Shopping for Santa
Our 2008 Holiday Shopping Guide
I suspect that my eight-year-old son no longer believes in Santa Claus, but I haven't been able to prove it. I've never asked him outright, and any attempt to trip him up would be pointless because he's wilier than I am. I do know threats that depend on the words "naughty," "nice," and "checking it twice" don't hold the same sway over his behavior they did a year ago. These days his reaction's an eye-rolling "Yeah? Santa and what army?" On the other hand, he's still capable of burbling on about all the things he wants Santa to bring him, his blue eyes big as Santa's belly.
While he's compiling lists, I've been scouting the town to see if what he wants is even available. Though I'm beginning to suspect I'm being played, my search has an upside: it's given me a chance to see what's out there, and to pass on my finds.
Here's something I didn't know: the primary job of a squirrel feeder isn't to feed squirrels-it's to bribe squirrels to stay away from bird feeders. If you know someone with a bird feeder under constant assault, wooden squirrel feeders start at $12 at the Wild Bird Center at Traver Village. If the thought of bribing squirrels is ethically repugnant, for $130 you can test your ethics even more severely with Wild Bill's Squirrel-Free Bird Feeder. It's harmless to birds but gives squirrels a small electric shock if they climb aboard.
A few doors down, Crown House of Gifts has a raft of great gift ideas. Kids will love the Sweet Machine, a miniature version of those arcade cranes where you manipulate a steel claw to try and pick up prizes. It's $40, but unlike the arcade version it doesn't take money to operate-so when the claw comes up empty you won't feel ripped off. Impatient beer drinkers will wonder how they ever got along without a twenty-ounce beer mug that has a kid's bicycle bell
mounted to the rim. Just don't be surprised if the person who fetches your beer hurls the mug at your head when bringing it. It's $16.
If you know any skateboarders who risk their necks on rickety homebuilt ramps, the Red Belly Boardshop in the Courtyard Shops sells collapsible ramps starting at $200. (Note: they collapse when you're ready to put them away, not when you're actually using them.) Starter skateboard sets start at $120. How-to-skateboard DVDs start at $17.
In addition to books on everything from Aristotelianism to Zen, Crazy Wisdom on Main Street has a selection of hand-held massage and muscle-relaxing implements starting at $5, none of which require batteries. The most fun? Bonger tapping balls. They look like something you'd use to play the xylophone, but instead you play someone's back-the tapping motion breaks down muscle tension and stimulates circulation. They're $19.
For the dedicated recycler on your list, Ten Thousand Villages has bowls, pot mats, coasters, and other products made by third-world artisans from recycled materials like magazines, rope, broom bristles, and string. A set of four coasters is $18; bowls start at $16. You can even get a recycled seven-piece Nativity scene for $94. It's impressive: the tallest figure stands about a foot high.
It's been a miserable season for Michigan football, but that's no reason to deprive your die-hard fan of Block M stocking stuffers like a Michigan pasta salad-a bag filled with maize-and-blue pasta, a Game Day vinaigrette mix, and three recipes. It's $6 at the M-Den and serves eight. A Michigan hammer with a molded rubber grip that looks like the laces on a football is $20.
In our small kitchen, we don't have room for things like Santa-shaped serving platters we'll use once a year. The Carol Roeda Studio has the perfect solution: something creator Nora Fleming calls "interchangeable dinnerware." One example: a white serving platter with a hole at one end, so you can pop little ceramic figurines in and out depending on the season: snowmen for winter, a turkey for Thanksgiving, and so on. The platters start at $34, and the seasonal figures are $10 apiece.
Got a new mom on your list? Urban Jewelers sells tiny pendants made up of fourteen-karat yellow or white gold cubes that look like children's building blocks. You can custom-order them to spell out a child's name and specify the birthstone in the base. And while chocolate molded into novelty shapes from roses to pianos is a growing trend, Urban Jewelers' strand of chocolate pearls is not, repeat not, edible. Made from freshwater pearls dyed a rich chocolate brown, it's $495. Matching earrings are $75.
Some people love the sound of wind chimes; others go ballistic over them. But even doubters might fall for the cool wind chimes at Sixteen Hands made from antique silverware and kitchen utensils. For $74 you can have your choice of spoons dangling from a potato masher or an orange juice strainer. For $160, there's an ornate teapot with six dangling spoons and one fork with a bent tine.
