It’s happened again. December has rolled around, and last year’s promise not to buy gifts for anyone has melted into a familiar panic. “Just a few people,” I thought — and those few quickly snowballed into a dozen, that dozen into many, that many into, well, the onset of a big ol’ holiday freak-out. What the hell to buy for everyone? The thought of going to a mall gives me the all-overs. Too many people, too many shiny displays. Too many “it” items this year — though I must admit, this season is mild compared to past years of Tickle-Me-Elmos and Furbies. Furbies really freaked me out, man. At least there aren’t any Furbies this year.
It’s not that I’m a Scrooge. In fact, on a holiday scale from “Ho, ho, ho!” to “Bah humbug!” my seasonal sentiments rate a solid “Fa la la la la.” I’m just oozing with holiday cheer — what I’m lacking is the cash to spread that cheer around.
Another major deterrent to the mother of all shopping seasons: people scare the hell out of me. Last year I almost lost an eyeball attempting to navigate around the umbrellaed masses of Union Square. There was barely a light drizzle, but the umbrellas were up, the people combative, and once I reached the safety of the Disney Store, there was another enemy force: children. Screaming, snot-nosed children. Sleep-deprived mothers trailing behind, trying to wrangle the ankle biters to the next shopping destination.
Is it worth all the stress? Not in my estimation. That’s where good planning comes in. I have three rules. One: make every gift thoughtful, personal, and original. Two: stay the hell away from shopping centers, big-box stores, and those umbrella-wielding maniacs of Union Square. Three: spend as few of my hard-earned dollars as possible. I’m no expert on shopping, but I’ve made enough mistakes to know I’ll need one hell of a strategy to pull off the perfect shopping caper. The plan? Divide and conquer. Get ’er done. Make it up.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Consider who the most important people on your list are. The people you love the most are always the most difficult to shop for. Get the important stuff out of the way early to minimize stress. Special people call for special circumstances — that’s why shopping at smaller, local businesses is best. Your big brother might love that copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, but you can bet your ass he saw it on the Border’s clearance shelf for $6.98.
THE HEAD HONCHO
Chances are most bosses have received more bad gifts from their underlings than they can fill their oversized offices with. Steer clear of tchotchkes and give the gift of booze. A good bottle of wine goes a long way. Try K and L Wine Merchants (638 Fourth St., SF; 415-437-7421, www.klwines.com) for a huge selection and a staff so helpful they could explain the nuances of a petite sirah to a donkey. Or try Coit Liquor (585 Columbus, SF; 415-986-4036, www.coitliquor.com). This San Francisco landmark looks like your basic bodega, but the corner haven offers one of the best selections of fine wines in the city.
If you have to buy for half the office, at least take comfort that these are the only people on your list who truly understand your financial woes. Think stocking-stuffer small. Think clever. Think original. Think Wishbone (601 Irving, SF; 415-242-5540, www.wishbonesf.com) for all the odds and ends of your shopping this season. Everyone loves adorable useless bullshit.
YOUR (FEMALE-GENDERED) SWEETIE
Known affectionately among locals as “Oh — that store with all the skulls?” Martin’s Emporium (3248 16th St., SF; 415-552-4631, www.martinsemporium.com) also happens to have an obscenely large collection of antique jewelry. So if your honey has an itch for F. Scott Fitzgerald, get her all Gatsbyed up with some jazz age earrings, brooches, and pendants. Or pull a Clinton: find a signed or first edition of your lady’s favorite book among the antique items at Thomas A. Goldwasser (486 Geary, SF; 415-292-4698, www.goldwasserbooks.com) or the pulp paperbacks of Kayo Books (814 Post, SF; 415-749-0554, www.kayobooks.com).
YOUR (MALE-GENDERED) SWEETIE
I blame Sears. Men are hard to shop for, yeah, but it seems like department stores have all but given up. Steer clear of the mall stores with the prepackaged wallet–<\d>watch–<\d>grooming kit gift sets. Stay away from the cologne-aftershave-and-soap-on-a-rope gift set he’ll never use, and think outside the little boxes. If you can’t spring for the PlayStation 3 that he really wants, you can agree to let him loose for an afternoon in Isotope Comics (326 Fell, SF; 415-621-6543, www.isotopecomics.com). Or if you refuse to feed his geeky side, go for his cuddly one. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2500 16th St., SF; 415-554-3000, www.sfspca.org) always has little friends who need loving homes. What’s better than a faceful of puppy kisses for the holidays?
It’s hard to skimp on Mom’s gift. Something heartfelt, personal, and dirt cheap — is that so much to ask? Lucky for us, moms these days are hardly the June Cleaver types. Give her something original, social, and rewarding. She’ll thank you for foregoing another year of bath salts. Classes make great gifts, and she’ll never expect it. It’s never too late to learn a new language: The Alliance Français (www.afsf.com) has beginner courses starting at $365. The Goethe-Institut (www.goethe.de/sanfrancisco) will teach Mom German starting at $230. For every other language in the world, starting at $175, try the ABC Language School (www.abclang.com). For even cheaper options, hit up Craigslist for a private tutor (most start at around $20 an hour) or send her packing to City College.
