Life in Limbo

From the median strip at the top of upper Massachusetts Avenue near Porter Square, things appear very straight and narrow. Nondescript, low-lying buildings close in the street like canal walls. This is limbo, a line between two points: behind, the triangles of Porter; ahead, the rings of Harvard.

But look again, and the unexpected individuality of this swath of Cambridge comes into quick relief. In one eye, the vivid colors of an international crafts store; in the other, the comforting shadows of a coffeehouse. From the right drifts the scent of coffee; from the left, the sounds of local rock and blues. And all around, the neighborly patter floats back and forth across the street.

At this point on Mass. Ave., the median is not a safe place. Cars race to and fro. Buses careen down the street. Electric trolleys buzz by. Nor is the median the best vantage point to realize that the line here between heaven and hell, between delightfully detailed and curiously vague, is thin. But stroll down the sidewalk toward Harvard Square, and the straight and narrow suddenly opens wide.

“This neighborhood recycles itself,” says Deb Colburn, owner of Nomad, a global crafts and clothing store near the top of upper Mass. Ave. Her red-bronze hair, coiled in pigtails, wriggles on her shoulders as she ticks off the first names of her colleagues, past and present. “A lot of stores come and go, but it's a pioneer area for innovators.”

Nomad is a testament to Colburn's own innovation. It bursts with color, artfully displaying gewgaws from around the world – Ethiopian cross pendants, Southeast Asian boxes, Indian saris – many with a card explaining the piece's origin and meaning. True to crafts-market trends, there is a decidedly Mexican slant, a natural extension of Colburn's many travels south of the border. Copper-framed mirrors hang above weathered chests standing next to weavings from Chiapas, and ornate silver jewelry sparkles beneath glass.

After teaching for more than a decade, Colburn opened the original Nomad on Newbury Street 14 years ago, before the likes of the Gap and Urban Outfitters mallified the Back Bay. Seven years later, she added a Cambridge branch, and then, in 1996, closed the Newbury Street location. “The feeling of [Newbury Street] changed,” she says. “The individual stores moved out as the street was taken over by corporate. I like a neighborhood that appreciates a store like ours.” Judging by the constant bustle in Nomad, this one does.

Across the street is one of the most eclectic blocks in Cambridge, especially since the taming of Harvard Square. Vintage Etc. overflows with ladybug rain boots and more clogs than were at Woodstock, and the sidewalk discount table usually offers up some unfathomable deals. Next door at Tea-Tray in the Sky, a cup of Darjeeling and a muffin provide sophisticated fuel before you move on to experience Joie de Vivre, an eclectic gift shop. Owner Linda Given has distilled life into smaller, funkier keepsakes that play catch with our eyes and our imaginations. Kaleidoscopes swirl, toys swivel, and some of the clocks have dogs' tongues for pendulums.

The anchor of the block is the one-of-a-kind Gypsy Moon, a self-proclaimed “pre-Raphaelite” clothing store. Opened in 1992, proprietor Candace Savage's store is a cool vision mellowed by an unexpected mirror that tricks the mind into thinking there is another room. She says the distinctive clothes “give the feeling of another time, a secret feeling.” Long, velvet dresses and other “fantasy clothing” hang on the racks: loose silk shirts and a cadre of what can only be called “witch wear.”

“The witch stuff is just a rumor,” Savage says, chuckling. “It's the Stevie Nicks gypsy thing. I just wanted to sell Romantic period clothes people could wear on the street without looking stupid.”

Like Colburn, Savage previously owned a shop in Boston – Grand Trousseau on Charles Street – but when people kept inquiring about the costumes she wore while dancing at King Richard's Faire, she says the sparkling independence of upper Mass. Ave. eventually drew all her energies. “I love this block, its women entrepreneurs, its vibrancy,” she says. “The neighborhood has changed quite a lot [since 1992], with a younger crowd, but it's still nice and good-spirited.”

Down a block, on the same side of the street, those good spirits – witchy or not – also seem to reside in the folks at Sui Generis, another gift store. Owner Janet Vera and her staff are some of the nicest people in this rudest of metropolises, smiling and humming with the radio while they peddle soaps from Provence, oblong framed calligraphy, and an intriguing, startlingly smooth German WBP pen fashioned from glass. Just trying it out – dipping the glass tip in the inkwell and writing your name on the pad – is worth the visit. So is the opportunity to see the unlikely sign a few doors down: Guitar Stop and Oster Insurance. Car, home, life – and strings?

Back on the north side of the street, the darkened windows of Judy Jetson hair salon can't hide the unlikely goings-on there. If the statue of Athena and the reptile dolls don't at least prick your interest, the sight of a gaggle of old women having their coifs done by the tattooed stylists will.

As Gypsy Moon's Savage says, “People come to this area because it's independent and unusual.”

On a street as vigorous as this, there are bound to be stories behind the windowpanes. One is of the romance between the furniture maker and the design expert from Texas who now own Abodeon together.

At first sight, Dale and Terri Anderson appear to be opposites. He is a lanky man with sharp features, bright eyes, and a fuzzy mustache. He's not afraid to guffaw or tap his foot to the groove of Nina Simone's first album playing on the store's stereo. She is reserved. Her face holds her quiet wisdom; her speech is precise, only hinting at her Houston roots. While he plops down on the end of a shin-high coffee table, she curls up on a restored 1940s glider couch that sways in the middle of Abodeon.

