Does my ten-year-old son still believe in Santa Claus? Or does he believe that if I believe he believes in Santa Claus, he’ll get more presents? I can’t be sure, but I think I’m being played. Last week a classmate launched into those logistical questions we all wrestled with in our youth (i.e., one plus-sized guy, one night, all those houses, etc.). My son, who usually loves to argue, grew uncharacteristically quiet. When I caught his eye, he quickly turned away, as if afraid of what I might see.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but whenever the subject of Santa comes up, I can only describe his behavior as cagey. Meanwhile, he’s told me what he wants, and I don’t think he much cares who brings it. So I’ve been trekking around town to see what’s out there, and I’m passing along a few ideas.
For kids like my son who freak out if their peas touch their mashed potatoes (and for adults who still do), Downtown Home & Garden on Ashley has a $25 state-of-the art Eco stainless steel lunchbox; its three stacked containers and an inner box to keep wet foods like applesauce or salads from turning crackers and bread to mush. For gardeners who get freaked out by thorns and brambles, they also carry Foxgloves Gauntlet gloves; they’re $35 and perfect for rooting around deceptively innocent-looking garden beds, even though they look more like something you’d wear to flourish an épée than to prune the rosebushes.
The Best Use of a Scatological Pun to Name a Product Award has to go to the iPood, available at Moosejaw on Main Street. The kit contains a small aluminum spade for digging holes when nature calls in the woods. How did manufacturer Sea to Summit get away with the name? They didn’t. Apple caught up with them, but there are still iPoods in stores until the name changes—making this offbeat $20 gift item not just practical, but collectible. For the boulderers on your list (it’s a specialized, ropeless form of rock climbing), a foldable, portable bouldering crash pad will break your fall from ten to twelve feet—more than enough to protect you if you decide to scale the Rock at Hill and Washtenaw. They start at $140.
Vault of Midnight on Main has a great collection of comics and graphic novels, but they also carry Ugly Dolls, deliberately eccentric plush dolls that look sort of like cuddly microbes, or maybe like something Matt Groening used to doodle before The Simpsons hit it big. They start at $8. Look for excellent family games, too, like Bananagrams, Toy Fair 2009’s Game of The Year, a word game whose lettered tiles come in a banana-shaped yellow zippered bag for $15.
Four Directions on Main carries elegant Alexander Kalifano globes made of inlaid polished gemstones—some globes even use gemstones native to the countries they represent. They start at $80, and Kalifano justifiably warns that they should be considered works of art and used as a reference tool only on an “incidental” basis. For something actually meant to be destroyed, pick up the kids a large geode from Morocco. They look a little uninspiring, like stone potatoes, but once cracked open they reveal dazzling quartz crystals inside. $6 to $12.
Don’t like your chess opponent’s last move? Eat his pawn. It’s a perfectly acceptable defensive strategy with an edible, two-pound white-and-dark chocolate chess set from Schakolad Chocolate Factory on East Washington. The $60 set is regulation size. Other edible items include a $32 chocolate shoe and a $67 dark chocolate football that melts in your mouth, not in the huddle.
Start kids on the road to a committed organic lifestyle with baby eating utensils at Organic Bliss on East Liberty; made from corn-based “bioplastic” instead of petroleum-based standard plastic, the $8 set comes in a cheerful and appropriate bright yellow. Cute organic cotton bibs are $16 and are festooned with provocative phrases like “Panic, Chaos, Disorder,” “My Work Here Is Done,” and, my favorite, “Lunch Is on Me.”
Perpetua on Fourth Ave. offers eco-friendly products as well, including surprisingly soft, elegant purses made from recycled plastic water bottles, $37, men’s wallets made from recycled bike inner tubes (they don’t have to be inflated to 32 psi, so they won’t ruin the line of a suit) starting at $21, and organic fabric dresses that aren’t hand painted, but trunk painted, by Asian elephants—no kidding. They start at $299. Especially valuable if you can find one: a Dumbo original from his “blue period.”
I have a friend who works in a conservative office. She dresses traditionally, but, hidden away behind the modesty panel on her desk, she gives rein to her rebel streak with her collection of socks and tights in all kinds of fantastic colors, prints, and designs. You’ll find them at Adorn Me, on the second floor above the Bead Gallery on East Liberty. They’re $25–$32, and styles include camouflage fishnets and black tights with brass grommets running up the sides.
You can wince at your offspring’s piercings, or you could be the coolest parent in town by actually buying your age-appropriate kids a gift certificate from Pangea on East Liberty. A single earlobe piercing is $20; the second is half-price at $10 for a total of $30. Other body part piercings cost more. As for what to put in the piercing, simple rings start at $15, the popular barbell starts at $30, and nostril screws start at $30.