If you don’t think Mommy Dearest is into spending her days conjugating verbs, she might give yoga a try. At Mission Yoga (2390 Mission, SF; 415-401-9642, www.missionyoga.com), the Bikram program rules. The huge studios are open every day of the year, and they even offer Spanish language classes! Yoga Tree (www.yogatreesf.com) has locations all over town and offers tons of different styles. Perfect if Mom still thinks “asana” is a swear word.
Ah — my Republican Dad. We both love Johnny Cash and mob movies — that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Instead of delving into the dangerous world of politically themed gifts (boy, was that year fun), hiding behind an ugly tie, or grabbing yet another ratchet set, shoot for the common ground. Records are great because they are traditional, and Daddy can get all nostalgic about how much better Gordon Lightfoot sounds on vinyl. Check out Grooves Inspiralled Vinyl (1797 Market, SF; 415-436-9933) for a huge country section.
Time to play Let’s Make a Deal. No gifts until January. My closest friends and I are all always broke, so we have a tradition of buying each other dinner for birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. More often than not, by the time our schedules align we all owe each other at least one meal. This means we can justify an outlandishly expensive restaurant, split the bill evenly, and settle all debts. If this won’t swing in your inner circle, go for something experiential. Close friends are close for a reason — usually a common interest. Bond over art? Buy each other yearly memberships to the SF Museum of Modern Art (www.sfmoma.org) or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (www.yerbabuenaarts.org). Love music? Concert tickets at Slim’s (333 11th St., SF; 415-255-0333, www.slims-sf.com) and the Independent (628 Divisadero, SF; 415-771-1421, www.theindependentsf.com) are as cheap as CDs and, as something you can do together, much more personal.
LITTLE BRO OR SIS
It’s every older sibling’s privilege — nay, responsibility — to introduce the younger family members to the more subversive side of life. If the kids happen to be teenagers, now is the time to pump them full of all the J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac you can get your hands on. Go to the source of the rebellion and buy from City Lights (261 Columbus, SF; 415-362-8193, www.citylights.com). If you really want to start a fire, hit up anarchist ground zero Bound Together Books (1369 Haight, SF; 415-431-8355). You are also well-placed to mold their fallible little minds into appreciating good music. Find all the songs that riled you up in your adolescence at Streetlight Records (3979 24th St., SF; 415-282-3550, www.streetlightrecords.com). Even if they hate your picks, you’ll have taught them a valuable lesson about snubbing all that fancy marketing and finding their own taste. You’re such a good role model.
BIG BRO OR SIS
It’s always hard to shop for the person who made your young life a living hell. To help you turn the page on that awkward history of rivalry, sign your tormentor up for the gift that keeps on giving. Magazine subscriptions are always a great idea for the holidays — but really, who wants to funnel their money into publishing houses all the way out in New York? We have tons of extraordinary publications based right here in the Bay Area! You can’t go wrong with Planet (www.planet-mag.com) for culture vultures, SOMA (www.somamagazine.com) for artsy types, Mother Jones (www.motherjones.com) for the world conscious, or Wired (www.wired.com) for the tech savvy.
THE YOUNG ’UNS
The only reason I tolerate the holiday shopping madness is that it offers a valid excuse for grown people like myself to play with toys. Now that there are some nephews in the picture, I don’t feel so creepy fondling everything on display at the Discovery Channel Store (865 Market, SF; 415-357-9754, shopping.discovery.com) in the Westfield Center. I know, you have to brave the big, scary new mall, but the payoff is strong. From crime scene kits to talking globes, this store will make you feel like a kid again. Everything is educational, but the children will never know. Ambassador Toys (186 West Portal, SF; 415-759-8697, www.ambassadortoys.com) has all the lovely LeapFrog (a local company!) baby things and tons of interesting multicultural stuff too.
Mom-mom and Pop-pop are so easy. If you remember to call, they’re thrilled. Getting them a gift? Oh, you’re such a honey pie! Head to Paxton’s Gate (824 Valencia, SF; 415-824-1872) and pick up some orchids or carnivorous plants for her to fawn over. Grandpa will probably be happy if you just show him how to use the digital camera you got him last year, but go the extra mile and start an aquarium for him. This way you’ll know exactly what to get him every year: more fish! The folks over at Ocean Aquarium (120 Cedar, SF; 415-771-3206) will get you started right.
Don’t forget about your little critters this season. San Franciscans like to give their pets the run of the house — in my case, the tortoise Bukowski has the painfully slow and woozy stagger of the place, but you get the idea. Bukowski will be getting a tasty bouquet of dandelion greens from Golden Produce (172 Church, SF; 415-431-1536) in his stocking this year. Fido probably won’t enjoy chewing the weeds, so try Babies (235 Gough, SF; 415-701-7387, www.babiessf.com). This store is pretty much the holy grail for spoiled little dogs.
