Noel Cowards, take heart!
Our shopping experts have swept the city and uncovered a passel of affordable treasures.
Although it doesn't get as much play as the presents, the chance to gorge on fine chocolates and sweets like a big fat hog is as integral to the holiday season as, say, gaudy decorating. While it's nice to keep in mind the $50-a-pound Payard chocolates that line the candy counter at Dean & Deluca, a few blocks up and over into the East Village will bring you to El Eden Chocolates . Chef Wai Chu hand-makes the 15 varieties of fine truffles ($6.50 for four) currently on the menu, with rotating entries that make their appearances through the year. The darkishly sweet, rich confections brought in for the holidays, with names like White Cranberry, Holiday Eggnog (eggnog-flavored white chocolate with rum and ginger), and Pumpkin Praline, should come in intravenous formulas. 443 East 6th Street, 979-9291(GERMOSÉN)
For a branch of a behemoth Manhattan institution, the MOMA Design Store does an excellent job of bringing sophisticated design down to Target-level accessibility. At the sprawling new Soho branch, the gift ideas come in all sizes and price ranges, from Philippe Starck chairs ($290) to tiny nipple-shaped fridge magnets ($6.50 for six). The best thing about shopping here is knowing that good design doesn't have to have an account-crippling price tag. While items like Alessi's demitasse espresso maker (with a genius cutout spot that makes it impossible to splatter) require a few quick breaths at $129, smaller versions of Alvar Aalto's famous vases retail at $45. 81 Spring Street, 646-613-1367 (GERMOSÉN)
Traditional cartoon-character hierarchies have permanently crumbled. Goofy despots like Nickelodeon's Spongebob and Sanrio's Hello Kitty reign over the children's market with CD-ROMs and calendars, while old codgers like Mickey Mouse get by on choppily animated Christmas specials. The newer route to ironically childish paraphernalia lies with the Korean brand Morning Glory, as sold at Opane, a brazenly pink showroom brimming with all things sickeningly adorable. MG products espouse a charmingly bizarre earnestness with their glommy-eyed mascots and awkwardly worded slogans. An inscription on a My Baby Zzizzi binder ($4) clumsily announces, "It's true love we're making, a something to lost for a lifetime," while a soap dish ($4.20) confides, "I wish you could know how much I love you." The big star at MG is BlueBear, but more intriguing are the three Pajama Sisters, a gangly looking crew on a tote bag ($22) who ask, "Who do you think is the prettiest girl?" 6 West 32nd Street, 643-9077 (GERMOSÉN)
Most of the inventive designers represented at the meatpacking district design shop Auto actually make their home in Brooklyn. "We're like a little family," says shop manager Dario. "We sort of bring everyone in." The trendy item du jour is Helen James's mini-obi ($115), a hand-painted silk sash to ring a waist left bare by low-slung jeans. The place is crawling with cool items, be it the massive Marimekko bags in brilliant red ($90), Holly Aikens's rad vinyl dop kits ($40) and guitar straps ($20), or the smartest item an urban pet owner could haverubber-bordered dog bowls ($16). 805 Washington Street, 229-2292 (GERMOSÉN)
It's kind of strange to encounter a perfume that stirs intense emotion, but Fresh's deep-noted fragrances, intoxicatingly rich and unique, have been known to cause quite a fuss. (On a recent afternoon, a woman was devastated to learn that Currant Marine, her obsession, was out of stock.) The place has the best stocking stuffers ever, including pleasingly wire-and-crystal wrapped scented soaps (triple milled and made with shea butter at $8 each) and virtually greaseless scented lotions (one wants to drink a bottle from the Chocolate Milk line). Products like the Sake Bath ($75 a bottle) make a strong case for spending a small fortune here. 57 Spring Street, 925-0099 (GERMOSÉN)
Hear ye, clever outcast! If you haven't been there already, your cozy new ironic-consumer homebase is Despair.com. Their specialty is "demotivational" messages in the guise of traditional, peppy corporate schlock. The wall calendar is the most obvious gift item ($14.95, replete with cheesy landscapes and italicized ponderings on Apathy, Pretension, Loneliness, Elitism, etc.). Even more impressively faux-corporate are the $49.95 personalized Underperformance Awards. A choice card honors the mediocrity of John/Jane Doe, "ultradolt," who performs, as the engraving states, "beneath and below the call of duty." (Perfect for the jokester dentist/lawyer/OB-GYN!) Shell out for your arrogant father, Pollyanna in-law, or stoner best friend, 'cause funny is a no-limit soldier. 877-DESPAIR (PERETTI)
Walking the streets of Soho come Santa time is like cleaning mildew from shower-tile grout: unpleasant. Wealthy anorexics strut about, wrapped in hundred-dollar scarves while dandies walk dogs with better haircuts than Jenny Aniston. Run east to Home of Trance, a haven even if you dislike the genre. You will happily zone out, ensconced in bright colors, psychedelic patterns, and an indulgently playful/spiritual tone. Much is $50 and up (durable futuristic hippie clothes, mushroom lamps, etc.), but there are also affordable gifts like love dice ($5). Best novelty? Lit wood-framed waterfall images that, when plugged in, appear to undulate in downward waves ($49-$59). Perfect for a small-scale meditative retreat. 122 St. Marks Place, 533-6700 (PERETTI)