Princess Designs Jewelry & Gifts, in Kerrytown, glows with what must be one of the largest selections of amber jewelry in town, ranging from tiny $12 pendants to ornate brooches and rings starting at $50. The thickness of the amber determines how much light gets through. One example, a $225 depiction of the Mona Lisa, is luminously stunning.
Mudpuddles in Kerrytown has Magformers, extra-powerful magnetic geometric shapes that you lay out on a flat surface per the instructions, lift into the air, and watch as the magnets snap together to form a three-dimensional structure. Coolness. Sets start at $20. Another splendid magnetic toy: Flip-n-Stack Acrobatz, tiny figures you launch off a springboard so that their hands and feet catch each other and allow them to perform feats of acrobatics that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. A starter set of two is $5.
Few things are better than curling up in your favorite easy chair with a good book. Now your kids can, too. The $70 Little Reader foam chair at Elephant Ears in Kerrytown is perfect for toddlers. Its low weight and carry handle mean kids can tote it around the house, but its wide-based construction makes it stable and safe. For little readers who like a little musical ambiance, Elephant Ears carries a big selection of Putumayo Kids Presents, designed to introduce kids to music styles and cultures from around the world, $16.
Some people have a sweet tooth; others, a salt tooth. For the latter, a striking and practical Himalayan pink salt plate from the Ann Arbor Spice Company in Kerrytown is the perfect gift. These two-inch slabs of salt rock carved from an ancient seabed in the Himalayas can be heated in the oven, then taken out and used for sautéing, grilling, curing, and baking. And don’t worry about high blood pressure—salt blocks only add a hint of salt to whatever you cook. They start at $20. For $17, pick up a salt pig, a wide-mouthed, ceramic container for storing salt that makes it easy to grab a pinch or a spoonful while cooking. And unlike most salt pigs, this one actually looks like a pig.
How do you keep from crying when chopping onions? Some people say burn a candle. Others tell you to breathe through your mouth. I’ve even heard you should hold a lit match between your teeth—and good luck with that. Hollander’s Kitchen & Home in Kerrytown has a solution that actually works without singeing your nostril hairs: onion goggles. A comfortable foam seal protects your eyes from irritating onion vapors, and they have anti-fog lenses. $21.
For those shopping on a budget (and who isn’t?), everything at the Orchid Lane Warehouse on East Liberty is $15 or less. That includes cozy Sherpa blankets from Nepal in some distinctively non-Nepalese patterns like argyle, plaid, and paisley, and tagua palm nut jewelry handcrafted by Ecuadorian artisans and nicknamed “elephant ivory” for its resemblance to the real thing.
Also on Liberty, Poshh specializes in small quantities of unusual designer wear, minimizing the chance that your giftee will walk into a party and spot someone else wearing a black, double-breasted capelet that looks like a combination waist-length pea coat/Inverness cloak with a built-in buttoned-down scarf; it’s $150. Poshh also carries La Mer watches, notable for the fact that the company was founded by U-M grad Martine Ilana in her dorm room in 2001. Now based in LA, La Mer markets watches with classic faces set off by beautiful Argentine leather wristbands.
Urban Outfitters on State has an intriguing selection of desk calendars starting at $12. Try Calendar in a Can. Each month is a sheet four inches wide and thirty-six inches long, and the days are numbered top to bottom like a list. Or, for those working the Beer Pong circuit, give the Beer Pong Pro Pack calendar. From the self-proclaimed “ultimate authorities on all things Beer Pong” comes a new daily tip, trick, or Beer Pong factoid “to help you take your game to the next level.” Dude!
If you know a dedicated Michigan tailgater with a removable trailer hitch, pick up a Michigan Wolverines Trailer Hitch Cover at All About Blue on State. It slides snugly inside a class III trailer hitch receiver (better check before you buy), and features a big blue block M over a yellow background with a hand-painted enamel finish and a functional built-in bottle opener. $46. Cool retro Michigan mousepads are $10, featuring reproductions of the covers of classic Michigan football programs from the early twentieth century on a pigskin background.
The well-dressed gentleman still wears French cuffs. And he likes his cuff links from Van Boven in the Nickels Arcade, where the selection includes the American flag, a block M, horseshoes, and the iconic image of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, all ranging from $50–$85. Van Boven also has a spiffy selection of belts in unusual animal skins starting at $165, including alligator, ostrich, and crocodile.
As someone who took a bad fall last winter on a rugged trek to the end of my driveway to get the mail, I’m a fan of Yaktrax at Bivouac on State. Starting at $20, these are high-tech, molded thermal plastic traction devices you attach to your shoes. The manufacturer says they give you “360 degrees of traction on ice and snow,” and that they’re good to minus 41 degrees Fahrenheit. All I know is that they keep me from doing a human wheelie during an ice storm. Bivouac also has plenty of other stuff for the intrepid adventurer, including an emergency iPod charger for $29 and a USB computer light, $10.