Peaceable Kingdom remains unmatched for cheap stocking stuffers that start at under a buck. The big table in the middle of the store has everything from rub¬ber bugs to whistles to jumping frogs to bacon-¬flavored toothpicks. And if you know any Ann Arborites trying to sell their houses under current market conditions, pick up a three-inch plastic figurine of St. Joseph, billed as the "patron saint of real estate." You're supposed to bury him in the ground near your For Sale sign, and he'll help you sell the house. He's a bargain at $5, and you don't have to pay him a commission.
Singer Alan Jackson popularized the saying "It's five o'clock somewhere" in his ode to happy hour. Acme Mercantile's collection of hip retro wall clocks includes an "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" clock with a big martini glass on the face. It's battery operated, so if you remove the battery and set it for 5, it'll be five o'clock all the time. It's $22. A similarly themed neon clock shaped like a martini glass is also $22. And for something that'll baffle children who've never seen a toy without batteries, try a wooden pirate popgun for $4.50.
The Ann Arbor Art Center, a few doors down on Liberty, has a unique way to keep on truckin': purses, wallets, and handbags made from reclaimed truck inner tubes by a company called English Retreads. Each is one of a kind, and prices start at $36. The Art Center also has handbags made from old car seats in green and gray for $60.
Batteries are never included at Lexi's Toy Box on South Ashley, because the store won't carry toys that need them. It does stock a lot of high-quality wooden toys from top names like Holztiger, Vilac, and Haba. Haba building block sets start at $20. A Russian palace complete with wooden onion-domed towers and a pyramid complete with wooden sphinx are $45 each.
Emerald Dragonfly across from Zingerman's sells amazing "bird feathers" hand carved from basswood. The detail is so astounding you'll be tempted to try ruffling them to see if they're real-only you can't; they're framed under glass. They start at $85 for a small hummingbird feather. A crow feather is $270, and an eagle feather is $450.
Just around the corner in Kerrytown Market & Shops, Ann Arbor Spice Merchants has a variety of $25 wooden gift boxes, each with four bottles of different spices. There are boxes for bakers, coffee lovers, and people who order margaritas as an excuse to lick the salt off the rim. That last collection includes gray sea salt, smoked sea salt, Hawaiian pink sea salt, and fleur de sel. You can also buy packets of individual spices starting at $2.79. Or you can go hog wild and splurge on the saffron-it's $10 for a gram and a half.
Hollander's carries an exhaustive selection of materials and tools needed to bind books by hand. A starter kit including instructions, spine, precut board pieces, decorative paper and cloth, and enough paper for a 200-page book is $46. For those more inclined to make a mistake than a book, erasers would make apt stocking stuffers. They're stamped with pictures of butterflies, pencils, birds, and hearts-and my favorite, the word "Oops!" They're $3.50.
Monahan's Seafood Market sells red cedar fish planks for $4; they're great for cooking salmon, especially when you use Monahan's own Irish whiskey maple glaze ($5 for a quarter pound).
TeaHaus on Fourth Avenue has a truly impressive Russian samovar about two feet high. It's electric and goes for $365. And the perfect tea to brew in it? Russian Samovar tea. It's a blend of Indian, Ceylon, and Chinese teas; fifty grams costs $3.50.
Kaleidoscope's a great place to pick up antique children's books, like a first edition of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Arthur Rackham for $1,000. And the store carries tons of antique U-M memorabilia-programs, yearbooks, and photos dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, as well as autographed souvenirs, like a helmet signed by New England Patriots quarterback and former Wolverine Tom Brady ($125).
Dogs who have been good this year deserve Christmas dog treats from Ann Arbor Biscuit, the bakery for dogs. $10 buys you a half-pound box of iced treats in holiday shapes like snowmen. And if you've always liked the idea of a dog fetching a Frisbee while wearing a bandanna but don't want to mess with tying it on, get a slide-on bandanna for $6. It goes on the dog's collar and looks like the real thing. It's like a clip-on bow tie for Bowser.
In addition to an exhaustive selection of new, used, and autographed books, Aunt Agatha's mystery-book store has mystery-themed puzzles and games, like the Murder on the Titanic mystery jigsaw puzzle. Put together the 1,000-piece puzzle, suss out clues, and solve the crime before the ship goes down. (Spoiler alert: the iceberg did it.) Postcards featuring lurid covers of classic Dell paperback mysteries like The Case of the Careless Kitten by Erle Stanley Gardner, featuring Perry Mason, are $3.
