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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Maxing out at Maxwell Street Days
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The 400 block of State Street is busy as Maxwell Street Days begins on Friday morning.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

The mid-summer bargain bin frenzy on State Street named after a Chicago open-air marketplace -- Maxwell Street Days -- soldiers on outside the ever-changing patchwork of storefronts that make up downtown Madison's spine. Usually held the third weekend of July every year since its founding in 1975, the festival features dozens of State Street merchants emptying their vaults of inventory over ten hours on Friday and seven on Saturday. What makes it stand out, though, are its raucous elements -- the cashiers perched atop ladders and kiosks, haranguing the masses to buy something, and the restaurants that fire up their sidewalk grills.

As Maxwell Street Days enters its fourth decade, though, diminishing returns are in evidence, at least when it comes to the atmosphere. Both the grills and the shouting sales people are fewer and farther between, while patches of street sans loaded tables are starting to seriously compete with adjacent scrums. While the sidewalk sale certainly retains robust elements and the requisite hordes of shoppers, its changing face does reflect the continual evolution of State Street, for better and for worse.

While there were a good dozen grill tents a decade ago when the street was crammed end-to-end with the festival, there are only a few remaining today. Though this can be chalked up to many things, one particularly visible culprit is the sidewalk café. As this essential component of summer in Madison has flourished over the last ten years, the number of grills out front has dropped.

In fact, the inexorable transformation of State Street from the stereotypical college strip stuffed with t-shirt/head/record shops of the sale's early days to its decidedly food-court atmosphere of today has a lot to do with the increasingly patchy nature of Maxwell Street Days. Restaurants really don't have overstock items that they want to get rid of at bargain-basement prices, at least not in the kind of buffet found at the sale. This is certainly true with the chain eateries on the campus end of State, though there are always a couple exceptions.

The Capitol end of State, meanwhile, is separated from the bulk of the sales by Overture. (The O.C. does indeed have a promotional table out, though, promoting their summertime children's production featuring Thomas the Tank Engine.) The top block of the street is busy again with apparel racks, but the sale reminds me more of an archipelago than a contiguous bazaar it once resembled.

As for the dwindling number of hucksters wielding megaphones and goading shoppers at the sale, who knows? They're still around at some stores, but trends come and go, just like the wares they're pitching.

There are certainly some pockets of insanity remaining, as seen when the sale kicked off on Friday morning. A forest of hanging and boxed clothes in front of the Urban Outfitters at the Frances Street intersection draws shoppers like flies. Most of the 400 and 500 blocks of State on either side of Gilman remain thick with the sale, with Art Gecko, Yellow Jersey, and B-Side Records buzzing with activity. In fact, the small tent in front of B-Side turned into a feeding frenzy of music sharks the moments the first $5 boxes of CDs were carried out to the sale. Similar scenes played out at various points along the street as the day lengthened.

Maxwell Street Days is alive and kicking, in places. Just like the stretch of shops and street that serves as its home, it's constantly changing. In that way, it's an interesting reflection of what's happening in terms of commerce on State Street.

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