Smile Politely

A stroll through Uptown Normal

I am a Normal-lite, a Normal-anian…someone who is from Normal. As a child, it never occurred to me that this is a funny name for a town, but I guess it sort of is. The name comes from the college that gave the town life: Illinois State Normal University (now, of course just ISU). Normal was the word used to designate a college as a place of higher education for aspiring teachers. According to the ISU website, “origins of the term go back to the French Revolution, with would-be teachers learning the standards, or ‘norms,’ of pedagogy. The name served the institution well for more than a century.”

I lived there from birth until I left for U of I, and the section of town now known as Uptown Normal was a short bike ride from my house.

A black and white photo of a street with buildings lining each side. There are cars parked along the street, and a few are driving down the road. Photo from Town of Normal Twitter.

Downtown Normal in 1986. Photo from Town of Normal Twitter.

Back in my day, it was referred to as Downtown Normal, and it’s both a community shopping and dining area as well as a sort of Campustown for the university.

An aerial view of a traffic circle with a grassy area in the center. Photo from Town of Normal Twitter.

Photo from Town of Normal Twitter page.

In 1999, the area began its transformation from Downtown to Uptown in an attempt to revitalize the infrastructure and rebrand the business district. That included added this green space and traffic circle. There have been many changes since I left, but some old standbys are still hanging around. 

With my in-laws still in the area, my Small Business Saturday tradition is to browse the shops Uptown. If you’re in the area, especially this holiday season, it’s worth checking out. There is ample free parking!

A paved trail stretches into the horizon, lined with trees that have bare branches. There are roads on either side of it. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

The Constitution Trail, Bloomington-Normal’s own “rail trail” runs through Uptown Normal. It extends 24 miles through the Twin Cities, a joint venture of the City of Bloomington and Town of Normal. I used it to get to my friends’ houses when my mom couldn’t take me. 

An oval sign with a piece of garlic and The Garlic Press in yellow lettering. It hangs on the side of a gray stone building above a blue awning. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

My Uptown Normal favorite is The Garlic Press. The woman-owned specialty cookware and gift store has been around for more than four decades, and it’s one of those places you could spend a couple of hours in and still not browse through everything. You can find soaps, lotions, candles, journals, holiday decor, all sorts of drinking, eating, and cooking gadgets (as well as a nice selection of Le Creuset), and lots of novelty items.

A store window with blue and white stripes painted across the top. There are popcorn decals decorating the window. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

They’ve recently added a popcorn and candy shop, giving longtime Normal-ites something to replace the loss of Abe’s Carmel Corn, a wonderful candy store that used to exist in an old train depot building. Here’s a kind of hilarious story about drug paraphernalia found in the pipes of the Garlic Press basement, which used to be a bar called The Cellar.  

A yellow staircase in a narrow hallway. There are words painted in red on each step: Tapestries, Clothing, Posters, Jewelry, Pipes, Skateboards. The walls are covered in graffiti. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

Speaking of drug paraphernalia, when I was in junior high, my friends and I thought we were quite rebellious climbing these steps to Mother Murphy’s, the smell of incense beckoning us. The head shop has been there since 1968. It still smells the same, and still feels a little rebellious walking up those stairs in my forties. 

In the same block you can find two record stores with a comic book store in between. 

A white sign that says Stave Wine Bar & Market is hanging off the side of a gray stone building. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

I need to spend more time with this wine bar and market

Love this signage from Campustown Supply. 

The facade of an art deco style movie theater with a lighted marquee. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

The Normal Theater is an icon, having been there since 1937, and has a storied history, as many small theaters do. Now it shows classic movies and special live theater events. When I was growing up, it screened recent releases. I remember seeing Joe vs. the Volcano and Beaches there.

A brick building with a cylindrical glass outcropping. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

The Discovery Children’s Museum is a gem that opened in 2004. My kids and their cousins have spent many hours there, and they have a fantastic gift shop with unique toys. I hope that we can have something like it here someday.

A blue sign that says Dan Brady and Rodney Davis in gold writing. It hangs off the side of a brown building. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

Hey look, Hot Rod has an office for not actually meeting with constituents here too!

A coffee shop window with a white decal illustration of a coffee cup. It says The Coffeehouse underneath. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

I swing by The Coffeehouse when I’m there. It’s a huge space, and this time there was a musician entertaining the diners. In addition to coffee, they also have a completely vegetarian breakfast and lunch menu. Love this description on their website: “The CoffeeHouse in Uptown is one of the few surviving Mom & Pop establishments, yet with not so traditional origins. Pop is from the island of Aruba and Mom is from the Czech Republic. First came love, then came coffee!”

A light brown brick bulding with domed windows across the top. The word Medici is in metal letters on blue framing. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

Medici is a nice spot to meet up for lunch or dinner or weekend brunch. Good drinks and one of those menus where everyone can find something they like.

A view across the street of several businesses. There are cars parked along the road. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

Most of the ISU bar scene is in Downtown Bloomington, though there are important late night campus bites here (La Bamba is just out of the frame). 

There’s a really nice Marriott that was a part of the Uptown Normal redesign. Maybe do an overnight excursion and see what else this little business district has to offer.

A multi-colored abstract mural painted on the side of a white brick building. A bus shelter and bike rack are in the foreground. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.
Top photo by Julie McClure.

Staff writer

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