For people who like to shop on vacation, coming home can feel a bit like a letdown. The local market is no match for Harrods' impressive food hall, downtown's flagships no match for a Moroccan soukh. Something about being in a strange land also seems to make shopping more interesting - as if every new store offers a window on a different way of life.
Toronto tends to suffer as much as most medium-sized international cities in this regard; we still point tourists to the Eaton Centre, even if its chain stores aren't a lot different than what people from Vancouver or Minneapolis can find at home. But there are fun places worth visiting, whether you're stuck in the city for a long weekend, or just passing through, that will make you feel a bit like you're in another place - or just glad to be where you're from.
On the city's eastside, Leslieville has lately evolved into the kind of neighbourhood you might hope to come across in another city - a bit alternative and off the beaten path. Highlights range from Eye Spy, a design store carrying items such as New York designer Jonathan Adler's whimsical housewares (1100 Queen St. E., 416-461-4061; http://www.eyespygifts.com), to Six Shooter Records (1118 Queen St. E., 416-465-2459; http://www.sixshooterrecords.com) which offers music, clothing, and an original approach to retail. Most independent shops today carry the requisite new releases, while the hipper-than-thou staff stand behind the counter and complain that nobody makes good music any more. The tiny Six Shooter, however, really only displays the albums the staff find worth listening to - a selection that fills only two bookshelves (their motto: "Life is too short to listen to shitty music").
Then there's Up To You (1483 Queen St. E., 416-778-6487; http://www.uptoyoutoronto.com), which would stand out anywhere. Located in an actual apartment, the shop is run by a brother-and-sister team. In various themed rooms (kitchen, bedroom/clothing) there are hundreds of good one-of-a-kind items, from a mug that leaves behind a rose pattern instead of the standard wet coffee ring to a metric ruler that skips the number 13. Among the sampling of international fashion finds, there are mouthy T-shirts by renegade British designers Antoni + Alison - but the shop isn't about fashion per se. Rather, in the world of Up to You, life is always presenting problems, and the solution is not so much to try to solve them as to accept them graciously and get on with it. To wit, one of the hottest items is a set of $15 clips that will lift the bottom of your baggy pant leg a few millimetres every time you take a step, so the hem will not be frayed.
The city's West side offers access to exciting shopping of a different kind: designers who are local, but on an international stage. On artsy Dundas Street Made (867 Dundas St. W., 416-607-6384; http://www.madedesign.ca) is a whimsical shop showcasing Canadian furniture and accessories. Following the precedent set by Frank Gehry's cardboard armchairs, Molo's wavy cardboard furniture is both durable and interesting - and since it folds up into squares no bigger than a toiletry book, it's an ideal souvenir.
Not far away, fashion designer Virginia Johnson's shop (132 Ossington Ave., 416-516-3366; http://www.virginiajohnson.com) offers an intimate look at her design process in the form of the fabrics, hand-printed in India, that she designs, as well as her own clothing line and décor items. Besides an occasional glimpse of Johnson, whose work has been featured in Vogue and sells in boutiques around the world, it's a good place to spot celebrity fans; Johnson's tiniest pieces are favourites with stylish mothers-to-be, including Sophie Trudeau.
Bloor St., the city's traditional designer shopping stretch, continues to go through a renaissance toward becoming more world class, with new storefronts for the big names (Chanel, Escada, etc.) and cosmopolitan boutiques (Noir, Corbo). But there are also some iconoclasts.
Noor (176 Cumberland St., 416-928-0700), an underground Yorkville shop, specializes in perfumes that aren't carried by the department stores, such as "Bois Farine" by France's Artisan Parfumer, a heady mixture of wood and flour. And on a different note for this tiny shopping area, Finn (1 Yorkville Ave., 416-961-0101) is chicly laid-back, a bit like stepping into one of New York's neighbourhood shops. Finn offers a mix of restrained cocktail dresses and designer Angela Missoni's bright household linens.
Visiting fashion stylists often comment about the quality of the vintage shopping in Toronto - specifically, how inexpensive and unspoiled it can be compared to other cities. Of course, no tour of the city would be complete without a run through the $15 racks at Kensington Market.
But for something entirely different, it's worth driving outside of the city. In Elora, Ont., an hour and a half from Toronto, Sweet Trash (22 Metcalfe St., 519-846-0333; http://www.sweet-trash.com) is an unusual shop in an old mansion that is bursting at the seams with Halstons, Lanvins, and other designs that date back to the 1920s. Run by the daughter of the woman who originally wore many of its designs, it's a destination for special-occasion shopping, or mearly to browse. Walk outside, and the stone path leads to a waterfall, ice cream shops, and a historic town - a way into another world, or maybe just time travelling.
Jessica Johnson is writing a book about the zeitgeist of shopping that will be published by McLelland & Stewart. The Shopping Atlas appears in Globe Travel the first Saturday of every month.