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Good Gifts From Cheap Stores

Scoff if you must at its unlovely surroundings, remove the "Jaclyn Smith Studio Intimates" label if you wish, but do not dismiss out of hand Kmart's lounging robe, a stunning maroon confection that would not be out of place in a Thin Man movie. The dressing gown, a polyester satin marvel decorated with subtle quilted flowers and lavished with piping ($39.99), is just one of the many treasures to be found on a tour of four Manhattan discounters—proof positive that perfectly presentable gifts lurk in some of the city's least pretentious venues.

The robe isn't the only classy item to be found at the Astor Place Kmart. Just inside the door, near the God Bless America banners that Kmart calls lawn lookers, are potted six-inch phalaenopsis orchids all ready for Christmas in Connecticut ($16.99). Upstairs, a vintage-looking tree ornament features the ubiquitous Harry Potter sitting next to a glass globe with a winged skull (ask an eight-year-old why) that plays an abbreviated version of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ($12.99). Across the aisle there is likewise music in the air: For $8.99, Kmart has a pair of blinking musical boxer shorts, in a jaunty winter print featuring a cartoon reindeer. ("Do not put music device in water," reads the label.) You might think that getting the action under way would require some indiscreet groping, but no, the gizmo is actually located on the trunks' lower left leg. As promised, once activated, not only does Rudolph's nose glow but a medley of holiday tunes bleeps forth.

Housekeeping fetishist Martha Stewart is queen of domestics at Kmart, and plenty of her signature items hew to a surprisingly high taste level, though their very utility makes them iffy holiday presents. (Can you really give someone a shower curtain?) Borderline giftable is a set of gossamer white place mats ($1.99 each) and matching tablecloth ($12.99) pristine enough to pass muster in Mildred Pierce's parlor. Though they look as if they were either inherited or picked up at an antiques market and have benefited from a labor-intensive session of starching and pressing, when you touch them it turns out they are in fact made of the humblest vinyl. If your friends don't exactly entertain with table linens, Kmart has campier offerings. A heart-shaped picture frame that might have been for sale at a souvenir counter in 1949—the year Disney's Cinderella was released—is trimmed with marabou and further enhanced with a glass slipper on a lavender cushion at the heart's point ($7).

The Chelsea branch of Old Navy is not nearly as crowded as it should be this December, which might be why what seem to be stuffed teddy bears wearing Christmas tree costumes (you sort of have to see them) are half off their original $7.50. Lots of other merchandise is marked down as well, including an item that's been showing up under trees for the last 100 or so years: a man's ski sweater in thick lamb's wool, decorated with a polar bear and snowflakes and ready for a spin around the Wollman rink, if it ever gets cold enough this winter ($25.88). Old Navy has a penchant for selling the two halves of pajamas separately, and indeed, there's a counter full of what it calls sleep bottoms, including a silky pink and gray example in a palm tree pattern ($12.50) that could have come from the wardrobe of Donna Reed in her role as a dime-a-dance girl in From Here to Eternity(a far cry from her part as the virtuous wife in It's a Wonderful Life). Or go with an even safer bet: a boxed set of seven pairs of cotton bikini underpants, sporting the days of the week accompanied by seasonal line drawings—ornaments, deer, trees—ready for wrapping, for $18. But not everything here is so classic: There's a trench coat, made of that abused denim so fashionable these days, that's the spitting image of the Marc Jacobs original. (If the intended recipient of this item is the sort of person who won't want it because it doesn't have MJ on the buttons, then by all means pass it by. Otherwise, go ahead—it's a dead ringer and it's only $48.)

When you're way up in Chelsea it's possible to forget, if only for a moment, what happened downtown, but it's a different story at Ruby's Book Sale at 119 Chambers Street, a five-minute walk from ground zero. Ruby's is as far from a chain bookstore as you can get: There's a mad eclecticism about the place, with half-price Harlequin paperbacks accorded the same respect as The Complete Gilbert and Sullivan. (At $14.98 for 711 pages, the G & S is probably the better bargain.) Ruby's magazine department is similarly wacky: It carries not just National Geographics from 1973 but also tomes like Amateur Porn—69 Hot New Sluts, which looks like it could be a few decades old itself, though we couldn't check its date since the magazine was encased in plastic and Ruby's has a big sign that reads, "Anyone removing plastic wrap from magazines will be asked to leave the store."

The interior design at National Wholesale Liquidators on Broadway makes Kmart, Old Navy, and Ruby's look like Bergdorf's, Barneys, and Bendel's, but no matter: There are things here at prices you truly can't find anywhere else. Sets of stemware (drinking glasses, not plants) by an outfit called Luminaire are an especially enchanting bargain. Four delightful champagne flutes are $4.97; 16 vessels in two sizes, which the box describes as coolers and on-the-rocks (eight of each) are $13.97. A halogen-lit makeup mirror by Clairol ($19.97) is ready for Patsy and Edina, but be warned—you don't want to glance into this thing yourself before wrapping it up, since it magnifies every pore and flaw until you look like something out of a science fiction movie. Upstairs, in the lingerie department (a trade secret among ladies around town), there are, as ever, innumerable sober corsets and camisoles to pick from, but hey—it's Christmas—and couldn't we all use some cheering up? Why not consider a goofy padded pink brassiere with fringe that looks like yak hair? It's $4.99, the matching panties are $1.50, and the whole getup would certainly brighten someone's New Year's Eve.

 
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