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Finders, keepers

What a mixed bag: urban, hip, old, new, neighborly, and all in plain sight

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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An old-fashioned looking triangle of busy streets, Roslindale Village hums with restaurants, shops, clothing boutiques, bakeries, specialty grocery stores, and a small green park. Located south of downtown, beyond Jamaica Plain, Roslindale is off the beaten track and not easy to find without a degree in Boston driving. There’s a rail station but no subway stop, leading some to say that Rozy, as it’s affectionately called, is one of Boston’s lesser-known neighborhoods. However, residents and business owners prefer to think of it as Boston’s best-kept secret.

“Roslindale is a hidden gem,’’ said Jane Connelly, owner of Village Books on South Street. “People don’t usually come out this far, but there are plenty of wonderful people here.’’

On a recent morning, the sun streamed through the windows where Connelly and her sister, Lorie Spencer, set up shop nine years ago. It’s tiny, as bookstores go, but they manage to offer new books of all genres for adults and children in about 900 square feet of space.

“We’re small but we pack a big punch,’’ said Connelly.

Across the street, Bob Khouzami opened Bob’s Pita Bakery in 1991 in a space that was formerly Droubi Brothers Bakery. The sign above the market lists both names, and walking inside feels like stepping back in time to 1970 when it first opened. It’s less a bakery than a Mediterranean-food specialty store with offerings such as pomegranate molasses, gulabi tea, tahini, brick-sized bags of sesame seeds, kefir, halloumi and Bulgarian sheep’s milk feta, fillo, honey, 16-inch rounds of pita bread, and wood crates piled high with affordably-priced fresh fruits and vegetables.

Nearby, Birch Street House and Garden is approaching its 10th anniversary. Elizabeth Swanson worked for years at this eclectic gift shop before taking over the business in 2008. A Roslindale resident, she admits to having “a great commute’’ and being a fan of the town.

“I love Roslindale,’’ said Swanson. “Everyone here is committed to shopping locally and eating locally.’’

Her shop is spacious, bright, and airy with oriental carpets scattered across the painted cement floor. It takes a while to fully peruse the walls, glass shelves, and wood tabletops stocked with candles, incense, pottery, kitchen towels, woven scarves, baskets, cards, toys, accent furniture, locally-made jewelry and paintings, and fair-trade objects from Africa, India, and Guatemala.

“The products are always changing,’’ said Swanson. “We try and make gift shopping very easy here.’’

In fact, it’s easy to shop everywhere in Roslindale, at price points both high and low. The Home for Little Wanderers Thrift Shop and Family Dollar store share the same swath of real estate with sophisticated boutiques, and Chinese restaurants, pizza parlors, and taco joints rub elbows with establishments touting locally sourced food. The eclectic mix of the district — chic and homey — adds to its appeal as a destination.

One of the newer shops in the neighborhood is the light-filled boutique Regeneration. Owner Kelly Witmer and her “brown mutt,’’ Shaft, moved east from Los Angeles, and opened in October. Regeneration “sells a little bit of everything,’’ including new and used clothes, plus sweaters, hats, socks, jewelry, books, as well as “gifts and silly objects,’’ all linked together by a nature theme.

Witmer’s fine arts background is evident in the shop’s design, such as the dressing room made from old doors and clothing racks made from tree limbs that dip in the center, and in its products. She silkscreens the ties, shirts, and second-hand clothes with new images, repurposing them with a fresh look.

“I want to appeal to all budgets,’’ said Witmer.

Vernee Wilkinson admits to being “fully immersed in Roslindale’’ as a shop owner, resident, and mom. Her eye-catching store, Colorwheel Collection, offers clothes for children from newborns to age 4, with some birthday party or holiday gifts for older kids. Reflecting her commitment to the community, Wilkinson sells the work of local artists and vendors, and keeps toys and craft products handy for kids to play with as their parents shop. As this part of the city attracts young families, Wilkinson hopes “to grow as Roslindale is growing.’’

Walking into Joanne Rossman, a small shop packed with treasures, is like wandering into an antiques flea market. There are books on birds, cooking, and sacred paths, silver and brass candelabras, a random stack of gold-rimmed dessert plates, handcrafted silver earrings, fingerless Merino wool gloves, soft leather wallets, somber landscape paintings, striped socks, paperweights, soaps, lotions, and other items, practical and not.