The Safe Sex Shop on South U is about more than health and hygiene. There are great gifts here for your partner, including bathing oil, flamboyant jeweled body decorations, and the Modern Kamasutra set, $19, which includes a set of 30 cards depicting photographs and detailed descriptions of each position from “The Climber” to “The Lotus.” Who knows? You may be inspired to make up a few of your own.
The hookah—it’s not just for smoky bars anymore. Enjoy your hookah any time, anywhere, with the $50 Mitsuba portable hookah from Smoka Hookah on South U, a lightweight device that looks like a cross between a gas mask and a Zippo lighter and comes with a carrying strap and coal tongs. The package says it’s ideal for smoking at the beach, the park, camping, or even in the car—presumably not while driving M-14.
Hunter Boots is the official supplier of waterproof footwear to Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, but you and your lowly commoner friends can also sport a pair for $125 if you go to YCI Clothing on South U. The waterproof footwear comes in red, yellow, and black. Or, from the people who brought you Wellies, there are fleece sock boot liners in fashionable stripes, $35–$40.
Turns out late-night TV isn’t the only place to get Ginsu knives; Village Attic on South U has a set of 12 for $34 that includes a pair of scissors. The store has lots of colorful, cheerful housewares and decor, including fun $7 mugs with dry-erase games to help you pass the time while you linger over your morning coffee, like hangman or connect the dots. The special wipe-off marker you’ll need to play is $1.50.
Unless you’re a hard-core football fan, you probably don’t remember the Michigan Arrows. They belonged to the long-defunct Continental Football League, a pro football league that lasted from 1965 to 1969, played at the University of Detroit Stadium, and made so little money that the players had to wear hand-me-down uniforms from the Detroit Lions. Underground Printing on South U doesn’t have the vintage uniforms, but they do have vintage-looking T-shirts emblazoned with the Michigan Arrows’ old logo. Part of their commemorative T-shirt series honoring defunct pro sports teams, they’re $25.
Dr. Who fans will love a disappearing Tardis mug from Middle Earth, also on South U. The Tardis (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) is a time machine that looks deceptively like an old-fashioned London police call box. Pour in the hot beverage of your choice, and watch the Tardis slowly disappear (you provide the cheesy yet endearing rooorv, rooorv sound effect from the TV show). Other mugs with disappearing pictures include Adam and Eve (if you’re thinking fig leaves, you’re right) and “Jesus Shaves,” which you can probably figure out for yourself.
Sharpen your pet’s problem-solving skills with the Dog Treat Fighter interactive dog toy from Green Pawz, $62. It’s a “level 3” interactive wooden puzzle that theoretically trains your dog to learn how to slide pegs along channels to reveal a treat. Or if you’d just rather skip the brain teaser and feed Fido, the Maple Village store sells organic pet treats made from free-range poultry, organic cheese and vegetables, and meat, eggs, and dairy products from hormone- and antibiotic-free animals. Some of the flavors sound pretty tempting, including honey barbecue chicken and Brooklyn pizza.
Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice, best-selling author of Anatomy of a Murder (under his pseudonym Robert Traver), and devout fly fisherman John Voelker once wrote, in an essay on why he liked to fish, that “bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there.” If the fly-fisherman on your list doesn’t have said tin cup, get him the black, stainless steel eight-ounce hip flask with a black, rubberized cover from Simms, a leading maker of fine fishing gear and accessories. It’s $25 at Colton Bay Outfitters on Jackson. Fishing lures start at $1 and make great stocking stuffers. Some have pretty odd names—who wouldn’t be tempted by an “Articulated Monkey Butt”?
Lovers of fine cigars will appreciate a sampler from La Casa de la Habana on Jackson. Packs include four to six Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Honduran cigars, and cost $40 and up.
Nicola’s Books in Westgate is a great place to find books, calendars, cards, and more (and a cozy gas fireplace to read them by), but some of the neatest finds are the stocking stuffers by the cash registers. Like Shakespearean Insult Gum at $3 for a seven-pack: each stick is labeled with the name of a Shakespeare play and reveals a Bard-written insult. Example: “Thy breath stinks with eating toasted cheese.”
The Dickens Village, the Alpine Village, the North Pole Village … those miniature ceramic buildings are great gifts for avid collectors. Happy House Gifts in Westgate has a lot of them, but what really intrigued me was their Christmas in the City collection. Featuring an art deco bus depot for $75, the Art Institute of Chicago for $85, and the Ed Sullivan Theater—minus David Letterman’s name on the marquee—for $70.