At Murder Ink, a dog with a body by Edward Gorey alternately paces and sleeps, sometimes near the well-stocked nook of Gorey gear. The first store to cater exclusively to the wonderful world of criminous letters, Murder Ink offers signed current chart-climbers, first editions, well-preserved pulp at $5-$30 (Mickey Spillane's Me, Hood), and a vast selection of paperbackseverything from English police cosies and the Fletch novels to Jim Thompson (the lovingly lurid Black Lizard reissues from the '80s) and the adventures of Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan. 2486 Broadway, 362-8905 (PARK)
The genteel Ivy's Books and Curiosities mingles new and used titles on the same shelves in healthy heterogeneity. When you realize that your friends don't read anymore, get them the variations on the classic theme book ($7.95), the mottled covers decorated with pages from casting books ("Leading WomenIngenues") or reproductions of Spanish movie posters. Other stocking stuffers include paper-model kits, flipbooks, and slim, vintage recipe books from the '50s and '60s ($10-$15). Isn't it time your roommate relearned The ABC of Chafing Dish Cookery? 2488 Broadway, 362-8905 (PARK)
Know a Hong Kong movie addict who just got a DVD player? I mean, besides me? Hit the Bowery just north of Canal, where a string of gift stores sell hard-to-find titles at often startlingly low prices. (Sometimes the DVD section itself is a little hard to find, half-hidden behind a stock of padded brassieres and Hello Kitty pj's.) A recent Jet Li binge netted The Tai Chi Master ($15.95)coincidentally, the last movie I saw at the defunct theater around the corner, c. 1993and Last Hero in China ($8.50). The Chow Yun-Fat back catalog starts under $10, and there are usually sections devoted to directors and actors like Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Wong Kar-wai, and Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung. (PARK)
Those seeking to put the Christ back in Christmas should visit Logos Book Store, with its sections devoted to saints, spirituality, and "C.S. Lewis & Friends." A slipcased six-volume set of the Narnian novelist's religious writings is $46. Infidels who prefer to remain outside the Judeo-Christian tradition need not go ungifted: Across the room from the Bibles (and the $34.95 leather-bound Urantia book) stand a few cases of choice literary fiction, prominent among them several J.G. Ballard novels and the reprint of Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany's polymorphously perverse sci-fi epic. What would Jesus do? 1575 York Avenue, 517-7292 (PARK)
A gift giver without several C-notes to burn can still find satisfaction at the august Argosy Book Store & Gallery, from reasonably priced vintage editions by the usual suspects (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky) to the joys of the $10 print bin, which recently held a handsome likeness of the great (if not exactly handsome) Samuel Johnson's phiz. Your swimming buddy will enjoy an autograph of Esther Williams ($25), and a signed typescript by Maxwell Bodenheim is only $30perfect for your ex-wife who's still writing her dissertation, "Maxwell Bodenheim, Genius Poet of Yesteryear." Marbleized endpapers are a steal at $2 per colorful sheet, though their usefulness remains obscure. Snap some up anyway, before Martha decides they'd look nice as origami egg-holders. 116 East 59th Street, 753-4455 (PARK)
In keeping with their devotion to European comic books, the owners of Kar'ikter painted the walls of this Prince Street gem in colors inspired by Tintin's underwater adventure "Red Rackham's Treasure." They have since expanded to chic objects seemingly inspired by cartoons, including Alessi's appealingly demented line of Italian household goods. Never before has sugar been dispensed from so cheerfulor leggeda space creature ($19), and the friendly lady robots who open bottles ($56) or grind pepper ($67) don't complain when you twist their heads to uncork the wine or season a salad. There's still plenty of Astérix, Babar, and Tintin stuff (if you have $2200, you can buy a huge replica of the red-and-white checkered rocket ship that transported the Belgian reporter and his cracked gang to the moon), but there are also items like a rubber radio that comes in fuchsia or apple green ($55) and a Lomographics camera that prints a strip of four images per each shot in a standard roll of film ($55). Five dollars and ninety-five cents gets you a Lucite ring with a snow dome and glitter dancing in water, or one with a tiny compass leading you back to 19 Prince Street, 274-1966. (MCPHERSON)
Pearl River, the Canal Street department store, is a good source for slippers and Chinese silk jackets, but the staggering variety of its inventory is its real lure. A vintage-looking purse-size tin of cold cream is only $2.20 and perfectly complements a set of bright cotton dish towels printed with "Good Morning" in English and Chinese. Of course, you'll also want Ferrero Rocher chocolates, cunning miniature folding scissors made of stainless steel ($1.95), and Chinese honey packed in reusable eight-ounce drinking glasses ($1.99). One floor up, women's pajamas made of silk and spun rayon manage to be at once naive and provocative. Behind them, the enormous brim of a chic retro sun hat ($3.95) collapses neatly into a saucer-sized case for easy packing in a stocking. 277 Canal Street, 431-4770 (MCPHERSON)