Yet, upon meeting, it was only a matter of months before their mutual love of design brought them together in holy matrimony. And all around are the souvenirs of their extended honeymoon – most of them for sale. The year following their wedding was spent collecting the modern deco and vintage design pieces that fill up Abodeon. Now, people from as far away as Japan come in searching out just the perfect detail, from an unused 1950s barbecue pit, to a plate clock or a classic liquor flask. For the more discerning, there's a 1910 Everlast exercise bike, or, against the wall, a shelf made from a Model A Ford running-board luggage guard.

“We try to educate people,” says Terri Anderson. “We do a lot of research and we have a lot of signage.” A former retail director for Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, she will gladly run down the differences between modern, vintage, and that dirty word, retro. “We have an educated clientele, very cosmopolitan. The people in this area are friendly and intellectual.”

But, as Dale points out, that doesn't stop them from being inspired by the romance of the vintage surroundings. “We've had people dance here,” he says. “More than one couple at a time.” Music is so important to the entire Abodeon aesthetic, it gets its own section of the store – the walk-in cooler left over from when the space was a health-food market. There are disorganized boxes of records and wire shelves holding old radios and outdated stereophonic equipment. But most of it works, and all of it is cool.

“A lot of modernist galleries can be very, well, pretentious,” says Dale with a shrug. The gesture seems both an accusation aimed at his counterparts and an explanation of Abodeon's inclusive ethic. Terri adds: “We just want people to get it.”

As the afternoon fades, caffeine is in order. Hollywood Espresso is the quintessential modern coffee shop, right down to the swish of the cappuccino machine, the cinema theme, and the absurd intellectualisms from some of the clientele (“I don't want to be happy,” one says). It's a long and dusky cafŽ where the music is always perfect both in volume and tone, collegians are engrossed in their laptops, and, most important, the coffee is really good. And if you decide this is your last stop, Hollywood Express is right next door, renting both commercial flicks and an extensive selection of foreign and indie films.

Thus fortified, it's time to continue on down the street. A few blocks farther, the sounds of swing music float out of Dagmar's. Here, the '50s are still alive and well. Neo-punk accessories like massive belt buckles and band patches are for sale, along with vintage clothes and even a pile of old copies of Playboy. Owner Julie Allen is more likable than a Frank Sinatra ballad. Although the punks she caters to are a far cry from many Cantabrigians, her amiability has quickly ingratiated her with the neighbors, and she even threw herself a birthday party to celebrate the store's one-year anniversary.

Next door at Jingo's Playhouse, parties – birthday or otherwise – are the be-all and end-all. Officially a purveyor of “clubwear,” Jingo's stocks mostly women's apparel perfect for hitting Lansdowne Street on a Friday night, and bumpin' and grindin' all the way to Sunday morning. Along with platform heels and thigh-high stiletto boots, there are funky bell-bottoms, tops designed to show more than they could ever hope to cover up, and M&M-colored wigs.

Across the street at Tibetan importer Martsa, things are a little more subdued but no less interesting. A whiff of incense emanates from the boxes of Nag Champa. Silver chokers and delicate earrings glitter in the glass display cases. In the back, a rainbow of skirts and shirts hangs above shelves of large silken scarves with exquisite patterns. And if something doesn't fit quite right, the legendary Elegant Tailors is right next door, where the friendly seamstresses may not say much, but will expertly adjust a hem or take in a dress. They also defy the old business adage, “Good, fast, cheap – pick two.”

As evening rolls in, the lower end of the strip offers a wide variety of distractions. First, head to the three simple tables in front of Montrose Spa, the perfect place for a quick respite and refreshment before wandering off to dinner. You can also get a quart of milk for tomorrow's breakfast or a Cambridge 02139 T-shirt.

In this pocket of the neighborhood, the dining choices are many. First and foremost is Chez Henri, just off Mass. Ave. on Shepard Street, where chef Paul O'Connell and bartender K.C. Cargill have transformed a classic French bistro into a fiesta, giving the menu a strong Cuban flair. Nightly, neighborhood folks crowd the bar area, and the dining-room tables are usually full with people thinking the same thing: If Cuba is hiding any more gems like O'Connell's pressed Cuban sandwich or Cargill's mojitos, let's hope the embargo is lifted sooner rather than later.

Around the corner are three other tempting options. Temple Bar is a beautiful, classy restaurant with a Gaelic tilt. Serving tasty mainstays like burgers and pastas, the waitstaff is mostly Irish and English, and the barkeep pours a really good Guinness. On Indian summer days, the expansive windows are opened to allow for people-watching and smelling the bouquets that adorn the restaurant's fa쳌ade. On weekend nights, the lush room of brick and dark wood crawls with students and professionals. The divey Forest Café promises award-winning Mexican food, a bar counter of long-toothed regulars, and the Red Sox on the TV. Cambridge Common is a homey pillar in the community, delivering simple American fare. But most important, the portions are gargantuan, and the beers are cold.

When your dessert is safely settled, it's time to dance off some of those calories. Downstairs from the Cambridge Common is the Lizard Lounge, a live rock club with a growing reputation for showcasing the city's best rock, blues, and jazz as well as periodic poetry readings. But claustrophobes be warned: The ceiling is very low, the music is loud, and the room quickly becomes jam-packed with head-bobbing fans. If an old-time rock 'n' roll club isn't your scene, the swanky West Side Lounge across the street offers a more urbane alternative. And, really, what could possibly better cap off a long day spent discovering the hidden curves of a straight and narrow road through limbo than a martini with a twist?