The tourism industry of Sevier County was born of the beauty of the mountains. Majestic. Regal. Accessible to large parts of the U.S. population by reasonable car ride.
The Smokies’ beauty is the foundation on which the gleaming, pancake-filled, go-kart riddled citadel of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg rests.
But, on top of that bedrock, the other golden purpose of the region is commerce. Buying and selling. Swapping and trading.
My friends, this is the shopping capital of the Appalachians.
I always make it a point to hit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge while shopping for the holiday season for a variety of reasons including, well, variety.
There are all manner of outlet shops, specialty stores and unique crafters all within the friendly confines of Sevier County.
It’s like someone took the commerce kaleidoscope that is internet shopping and bippity-boppity-boo’d into the corporeal world and then added a ton of mini-golf.
Most years, shopping in Sevier County, especially holiday shopping is a subtle art.
You mix in wandering through the outlet malls, searching for random bargains with more deliberate forays to specific items you’ve got marked on your Christmas list.
In 2020, some may prefer more surgical strikes, strategic planning, in and out, stick and move. Bring a wetsuit and a mining helmet, and be prepared for anything.
Whether you’re shopping for specific items or waiting for inspiration to strike, here are some of our favorite places to hit when Christmas shopping time arrives.
1. Build-A-Bear Workshop (The Island, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.)
OK. We’re not starting off with the most original selection in the world but hear me out.
Times have changed significantly from when I was a kid and the promise of a toy at the end of the day carried me through hours of shopping for boring stuff, which was literally anything that was not a toy.
Toy stores have vanished. The internet and big box stores have swallowed many toy retailers whole which means fewer carrots for you to dangle in front of grouchy young‘uns.
This makes Build-A-Bear essential for two reasons.
First, one brave soul in your party can volunteer as tribute to take the kids to Build-A-Bear while everyone else gets to shop whine -ree for 45 minutes to an hour.
Second, Build-A-Bear gift cards make excellent gifts.
You’re not simply giving a toy that will be lost in the plasticine gluttony of Christmas morning, you’re giving an experience and you’re helping to alleviate that post-present feeling when everything’s over and you’re staring at a long, cold, gray and empty winter ahead.
Kids, who yesterday had anticipation spilling out of their eyeballs, suddenly have lost their reason to carry on. You’re giving them hope. A mild adventure on the horizon. A toy.
Plus they have Baby Yoda and who in the heck among us wouldn’t like to create their own Baby Yoda?
2. Ole Smoky Moonshine (Also, not coincidentally, on The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.)
Now, my friends, you see the genius. While the kids are shoving fluffy stuffing down Baby Yoda’s gaping maw you can be over at Ole Smoky purchasing Christmas gifts that will be loved and give yourself the gift of a little mid-shopping self-medication.
Would Aunt Suzy prefer brown cinnamon or cherry-flavored shine? I reckon I’ll have to taste test them bad boys to find out. A dedicated Christmas shopper has to make informed decisions, after all.
3. Beef Jerky Outlets (Multiple locations)
By my count there are at least five beef jerky outlets of various ownership in Sevier County and I may well be missing one.
There is one on The Island and another by Bass Pro Shops in Kodak.
On one hand it is patently absurd that there are so many places dedicated to selling beef jerky in a single county. On the other hand, have you ever had beef jerky?
I remember the first time in my life I ever had beef jerky, it was at the Historic Old Fort in Ft. Wayne, Indiana during a field trip when I was a boy. It was handmade by an employee of the Fort and it was fantastic.
We also went on a field trip to the Archway cookie factory. In retrospect, Ft. Wayne is an excellent place for field trips.
4. Pepper Palace (The Island, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.)
Look, you’re going to be able to get a lot done while the kids are at Build-A-Bear.
I have never been a huge fan of super spicy foods. Sure, I suppose the eating of them is mostly fine and often quite good. But in my experience, they are never worth the pain that comes later.
My brother, however, has a love for all things hot and spicy.
If you have such a person in your life, the Pepper Palace is perfect to get them gifts that they will love and that will continue to keep on giving for quite some time.
Also, the wide variety of creatively named sauces make for fun novelty gifts for grab bags, office secret santas and any other gathering where a bit of saucy fun is required.
5. Mountain Mall (Downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn.)
Growing up, the Mountain Mall was one of my go-to destinations because of the wide variety of options and also they had a music store that sold records and CDs.
There also was a shop where you could buy ninja stars and a decorative dragon made out of razor blades.
Today, the Mountain Mall remains the go-to destination for the eclectic shopper.
Need magic tricks, sports collectables or outfits for a dog? Mountain Mall is the place. There are also a wide variety of crafts, tobacco products, toys, dolls and artwork.
Also, the excellent Aunt Mahalia’s Candies is on the ground floor and they have perfect candy for gifts or stocking stuffers.
6. Tanger Outlets (Sevierville, Tenn.)
The Tanger Outlets have been the premier shopping destination in the area for a generation or two now.
The convenience, the wide variety of retail shops, the dining and the atmosphere make it our family’s go-to spot for holiday shopping.
We’ve got three kids, ages 5-15, so we can find clothes, toys, athletic gear and really, just about anything we need.
I can’t say we always find AMAZING bargains, sometimes they’re just good deals. But frequently, I’ve found deals that are jaw-dropping.
One year several people in our family got new leather jackets simply for the fact I found a price that was so ridiculously good, I called an audible and threw out the shopping list.
If you just want to wander around and hunt for deals, it’s hard to beat the Tanger Outlets.
7. Shops at Old Mill (Pigeon Forge, Tenn.)
Many things on our list aren’t specifically rooted to the area. You can get many of these same items in communities across the country.
If you want something that has a little more of the je ne sais quoi that is the Smoky Mountains, the Shops at Old Mill is your place.
First, there is excellent dining in the Old Mill Restaurant.
After your meal, you can hit the shops and select from all manner of take-home food stuffs appropriate to the Old Mill, which was founded as a working mill in the 1830s.
Choose from Pumpkin Pecan Honey Butter, a variety of soup mixes or items like pure maple syrup. The Old Mill offers a down-home selection of pottery, decorative items and much, much more.
If you’re looking for more than simply a shopping experience, the Old Mill is your place.
8. Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair new online store (your living room)
This one, you can do from home.
Due to everything that’s going on in 2020, the folks at the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair, a biannual craft fair held in July and October, are doing things a little differently.
Fair organizers have opened its first ever Holiday & Gift Shop offering the best, most unique holiday items on the market.
Lost in all of the hodge-podge of stereotypes of mountain people is that many have an artist’s soul.
Often, those artists who don’t want to sound too highfalutin’ refer to themselves as craftspeople. But make no mistake; what they do with their skills is truly an art form.
Many of these people are also among those affected by the 2020-ness of everything.
So, if you visit www.CraftsmenFair.com, you can find truly unique and wonderful Christmas gifts and support talented artists all at the same time.
Other than getting hammered on ‘shine samples while your kids are at the Build a Bear, what could be more in the holiday spirit than that?