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The Weekend Starts on Thursday: Austin's South Congress Ave.

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The shopping district of South Congress Avenue in Austin, between Riverside Drive and Ben White Boulevard, bustles with activity almost every day of the year, but on the first Thursday of each month, the street really rocks with a party on every corner.

Also see: Dining Trailerside

The monthly event, dubbed First Thursday, was started by retailers who conceived the event nearly a decade ago to entice visitors to the area. Local shops keep their doors open until 10 p.m. and vendors fill up parking lots with an eclectic array of clothing, crafts, and food. Musicians play on the outdoor patio of Guero’s Taco Bar and on street corners, adding to the festive atmosphere.

On a recent Thursday, several friends and I headed to South Congress armed with a little bit of cash–cards are rarely accepted by street vendors–for a much-needed girl’s night out. Some of our favorite “anytime” shopping spots include Feathers Boutique, Blackmail, and the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. But for First Thursday, we like to check out what the temporary merchants offer.

As soon as we arrived at the first section of vendors, the hunt began. One friend darted straight to a clothing rack featuring vintage dresses and boots. The other searched for a turquoise-inlaid necklace to add to her collection. I stuck to a booth with a variety of simple, multi-colored wooden rings. I had my eye on a bright yellow ring with a simple orange flower design painted on the top, and I made a note to come back and purchase it at a later date.

We stopped at the Big Top Candy Shop, a full-fledged candy haven with an old-fashioned soda-shop motif, which has everything any child or adult with a sweet tooth could want, including saltwater taffy, homemade fudge, bacon-flavored toothpicks, and suckers with real worms in the middle. I can never pass up an old fashioned flavored soda, so I left with a raspberry fountain drink. Tart. Sweet. Fizzy. Delicious.

We continued our shopping excursion and made another stop at Mi Casa, a Latin American folk art shop with colorful household trinkets and beautiful canvas paintings. A collection of brightly colored hairpieces with elegant flowers, feathers, and jewels caught our attention. My favorite was an elegant red rose with dried berries and feathers atop a simple hair clip. Christmas gift-seekers, take note.

In the next merchant area, embellished pearl-snap shirts, vintage cowboy boots, and hand-made leather bracelets and belts attracted the guys in the crowd. Here, I spied a selection of yard art featuring hand-painted wooden signs that can be personalized with any saying or phrase you choose. Look for the booth advertising “What’s Your Sign?”

Some sellers are from local stores while others are local artists and craftsmen showcasing their merchandise. Photographers and painters feature selections of their art – my favorites had an Austin-inspired or worldly travel theme such as the city streets in Florence, Italy. A simple snapshot of sunflowers painted on a white building wall in Austin caught my eye, as did a watercolor painting of a Texas sunset.

But after a few hours of walking up and down the street, we were ready for a break. South Congress offers a variety of food and restaurants for most every mood and occasion. Unsure if we wanted a full meal, we opted for Cissi’s Market to share a bottle of wine. A romantically lit and cozy restaurant, Cissi’s features a full menu of brunch items, sandwiches, and desserts, plus a bar and a gourmet-grocery section. We hunkered down in the corner on a sofa and comfy chairs circled around a small table.

Over a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, we relaxed and watched passers-by through the front window. You never know who or what you will see. A man strolled by proudly showing off his pet rat on his shoulder, men and women dressed as zombies attempted to scare unsuspecting people to advertise a local haunted house, and a group of young people carrying signs reading ‘free hugs’ offered their embraces to anyone who was willing. We left satisfied and already enthused about the next First Thursday.

South Congress Avenue’s First Thursday is held on the first Thursday of each month in the shopping district between Riverside Drive and Ben White Boulevard and lasts until 10 p.m. www.firstthurday.info.

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