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One-Tank Trip / Erie, Pa. Deck the malls with some tax-free shopping

ERIE, Pa. -- The cash registers were buzzing, the crowds were humming and Santa, surrounded by a pack of cherubic children, was ho-ho-ho-ing a resounding round of holiday cheer.

As we stopped to admire the holiday scene, a shopping bag-laden woman, tearing through the mall at breakneck speed, plowed into us. Unapologetic, she continued on, tugging a sobbing and clearly terrified toddler with her to the front of the Jolly Elf's line. So much for peace and joy.

And so it begins -- the virulent attack of manners amnesia which seems to spread wildly during this, the "giving season." But here in the sales tax-free sanctuary of Erie, Pa., my shopaholic sister -- seemingly oblivious to the madness -- is in retail nirvana.

It takes her awhile to bring me over to her side of thinking. On one point, I'll agree from the get-go -- there are some good deals to be had here.

For shoppers who don't mind holiday crowds, Erie, less than two hours south of Buffalo on the State Thruway, is a bargain hunting haven. In the state of Pennsylvania (as most of us are by now aware) footwear and clothing are not taxed, while electronics, appliances and housewares are.

If visions of cashmere sweaters and alligator slingbacks are dancing in your head, the Keystone State is the place to be. If you're hoping to buy a vacuum cleaner for your best squeeze, you're out of luck -- in more ways than one.

Can you really save money by shopping in Erie, Pa.? We suggest you do your math homework before hopping on the Thruway. It's a 90-mile drive from Buffalo, which means that gas -- at $2.33 per gallon -- will cost about $16 roundtrip, based on calculation for a 2003 minivan averaging 27 miles per gallon.

In Erie County, current sales tax on clothing and shoes is 8.25 percent. If you spend in excess of $200 on holiday purchases in Pennsylvania, the trek will pay off. For example, big sis will save $21.75 on a $300 wool-blend coat short from Talbots (3330 W. 26th St.), or $16.50 on a $200 faux shearling style.

For me, this is where the pleasure lies. Saving money gets me stoked, while my sister enjoys spending it. We're a magnetic force not to be reckoned with. It's time to hit the stores.

From a shopper's perspective as well as in general geographic terms, Erie can be divided into two areas: uptown and downtown. The town is designed on a grid, with perpendicular numbered streets. Peach and State streets serve as north to south dividers.

Downtown is the city's cultural center, where a majority of Erie's museums, theaters and attractions are located. Uptown is the place to find major chain stores and discount retailers. The anchor of it all is Millcreek Mall.

>Uptown

Millcreek Mall, 5800 Peach St.; (814) 868-9000, www.millcreekmall.net.

Just off I-90 and north of Splash Lagoon Indoor Waterpark, this 185-plus store mall features well-known stores like Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Steve & Barry's, as well as more than 20 eateries and several outlying shopping centers. For those who just can't get enough of the chain scene, there are two adjacent hotels within the mall complex.

Upper Peach Street (US-19)

Traveling south from Millcreek Mall, the upper portion of Peach Street -- the Erie thoroughfare running north to south -- is shoppers' central. You'll find a multitude of strip malls housing big box retailers like Target (6700) and Kmart (7200), as well as discount department stores such as Marshalls (6710) and Kohl's (1906 Keystone Drive at Peach Street Square).

In recent years, Peach Street has earned a reputation as a traffic behemoth. Nicknamed "Peach Jam," it's congested and traffic is slow moving, particularly at the peak hours between 4 and 6 p.m. If you're traveling on Peach, which you'll most likely do at some point, plan accordingly.

>Downtown

Erie Sports, 701 State St.; (800) 333-6812, www.eriesportstore.com.

Go north on Peach Street toward Biebel Avenue. Turn right on W. 26th St. (US20). Turn left on State Street.

A huge selection of team sportswear, footwear and athletic apparel can be found at this hometown sporting goods store. A new superstore location is just off upper Peach Street at 1902 Rotunda Drive.

Village West Shopping Plaza, 3300 W. 26th St.

From upper Peach Street, take Route 79 North to West 26th St. (Exit 182).

Located on the city's west side, this small shopping center houses classic co-ed clothier Talbots, as well as Bare Woods, featuring unfinished furniture and gift items.

West Erie Plaza

From upper Peach Street, take Route 79 North to 12th Street (Exit 183B).

This shopping plaza is a local gem, with unique specialty stores such as doting grandmothers' favorite Munn's Little Ones (912) and Chameleon (834), for sporty ladies wear.

>Going south

If you've got the luxury of time, drive 90 miles south to Prime Outlets at Grove City (888-545-7221; www.primeoutlets.com ), or 90 miles southwest to Sharon, home of the world's largest shoe store (Reyers, 800-245-1550; www.reyers.com ), off-price fashion store (The Winner, 800-344-2672; www.thewinneroutlet.com) and candy store (Daffin's Candies, 877-323-3465; www.daffins.com).

Sharon -- population 16,000, gets my vote for best seasonal spirit. The atmosphere seems less harried and the shoppers more cordial. A pair of size 10 sneakers off my list ($125, sales tax savings $10.30) and a healthy dose of rich dark chocolate from the world's biggest candy store later, I, too, am in holiday bliss. It turns out my sister was right-for once. Shopping is fun, especially when there are bargains to be found.

>If you go

Where to eat:

Quaker Steak & Lube, 7851 East Peach St., (814) 864-WING (9464); www.thelube.com (uptown).

Buffalo may be home of the chicken wing, but industry leaders say this car-themed eatery can hold it own against the original. Winner of first, second and third place category prizes in the 2005 national Buffalo Wing Festival, Quaker Steak & Lube features wings, wings, and more wings -- 16 flavors in all -- and some other tasty fare, too. Try the Pennsylvania Premium Garlic variety, spiced with red peppers and a full garlic punch.

Pie in the Sky Cafe, 463 W. 8th St, (814) 459-8638 (downtown; no credit cards accepted).

The facade of this former drug store cum restaurant is unassuming, but the food is fabulous, says Erie innkeeper Gloria Knox. Bring your own wine.

Where to stay:

Homewood Suites, 2084 Interchange Road (uptown); (814) 866-8292; http://homewoodsuites.hilton.com/en/hw. Located on the outskirts of the Millcreek Mall complex, this all-suite hotel features spacious accommodations, an indoor pool and a free hot breakfast buffet. One and two-bedroom suites are from $99 a night.

Boothby Inn, 311 W. Sixth St., (866) 266-8429; www.theboothbyinn.com (downtown).

A handsomely renovated 1888 Queen Victorian is the site of this upscale downtown bed and breakfast. Rooms are from $120 a night double occupancy. The Gas Incentive Giveaway package ($295 plus for two nights) features $20 reimbursement for gas, $40 restaurant credit and a free car wash.

For more information:

* The Erie Area Convention & Visitor's Bureau, (800) 524-3743; www.visiteriepa.com;

* Pennsylvania Tourism Office, (800) 847-4872; www.shoppinginpa.com;

>Directions

(from downtown Buffalo)

Take the I-90 West to I-79 North, exit 22B;

Follow I-79 North one mile to exit 180, the Kearsage exit;

Turn right onto Interchange Road. Millcreek Mall is on the left.

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