Inside Imagine, Warren’s Cheery, Cow-Filled Gift Store

The giant purple gift emporium is stocked with only-in-Rhode Island tchotchkes, baby gear, greeting cards, a candy bar and fresh local ice cream.

In the sleepy little coastal town of Warren, you’ll mostly find cottages, a few renovated mill buildings, eateries with the most delicious bites and a handful of small, locally owned shops. But if you drive down Main Street through the center of town, you can’t help but notice the looming purple building bedecked with two life-sized, colorfully painted cows.

Once the old Lyric Movie Theater, the hard-to-miss building is now Imagine, one of New England’s largest gift stores. Its three whimsical levels are stocked with locally made merchandise, jewelry of all kinds, a candy shop and a whole lot more.

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Photography by Sarah Farkas

Owner Michelle Santiago, a Rhode Island native, acquired the 10,000- square-foot space in 2016 by fate, as if the universe was pulling in her favor. While she was an undergraduate at nearby Roger Williams University, Santiago was a frequent visitor of the shop (then under different ownership). She was familiar with the store and made countless trips with college friends. Upon graduation, Santiago moved south to Florida to continue her education to become a teacher, leaving her happy place behind. Years following, after graduating with her master’s degree, she moved home to Rhode Island to find an ad in the newspaper noting that the gift store was up for sale. It was more than just perfect timing; it was meant to be.

“I didn’t have the chance to pursue my career in education because I saw this opportunity arise. I knew I loved the culture and the atmosphere of the store and I didn’t want it to go to someone who wouldn’t appreciate it or change it,” she says. “I wanted it to stay a gift store and I believe that it was fate.”

Santiago threw herself into the world of business, noting that while it was a huge learning process, she had quite a bit of help. Both the previous owners of the store and the staff trained her and showed her the ropes, and her father, a local businessman, was a great resource for support. She caught on and jokes that it was no time before she knew every square inch of the store and every product, from Rhode Island souvenirs to baby products, greeting cards and more. The shop even boasts an old-school, ’50s-themed candy counter, chock-full of more than 500 candies that satisfy any sweet tooth. Plus, during the summer season, you can choose from ten to fifteen flavors of ice cream, all from the Ice Cream Machine in Cumberland — Santiago’s hometown.

warren

Photography by Sarah Farkas

The most notable part of Imagine Gift Store, however, may be the life-sized decorative cows, an iconic symbol of the store. The cows are part of CowParade, an organization based in West Hartford, Connecticut, which stages what may be the largest public art event in the world. The events have occurred in more than eighty cities, including Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro. In each city, local artists — from amateurs and the unknown to the professional and famous — compete to design artwork on the outer body of a faux cow. A few winners are then chosen to bring their artistic vision to life on a life-sized version made of weatherproof and flame-retardant fiberglass. The cow statues are publicly displayed for two to four months in their host city, followed by an auction with live bidding. Much of the funds raised are given to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Champions for Children in Milan, Italy.

Some notable cow purchasers include Oprah Winfrey, Ringo Starr and Elton John, and somehow, Imagine Gift Store, in little old Warren, Rhode Island, ended up with a few, too. Though Santiago is unsure of the bovine backstory, she notes they do sell exact replicas of small, collectible figurines by CowParade. With more than 500 options in the collection, you’re sure to find a cow for you. And if you don’t? Well, that’s quite alright; you can get lost browsing three floors of gifts, feel like a kid in a candy shop and admire cow memorabilia at the fondly nicknamed “cow store” and Warren landmark, whenever you’d like.

Imagine Gift Store, 5 Miller St., Warren, 245-4200, giftimagine.com.

Photography by Sarah Farkas

Where to eat

The Square Peg
Situated in Warren’s historic district, the Square Peg is well known for its stylish fixtures and fresh ingredients. It’s a neighborhood joint where the staff greets you as though you are family, even if it’s your first time stepping foot in the establishment. Seafood, burgers, sandwiches and a full bar? We’re there. 51 Miller St., Warren, 215-3831, squarepegwarren.com.