Head around the corner on Liberty for miniature chocolate ornaments from Kilwin's. You can hang them on the tree Christmas Eve and pluck them off and eat them while opening presents in the morning. They're just 85¢ apiece; flavors include hazelnut, caramel, and peanut butter, and they're wrapped in festive foil. And no one ever went wrong dropping a big bag of jelly beans in someone's stocking, assuming they aren't, like, diabetic or something. Kilwin's has them in oddball flavors like strawberry daiquiri, piña colada, and Dr Pepper, all for $8.50 a pound.
Robot Supply & Repair has cool robot-related gifts, from the Mega Mech four-foot inflatable robot to the "Is Your Little Sister a Robot?" test kit. But if you know someone who likes to fly paper airplanes, the $15 electric plane launcher is a no-brainer-it claims to launch them at thirty miles an hour.
For runners serious about staying hydrated, nothing beats the Terminator six-bottle belt. More Batman than Terminator, it fastens around your waist like the Dark Knight's utility belt, and six plastic eight-ounce water bottles fit snugly in six little holsters. Plus there's a little zippered pouch for keys and such. It's $40. A pair of Yaktrax will keep winter runners upright on even the slickest of ice; they strap to your feet the way snow chains strap to a car tire, and their lightweight coiled-steel tread makes for better traction and more speed than similar strap-ons with spikes. They're $30 at Tortoise and Hare.
It was news to me, but it turns out vinyl record albums are still being made. Underground Sounds on Liberty has a great collection of new and used vinyl, including a new reissue of the 1967 classic "Are You Experienced?" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience for $35-perfect for Hendrix fans and vinyl purists who've reduced their original copies to forty-odd minutes of pops, skips, and hiss.
Kitchen Port on Zeeb across from Meijer abounds in handy kitchen gadgets. This year's most popular: colorful silicone pinch holders for gripping hot plates. They're like mini¬mittens for the tips of your fingers-but keep them where the kids can't reach them, because they'll want to use them as hand puppets. Also popular: an ingeniously simple device called a Utensil Pot Clip. It clips to the side of a pot or saucepan, and it's designed so you can rest ladles, spatulas, and wooden spoons across the top of the pot, so there's no messy dripping on work surfaces. They're $8.
Next door at Wine Etc. you'll find reproductions of antique cork pullers for $22. They have names like the Hinged Wonder, the Bull Horn, the Gentleman, and the Chinook, and some look more like cruel eighteenth-century dental tools than cork pullers. Bottle totes make nice gifts for the loaf-of-bread-and-thou crowd. Insulated to keep white wines cool, a single- bottle tote is $15 and comes with a bottle stopper and corkscrew.
If you can't afford to buy the biker on your list a Harley, give something with the Harley logo. American Harley-Davidson on Jackson has plenty to choose from, like $10 money clips and T-shirts that start at $21. The store even has a Harley-¬Davidson version of Monopoly-instead of streets, the squares are photos of famous Harley motorcycle models. It's $40.
For bikers who prefer their bikes without big, honking chrome-plated engines, Two Wheel Tango on Jackson has some pretty cool cycling gear. Lobster gloves look like what they sound like: padded, insulated gloves with two separate compartments, one for your index and middle fingers and another for your ring and little fingers. That way you can use your hand brakes without having to shift your grip on the handlebars. They're $65. Keep bundling up for winter riding with fleece-lined nylon-Lycra leg warmers for $30.
Scrapbook Haven in Westgate shopping center is a good bet for the scrapbooker on your list. One nifty item is an $8.50 blank calendar you can personalize yourself: add the dates and personal and family holidays, and decorate it with a collage of photos, mementos, ticket stubs, or anything else that's reasonably flat and gluable. For scrapbookers on the go, a Travelmate Scrap Tote is handy. It's the perfect size for small projects and overnight trips, and it's $67.
Pictures Plus has striking reproductions of vintage Michigan football posters and game programs, like a 1948 edition of the Pigskin Preview highlighting that year's Rose Bowl game between Michigan and Southern Cal (we won). They're $35, or $90 framed and matted. Also eye-catching: a black-and-white reproduction of Edvard Munch's The Scream (the person is screaming, "How come I keep getting stolen?"). It's $170.
