The Under-$5 Gift Guide

Your goal? Give cheaply, rather than spend dumbly

Did Hello Kitty join the taxi drivers in their wildcat strike earlier this year? (Is that why it was called a wildcat strike?) In any case, she's a happy creature now, smiling from behind the wheel of a yellow cab ensconced in a snow globe at Toys "R" Us, and only $4.99, qualifying her for admission into this year's Village Voice$5-and-under gift guide.

Because really, what with the stock market's wild swings (not that you have any money in the market) and the bizarre real-estate situation (why, oh, why have prices come down everywhere except New York?), who wants to spend a lot on holiday gifts? Plus, have you ever noticed that the cheap stuff you give people is met with the same enthusiasm—or lack thereof—as items costing 10 times as much?

But back to our task at hand. If you think an afternoon at Rikers would be preferable to shopping at the Times Square Toys "R" Us, there is more cartoon feline ephemera available a few blocks away at the Hello Kitty flagship on 42nd Street. Here, My Melody notepads, featuring a character that looks suspiciously like Kitty except with floppy ears, is only $1; for an even $5 there's a keychain with a felt, glitter-enhanced Kitty reminiscent of that insipid keychain teddy bear Prada is pushing this year for $145 more.

If all this Kitty business is a little too sticky for you, Ricky's on 14th Street has something called Ass Kisser Breath Spray for Brown Noses in cinnamon flavor for $5.99, which is 99 cents over our limit but might prove irresistible as a Secret Santa present to an especially craven fellow employee. Slightly less controversial is a bar of $2.99 soap with the word PEACE as firmly embedded as a journalist in Iraq—the sentiment is sweet, but the soap is made in China, which may raise an eyebrow among the more politically correct members of your crew.

A few steps away, the Union Square Holiday Market draws me like that hackneyed moth every December, though the things I buy there are rarely met with more than a flinty smile. Nevertheless, this year I'm thinking of patronizing a vendor called Nicola and the Newfoundlander, who has genuinely nice wooden bookmarks featuring tiny pictures of sharks, giraffes, and even the Empire State Building for $5.

Up on Broadway at 19th Street, Fishs Eddy, the vintage-dish depot, has classic cube-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers for 99 cents each. If you're going to a home with lots of toddlers, there are also barrels full of multicolored 10-cent glass marbles for them to choke on.

The spectacular new Walgreens, just opened in the former home of Astor Wine and Liquors, appears to have modeled itself on a suburban big-box store—the merch is piled in sky-high stacks. At eye-level there is quite a selection of under-$5 possibilities: small boxes of fancy chocolates with names like Ferrero Rocher and Confetteria Raffaello, and wooden soldiers for $1. Sets of four ornaments with the insignia of the New York Yankees or Jets are $4.99 for those sports fans on your list. (Steroids from the pharmacy cost extra.)

It's hard to get away from snow globes this time of year. The ones here offer the ubiquitous snowman—remember when it really used to snow a lot in New York?—with a green tree that lights up when you pull a little string, which is a lot of activity for $1 and, I'm afraid, puts that taxi-driving Kitty to shame.

Sheer desperation this time of year leads many of us to Pearl River on Broadway, where the ridiculously cheap goods soar high above the level of marbles and poopy lip gloss in their aesthetic appeal. Cloisonné pillboxes decorated with birds are $4.50; a small silk pouch with a tassel closure is the same price. Or bring everyone at the party a mood ring (they're going to talk about their feelings all night anyway). The rings are available from a tray next to the cash register at $2.50 per.

Vast disappointment flooded my shopper's soul when I first visited the much-touted, highly anticipated Muji at 455 Broadway. Not only are the goods for the most part deadly dull (maybe I just don't like "classic" design), but there is virtually nothing under $5. Even a sad box of colored pencils—not much of a gift—is $6.75. But right next door, the equally new CB2, billed as the younger, friskier sister of Crate & Barrel, has chartreuse mirrored disco-ball tree ornaments—now that's what I call good taste!—for $1.95. A fish soap dish—really a fish head and tail and a bony midsection where the soap is meant to rest—is $3.95 and oddly elegant.

But maybe your friends hate disco and don't use soap. Maybe they like to sit around on Christmas day scowling and watching Buñuel flicks. For these sourpusses, the outdoor tables at Strand Books are ideal. A few moments' perusal on a recent afternoon turns up a copy of The Communist Manifesto next to a tome entitled The Complete Care of Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Animals. Either can be had for $1. Around the corner, the lovely Alabaster, single-handedly keeping the Fourth Avenue bookstore tradition alive, also has outside racks. For $2, a 1964 biography of Mata Hari by Sam Waagenaar looks pretty juicy.

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