Teaching your kid how to fly a new remote-controlled airplane when you’ve never done it before can be an exercise in frustration, embarrassment, and instant demolition. But the Super Cub RC plane at Riders Hobby Shop on Carpenter, $180, boasts anti-crash technology. So how bad, really, could things get? Also popular: Hex Bugs. Roughly the size of your thumb, they look like the kind of mechanical bugs that crawl by the thousands out of the woodwork and swarm all over some unfortunate victim in sci-fi movies. The bugs react to sounds and scurry one way or the other if you clap your hands or they hit an object. $10.
If you know someone who doesn’t need a cup of coffee to get charged up on the way to work, don’t let the empty cup holder go to waste. Get them a power cup inverter for $45 at Everything Battery on Packard. It’s shaped like a go-cup and designed to fit perfectly in a car’s cup holder. It plugs into the cigarette lighter and has two standard outlets and a USB charging port. Great for charging mobile phones, GPS, digital cameras, or any other AC or USB device.
Looking for sweets to stuff in stockings? Gji’s Sweet Shoppe across from Arborland has a wide selection of bulk candy like Swedish fish, Gummi bears, and jelly beans, as well as hard-to-find treats like chicken bones (a sweet concoction of molasses and peanuts rolled in coconut) and clodhoppers (graham cracker clusters coated with vanilla fudge).
If you’ve got a budding pool shark or two on your hands, help them hone their chops with the Junior Shark’s Lucky Wheel from Allstate Billiards & Patio Furniture on Washtenaw. It’s a little guiding wheel that attaches to the shaft of the pool cue and rolls toward the cue ball when you make your stroke. It helps younger players learn to keep the cue tip on the path toward the cue ball. $10.
In 2006, the Nintendo Wii game controller freed mankind from the sofa and allowed people to physically interact with their video games for the first time. This year, the Microsoft Kinect freed mankind from game controllers themselves. As the ad copy puts it, you are the game controller. Kinect uses sensors to recognize your face, listen to your voice, and capture your movements. Swing your arms like you’re swinging a bat, and (if you’re lucky) you’ll connect with the virtual ball on the screen. It works with the Xbox 360. $150 at GameStop next to Barnes & Noble on Washtenaw.
The Dixboro General Store in Dixboro on Plymouth Road has great old-fashioned Christmas tree ornaments starting at $5, along with some a little less traditional—like hockey pucks, dog bones, and, for the backyard griller on your list, a gas barbecue grill. And if you know someone who likes beer, bread, and do-it-yourself projects, Beer Bread in a Bottle covers all three. For $7, you get a big beer bottle containing all the ingredients for making traditional beer bread—just add your own beer. Which may mean picking up a bottle of someone’s favorite brew to go along with it.
The $70 Plasma car at Tree Town Toys in Traver Village is definitely one of the coolest toys around. It looks like a tricycle, but it doesn’t have pedals or gears. The Plasma car harnesses the natural forces of inertia, centrifugal force, gravity, and friction. Kids just have to jump on and, well, basically, squirm in order to roll it all over the place. And here’s a secret: it supports up to 220 pounds, so adults can ride it too. But better not let the adults know, or the kids’ll never get near it.
For runners anxious to hit the road, help them eliminate the time it takes to lace up their shoes with Yankz. It’s a lacing system using expandable cords you lace through the eyelets of your running shoes, letting you adjust the fit and then just pull a toggle to tighten the laces perfectly every time. It’s $10 at Tortoise & Hare in Traver Village. And not being a runner myself, I had no idea that men who are risk painful nipple chafing (not generally a problem for women because most wear bras when they run). Nip Guards can help. Disposable covers that adhere to your nipples to protect them, they’re $10 for a pack of ten pairs.
The I Am Not a Paper Cup thermal porcelain cup at Crown House of Gifts in Traver Village is one of the neatest gifts I found this year. It looks just like a regular white paper cup you’d get if you ordered a large coffee to go, but it’s actually a thermal porcelain cup that keeps drinks hot and fits neatly in your car’s cup holder. It even comes with a silicone I Am Not a Plastic Lid lid that says “Caution, contents hot.” Just remove it before you take your car to be detailed, or it’s likely to get pitched along with any other trash you’ve left lying around. It’s $20.
More families are discovering the togetherness fostered by bicycling together … especially if they’re riding tandems. That’s because on a tandem, Dad can’t ride ahead. Midwest Bike & Tandem on Plymouth Road in the Courtyard Shops sells tandems that range from two seats to four, and they can special-order bikes that seat even more. They don’t come cheap—two-seaters start at $1,500, but most people who buy them say the sense of togetherness it gives them is worth every penny.
Checking around town, I found a lot of great gift ideas this year. Unfortunately, so did my son, and his list is long. I warned him we were on a budget, but he just smiled inscrutably and said he’ll ask Santa for the expensive stuff. So he’s got me boxed in: do I call his bluff? Or do I pony up on the chance he still believes?
Oh, who am I kidding? He knows I won’t let Santa take the fall.