Admit it, you have an inkling that your ex is probably stalking you on MySpace. Why not call the sneak out with some kitschy spy wear from the International Spy Shop (555 Beech, SF; 415-775-47794, www.internetspyshop.com)? Nothing says “I can still see right through you” like some X-ray glasses. The Fisherman’s Wharf shop is also ground zero for all things private dick.
Just put your name on the damn card. Fin.
GET ’ER DONE
So you waited until the last minute — you haven’t bought a single gift. People have started dropping hints about the great things they’ve found for you (some of these people weren’t even on your list — the jerks). What the hell do you do now? Don’t panic. Get to the Castro. Stat.
Cliff’s Variety (479 Castro, SF; 415-431-5365, www.cliffsvariety.com) is the best store in San Francisco. OK, I’ve shown my hand. The toy section is top-notch. It’s got games, gizmos, and playthings galore. Great for the kids, even better for your coworkers and casual friends. The windup animals, novelty tokens, and traditional knickknacks will have them waxing nostalgic for days. The kitchenware section has the best in sleek, smaller appliances (FYI: giving a French press or percolator to everyone on your list who still subsides on drip coffee will make you a hero for years to come) and unnecessary (but totally useful) gadgetry. Check out the annex for swanky furniture, household items, baby clothes, and all things craft. Oh, and shopping at Cliff’s is dirt cheap.
MAKE IT UP
Do yourself a favor and don’t put all your holiday stock in a DIY project you’ve never tried. Even if you have every intention of knitting scarves for the 35 people on your list, even if you bought every spool of fancy yarn in the city, even if you took three weeks off from work to do the project — if you still don’t know how to handle the needles, you may as well shoot yourself in the foot. Your peeps will get squat, and all you’ll have is a three-by-five-inch scrap of knotty wool. There are safer ways to craft. Here are some:
Use those concert tees. Music is a huge part of my life — likely one of the reasons I’m always broke and most certainly the reason I have an enormous collection of swag I never wear. This year that T-shirt collection overflowing the closet is going to shrink. The quick how-to: Pick out the ones with obscure bands, ridiculous logos, or just great colors and restructure them into cost-free, made-with-love gifts. Cut a big square out of the center of both sides of the shirt (this should include whatever graphic is involved). Put the insides on the outside. Stitch around all four sides, leaving a three-inch gap in the center of one side. Turn right-side out and stuff (use cotton, newspaper, more old shirts — whatever isn’t perishable). You just made a pillow! Simple quilts and tote bags are also pretty easy to swing with limited knowledge of sewing. If all you learned in junior high home ec has escaped, run over to the Stitch Lounge (182 Gough, SF; 415-431-3739, www.stitchlounge.com) in Hayes Valley. The rockin’ ladies there will show you the ropes for a nominal fee. Bonus: they offer gift certificates, so you can give the gift of craftiness even if you gave up on threading the needle.
Feeling guilty for paring down your list? Making personal holiday cards for everyone you snubbed will cure your ills. This project will only take an afternoon (or an evening with friends and lots of liquor), and you already have the supplies! Look at all the paper crap you’ve collected around the house. Those calendars you got at a discount last January have some high-quality photos. Magazines stacked everywhere, coffee table books on their last legs, and all that cheesy holiday junk mail. Got scissors? Glue? You know what to do. Try Paper Source (www.paper-source.com) if your home stock won’t cut it.
Since you’ve already made such a mess, here’s another project for you. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, sit back and let me tell you a thing or two about gift baskets. They suck. They are predictable, boring, and awkward as hell to carry on Muni. The day of basket-wrapped gifts is over. Instead, take all that stuff you’re cutting up and do some decoupage. My favorite gift vessels are mason jars and shoe boxes — both are simple, portable, and look great once you start decorating them. Stick to themes and you’ll be golden. Example: decoupage a box with images from Italy and fill it with gourmet noodles, a decent wine, and that killer sauce recipe you have. Add a cheap vintage apron from Held Over (1543 Haight, SF; 415-864-0818), and voilà — you have a gift!
Use your skills. Computer savvy? Check your list for any artist, comedian, musician, or writer who could benefit from your illustrious Web site–<\d>designing skills.
Take great photos? This is San Francisco — chances are several people on your shopping list are in struggling bands. Bands need press kits. Press kits need photos. Photos are expensive. You take great photos. Are you there yet?
Do you give Rachael Ray a run for her perky money? Baking for people is still way festive — just steer clear of fruitcakes, and your gift will be well received. Or cheat like hell — that’s why they put cookie dough in those convenient little tubes.
If you totally suck at the DIY thing, you aren’t alone. Lucky for you there are some people in the city who are very, very good at making things. Needles and Pens (3253 16th St., SF; 415-255-1534, www.needles-pens.com) showcases a variety of paper goods and clothing made by local craftsters. My favorite is the 2007 Slingshot Organizer, but be sure to check out the other DIY goodies at this little shop that loves you back.