Paul Frank's Sputnik-era monkey peers from notebooks, socks, and a particularly hip retro flight bag ($60) at Alphabets, an eccentric gift emporium without peer. In addition to the simian, there's what looks like the complete line of Hello Kitty purses and pencil boxes, a foot-long Pez dispenser with compatible candy pellets ($22.95), and a Clinton family paper-doll book ($8.95). (First mother Virginia Clinton Kelly remains clothed in a leather motorcycle jacket; the other three are half-naked, awaiting your sartorial instructions.) Retro toys include Gumby, Pokey, Mr. Potato Head, and the chemical wonderland Magic Garden ($6.95), but Alphabets also offers actual adult gifts. Tell Santa that what you really want is the stunning, stainless steel Tokyo Bay watch designed to be strapped to your wrist with what appears to be a high-tech Band-Aid ($65). 47 Greenwich Avenue, 229-2966 (MCPHERSON)
The New York Transit Museum Shop offers what must be the most ingenious use of subway tokens ever. Where else can you find a sterling silver charm bracelet with new and vintage tokens from transit systems across the U.S ($58), token earrings ($19.95), and doubtless the tastiest version, 50-cent dark chocolate tokens covered in gold foil and embossed with "good for one fare"? Not everything is MTA related: Weighty enamel key rings celebrate London tube stops, and the world-famous exhortation to "Mind the Gap," printed on sturdy white cotton T-shirts, in the company of MTA subway-line bestsellers. Grand Central Concourse, 878-0106 (MCPHERSON)
The minute Daily 235 began by selling Kismet chewing gum and the daily papers. Now whether it's Japanese caramels packaged to look like red and white dice ($4) or orange and yellow vinyl pencil pouches ($18 and up), the limited number of objects keeps the selection quirky, not kitschy. Pick up an Egyptian cat eraser ($2) or a box of beautifully packaged chocolate cigarettes from Holland, tuck in a pair of old-fashioned bubble ponytail holders, add an orange Rhodia notebook, and your holiday shopping is done. For hedonists, there are Votivo candles, soap, and incense, and a tantric yoga calendar for 2002. Next year in nirvana. 235 Elizabeth Street, 334-9728 (MCPHERSON)
Dearest Hindi filmi follower, why hasn't Govinda learned his lesson? Does Twinkle Khanna want to make dhosas with Sunny Deol? Will Raju Chacha be crybaby lipstick rani Kajol's comeback film? Even if responses aren't at the ready, holiday gifts for your Bollywood-following friends are. Go to Neena Sari Palace, which is less fancy than the exalted ISP (who calls it India Sari Palace?) but thriftier. There are glittery bangles ($3 per dozen), flowing kurta pajamas ($25 and up), vampy lengha cholisthink ballroom skirts with ornate, skimpy halters ($75 and up), and, of course, luscious, lustrous silk or cotton saris that can cost as little as 15 bucks. Voilà exotica! 37-23 74th Street, Queens, 718-651-1500 (RAO)
Darling, dreamy Fusilla is a confidante of mine. But what a drab dresser! Inside her hatbox, the pickings are slim. Holidays being a season for redemption, presents for Fusilla always come from Girlprops.com. Here the motto is "InexpensiveWe Never Say Cheap." The store is crammed with trendy accessories: spangled cat's-eye sunglasses ($9.99), funky beaded turquoise bracelets (a six-stranded version is $6.99), rhinestone bra-strap chokers ($2.99), and even a hot-pink "Cleopatra" wig ($19.99). For disposable items, these products are sturdy. Last year's black feather boa even got Fusilla a date with Oleg. He must have a thing for nude hose and ostrich fringes. 153 Prince Street, 505-7615 (RAO)
Brooklyn gal Minerva McNamara found the holidays vexing. As a party guest, she was much sought after39 soirees in 31 days, imagine! At least the need for house gifts would give her an excuse to sift for heavenly delectables at D'Amico Foods. For 52 years, locals have depended on this quaint Carroll Gardens institution for Molto Buono house blend dark espresso, Italian Pepato pepper cheese, sopressetta, vanilla beans, and Genmaicha toasted rice tea. Minerva McNamara, mangia, mangia. 309 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-875-5403 (RAO)
Vapid Sister and Textbook Cad are chronic cooers about gastronomy. With the holidays approaching, Cad's latest fad is Kitchen/Market, a whimsical gallery of Mexicana kitsch. Amid the folksy angel ornaments and painted crucifixes, Cad buys Vapid exotic epicurean delights: cajeta (goat's milk caramel), squash blossoms, pomegranate molasses, and a million barbecue and hot sauces (try "Jump Up and Kiss Me"). For those too lazy to journey to Chelsea, Kitchen/Market's condiment line is available via catalog (1-888-HOT-4433). 218 Eighth Avenue, 243-4433 (RAO)
The Voice's Holiday Preview:
"Seasonal Brew: Getting Into the Holiday Spirits"
"Chow Choices: A Holiday Food Miscellany"
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