Chomp Kitchen and Drinks
Some might call it overkill but Chomp is just too good to serve food for shock value alone. One benign burger is topped with bacon and American cheese. No big deal. But then it’s also loaded down with a slab of fried chicken, onions, tomato jam, Swiss cheese and a bacon patty, topped with a handful of pickled jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles. Holy cow! 440 Child St., Warren, 289-2324, chompri.com.

Eli’s Kitchen
Burgers, flatbreads, salads — seems pretty standard, right? Not quite. At Eli’s Kitchen, the mundane is made miraculous. Burgers are formed with grass-fed beef and smoked bacon, along with other premium ingredients. The flatbread is topped with falafel and hummus and a smattering of Mediterranean staples. And salad, whether it is Caesar or kale, will defy expectations. 40 Market St., Warren, 245-1809, eliskitchenwarren.com.

A Short Drive Away
Black Duck Tavern
For a laid-back weekend bite, check out the Black Duck Tavern for a beer, a burger and some house-made chips. For a little more heat, try the spicy Korean wings or opt for a handheld like the grilled chicken sandwich. 31 Warren Ave., East Providence, 434-8703, blackducktavern.com.

Where to shop

Luca Boutique
Designer clothing and toys for the little ones might seem unattainable unless you shop here. The children’s couture consignment shop procures gently used luxe labels and sells them for a fraction of the original cost. Buyers can carefully select each item based on current seasonality and trends so their kiddos are always fashion-ready without breaking the budget. 193 Water St., Warren, 289-2251, luca-ri.com.

The Peyton Company
This Beverly Hills Hotel-inspired, chic one-stop beauty shop is a treasure trove of local-ingredient, fair trade-certified, organic and sustainably made beauty products. Pick up take-home salt scrubs, lash growth serum, creams like the Vitamin C Face Cream with CBD and berries and much more. Plus, get a mani, pedi, wax or facial for a personalized boutique spa experience. 11 Child St., Warren, 216-8700, thepeytonco.com.

Cerulean
When artisans come together good things happen, and you don’t have to look further than this shop to see why. The store is chock-full of local and handmade goods, everything from decor to signage to soaps (many with a subtle nod to the ocean) that are sure to make a friend’s day, whether it’s her birthday or just because. 30 Child St., Warren, 508-274-7189, ceruleanri.com.

Prica Farina
The shop serves take-home boxes filled with handmade fresh pasta like pounds of pillowy ricotta gnocchi, thick ribbons of bucatini and squid ink pasta, plus ravioli stuffed with ingredients including asparagus and prosciutto. Boil the pastas in salted water for just a few minutes, top with sauces and you’ll have a feast that feels like a trip to Italy (but in the comfort of your very own home). 2 Market St., Warren, 245-1680, pricafarina.com.

A Short Drive Away
Kate and Company
This small, quaint boutique on lower Hope Street carries an array of home decor, jewelry, clothing for adults and children and bath and body products. Kate and Company’s location, right next to Angelina’s coffee shop, means you can shop until you drop then grab a coffee or tea for an extra energy boost. 301 Hope St., Bristol, 253-3117, kate-and-company.com.

Daisy Dig’ins
This mainstay in the heart of Barrington began as a floral design shop in 1977 but has since expanded its roots. Find home decor to transform any space in your abode, pick up bath and beauty products to pamper yourself or purchase jewelry for your very best friend. Plus, a fresh flower arrangement is sure to cure any wintertime blues. Choose from premade bouquets or personalize your own. 123 Maple Ave., Barrington, 245-0580, daisydigins.com.

Where to explore

Warren Cider Works
Taste the talk of the town: Spencer Morris’s delicious hard apple cider. Morris serves up sulfite-free ciders made from a variety of hardy cider apples, including local heirlooms, that he grows at his Touisset orchard. 98 Child St., Warren, 252-6104, warrenciderworks.com.

A Short Drive Away
Comedy Connection Rhode Island
The featured acts at Comedy Connection range from local to famous and from witty to downright profane. Grab a drink from the full-service bar but be conscious of your order; whiskey might seem like a good idea at first but not so much when it comes out of your nose during the show. (Note: you must be eighteen or older to laugh here.) 39 Warren Ave., East Providence, 438-8383, ricomedyconnection.com.

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