Perusing the offerings at the Boston Cheese Cellar can be a dizzying experience. On the day I visited there were 145 choices, including 24 blue cheeses alone.

“People look and say, ‘You can’t possibly have all these cheeses,’ but we do,’’ said Stephanie Beale, a shop employee.

Above the handwritten list, the “Stink-O-Meter’’ rates the cheeses from one (“Do you smell something?’’) to five (“OH NO!’’).

The store also sells dried pasta, olive oils, jams, chocolates, cookies, Baltic rye bread, hot sauces, and cheese accoutrements. A new offering is the in-house French herb butter, a cube made in a large ice cube tray, available in pesto, sea-salted, unsalted, and mixed with fresh locally grown herbs.

Beale offered tastes of cheese and bread, and praised the location.

“Roslindale is an interesting mix of old and new,’’ she said. “It really works together. The old and new complement each other.’’

Around the corner, Fornax Bread Co. mixes old-fashioned sensibilities and decor with contemporary taste. The interior, with yellow, red, and sky blue walls, is cheerful and quirky. Colorful aprons adorn the front window like gaily-strung ornaments, and the mismatched tables and chairs are often crammed with patrons who flock here for the handcrafted European-style bread, pastries, homemade soups, salads, pizzettas, and sandwiches.

There are plenty of places to dine well in Roslindale. In addition to Japanese, Thai, Haitian, and Albanian offerings, there’s sophisticated bistro food, casual Mediterranean, and authentic Italian cuisine.

It’s a short walk down a brick-lined walkway to Sophia’s Grotto, a cozy hideaway serving Italian and Spanish dishes in a setting that feels more Mediterranean than Bostonian. A curved bar seats about six, and in winter the bartender might be the owner, Joseph Garufi.

“We’re an unpretentious neighborhood place,’’ said Garufi, who moved here with his family from the Back Bay about five years ago. “People are surprised at how good the food is.’’

In warmer weather, the outdoor patio offers seating beneath strings of festive white lights. Nearby, the Birch Street Bistro also offers dining al fresco, though in colder weather the charming interior, with its high ceilings, brick walls, and giant mirrors, beckons. Located in a turn-of-the--last-century blacksmith shop, Birch Street is a popular place to belly up to the granite bar and sample one of the 16 draft beers on tap. Tasty entrees feature grilled filet mignon or salmon, burgers, and pizza.

On a recent Wednesday night, every seat was filled at Delfino, where the Italian-inspired menu features seafood, meat, and pasta dishes. Sheaves of white paper topped red tablecloths, and still-life murals decorated the walls. The decor, and the kitchen that opens into the dining space, imparted a homey ambience in synch with our steaming bowls of clams and chorizo, and mussels in a garlicky white sauce.

“It’s so non-hip. I’m sick of hip,’’ said a fellow diner.

Sort of like Roslindale itself: Not exactly hip, yet extremely cool.

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

On Thursday evenings this month (Dec. 9, 16, 23), Roslindale Village Main Street sponsors a ‘‘Shop Local’’ Holiday Stroll. Participating businesses will be open late, and offer special attractions such as refreshments, live music, and other fun events. For more information, and to download a map, go to www.roslindale.net.
Where to shop
Regeneration
20 Birch St.
617-325-0500
www.shopregeneration.com
Birch Street House & Garden
760 South St.
617-323-3269
www.birchsthouseandgarden.com
Village Books
751 South St.
617-325-1994
www.village-books.net
Colorwheel Collection
4266 Washington St.
617-312-1783
www.colorwheelcollection.com
Joanne Rossman
6 Birch St.
617-323-4301
www.joannerossman.com
Boston Cheese Cellar
18 Birch St.
617-325-2500
www.bostoncheesecellar.com
Bob’s Pita Bakery
748 South Street
617-325-1585
Where to eat
Fornax Bread Co.
27 Corinth St.
617-325-8852
www.fornaxbread.com
Sandwiches and pizzas $6-$8.
Sophia’s Grotto
22 Rear Birch St.
617-323-4595
www.sophiasgrotto.com
Entrees $10.95-$23.95.
Birch Street Bistro
14 Birch St.
617-323-2184
www.birchstbistro.com
Entrees $15-$24.
Delfino
754 South St.
617-327-8359
www.delfinorestaurant.com
Entrees $16.95-$26.95.