Chocolate milk connoisseurs who'd rather mix their own than buy ready made will love a $15 Moo Mixer Mug from Learning Express. Pour milk in the cow-patterned mug, add chocolate powder, press the button, and watch in wonder as the Moo Mixer churns it into chocolate milk at dizzying speed. Get High School
Musical fans the High School Musical 3 magic eight ball. Ask a question, shake the ball, and read the answer in the little window. (Question: Even though all the characters graduated in the last movie, will Disney flunk the lot of them and force them to repeat their senior year so that Disney can make High School Musical 4 and rake in even more money? Answer: I wouldn't bet against it.)
Across the street, Top of the Lamp carries all kinds of lamp finials starting at $11. They make great stocking stuffers because they're small and you can match them to people's interests. There's one capped with a miniature leather baseball for $29, and one with a leather soccer ball for $27. My favorite was the finial topped by a miniature working clock in the shape of an antique table clock for $39.
The Bungee Card Case at Ace Barnes Hardware on Stadium is perfect for people who constantly hand out business cards. The end of the case is attached with a bun¬gee cord, so after you pull it open it to take out a card, it automatically springs shut. It's so much fun you'll be looking for excuses to network. It's $5; a Bungee Niño Case is $10. Another great stocking stuffer: the Palm Peeler, a vegetable peeler that slips over your middle finger "to put the power of peeling right in the palm of your hand!" If that sounds like mere breathless ad copy, consider that it was honored for design distinction by I.D. (International Design) magazine. It's $6.
For people who constantly lose their keys, backup sets are a smart idea, and REI in Cranbrook Village has all kinds of fun key rings to put them on starting at just $3. There are ¬interest-specific ones-one made from a carabiner for mountain climbers, others shaped like fish or bikes. My favorite is a key ring and zipper pull with a built-in thermometer or compass, $7.50-$9.
The Samsa Shaker mp3 at the Waters Road Borders is $35 and shaped a little like a saltshaker-appropriately, because you skip to the next song by shaking it, so it's a lot of fun for kids. (The CD player in my car does the same thing every time I go over a bump, so I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.) Know people who are always threatening to write a book? Give them the push they need with Borders Personal Publishing software. It allows writers to self-publish in paperback or hardcover and even sell their work through Borders online. It's $500.
Light up the night and get an upper-body workout at the same time with the Briarwood Brookstone's $25 Twist Light: thirty seconds of twisting the grip back and forth gives you enough power for five minutes of light. It's perfect for car and home emergency kits.
Those who don't have iPods may not realize it, but the original design has now been around long enough that Apple's dubbed it the "iPod Classic." If you're just now getting around to buying one, the Apple store in Briarwood has a leather iPod Classic sleeve for $30. It turns your iPod into what looks at first glance like an expensive wallet but with a digital read-out. If you know people who are always losing the earbud covers on their iPod headphones, stuff bud covers in their stockings. A set of four in assorted colors is $10.
Middle Earth on South University is another great source for unusual, hip, and deliberately kitschy gifts like the Ninja Clock. The body of the clock is shaped like a throwing star, and the pendulum is a ninja suspended in midkick. It's $30. Another favorite is the $25 Hamburger Phone, enjoying a renaissance after being featured in the movie Juno.
Beanie June in the back of the little mall on North University is the place to go for dressy scarves. It sells a ton of them, including a bamboo-blend scarf for $39 and a cool ombre scarf for $29 that's dyed in three different shades of the same color-so when you tie it around your neck, it looks as if you're wearing three different very stylish scarves that you just tossed together in a "What, this old thing?" kind of way. Charlotte Tarantola sweaters are another big seller and start at $98.
Around the corner on State Street, Fly can put together a starter disc golf set for $27 that includes a putter, a medium-range disc, and a driver. Disc golf bags start at $17. The small ones are the size of a small duffle bag, eliminating the need to hire a caddy unless you're looking for advice on how to approach that dogleg on the fourteenth hole.
Leg warmers are back, and American Apparel on Liberty has lots of them, starting at $42. Many come in shiny metallic colors like gray and blue, reminiscent of glittering custom paint jobs on classic 1960s muscle cars. American Apparel also has pants in hot neon colors with zippers that run all the way down the outside of each leg-presumably so you can make an emergency exit from your pants in the event of an accident. They're $59.
With any luck, I've given you a few ideas that'll make your holiday shopping a little easier. And while you're out shopping, my son and I will continue to wait each other out. Does he believe in Santa, or doesn't he? Does it make any difference? Will I have to explain yet again that Santa probably bought the present at a local store and just forgot to take off the tag? The closer to Christmas, the higher the stakes. And he is strong willed. I won't be surprised if I blink first.
[Originally published in December, 2008.]