

Bones for Sale

For shoppers fascinated by natural sciences and the wild, Schrader Scientific sells a broad selection of animal skulls and skeletons and pin-mounted bugs and butterflies. These run from genuine dinosaur bones ($100 and up) to hippo heads ($350 and up), and includes fragments of creatures belonging to species that became extinct millions of years ago ($30 and up).

Artafrik sells contemporary handcrafts from Africa, including intricately carved wooden butterflies ($20 and up), bronze figures, lovely garments and accessories fashioned from Ghanian Kinte cloth, with charming bow ties about $20.

Putamayo puts together delightful casual clothing ensembles that have an ethnic appearance and earthy appeal. Skirts (about $90) and shirts (about $60) made of heavy cotton fabrics dyed with vibrant colors or patterned exuberantly are worn in layers, and there are lots of broad leather belts and straw hats ($25 and up) for accessories, along with hand-woven handbags and carryalls ($22 and up).

Most of the clothing is imported from South America and Pakistan. There are also amusing knickknacks and toys.

Exotic Decorations

Pacifica sells unusual and appealing hand-carved wooden objects imported from Indonesia. It has four-foot environment-enhancing hibiscus plants ($200) fashioned from fruitwood and cheerfully painted tropical pinks and peaches. Those items may be difficult to transport home, but there will be no difficulty in carrying the charming hand-carved wooden animals ($15 and up) that conceal little boxes for jewelry or other personal treasures.

The colorfully painted wooden deity masks (about $250) make exotic home decorations. For personal adornment there are wonderful wooden earrings ($15) shaped like whales and other creatures.

Appalachian Spring specializes in attractive American contemporary and folk handcrafts. Of special interest is the collection of unusual hand-blown glass perfume bottles ($60 to $400) that range from neo-Art Deco to heart-shaped, and are signed by the artists. Also, newly made masterpiece quilts take their inspiration from vintage American traditionals ($500 and up), and small hand-carved boxes and other items with intricate inlay patterns feature various types of wood.

Handmade Gift Items

In contrast, the shop called Contrast features another genre of unusual handmade gift items imported from around the world. The entirely black and white color theme of this shop gives it a high-tech feel, although much of the merchandise would fit nicely into more traditional surroundings.

Included are lamps ($30) made of black and white glazed ceramics with cutout patterns, so that they create a black and white pattern of shadow and light on the wall and ceiling. New York City artisan Jean-Luc Comperat has contributed distinctive stained-glass picture frames ($50 and up) and jewelry boxes (about $95).

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