The stores — from a high-end women's boutique to a shop that offers local artisans' works — donate their profits to charity, allowing customers to buy items while also helping those less fortunate.
Barbara Bartlett of Woodside recently stopped by the United Nations Association Gift Shop in downtown Palo Alto, as she does every holiday season. There, she browsed for gifts among the items largely made by Third World craftspeople as well as boxes of UNICEF holiday cards.
"It's a wonderful organization — saving the children," Bartlett said as she checked out.
At the Emerson Street store, a display of sturdy hand-woven baskets by Namibian women greets customers on one shelf, while brightly colored animals, carved and painted by Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, fairly leap off another.
Each product seems to have a story. Aprons and perfume sachets were sewn and embroidered by mothers of disabled children in Zimbabwe, whose communities have shunned them. Villagers living near the Tian Shan mountain range in Kyrgyzstan turned to making felted ornaments when local factories shut down.
Felt-making is considered an ancient art in Central Asia, and the craftspeople have long used wool as part of building their yurts, said Shelly Koska, a volunteer buyer and manager for the gift shop. The store purchases the ornaments from a nonprofit that helps distribute the villagers' products around the world.
In addition to supporting craftspeople by carrying their work, the gift shop donates part of its proceeds to UNICEF and part to the local United Nations Association chapter, which hosts educational events, such as the annual United Nations Association Film Festival.
The store is managed by volunteers.
Closer to home, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital benefits from sales at the Artisan Shop in Menlo Park's Allied Arts Guild.
Housed in a historic Spanish Colonial complex on Arbor Road, where photographer Ansel Adams once had a studio, the Artisan Shop sells a variety of items. They include handmade pieces by a few dozen professional artisans and guild members; retail items ordered by the store's buyers; and donated vintage, collectible, and crystal goods, of which 100 percent of sales revenue go to the hospital, according to store volunteers.
This month, along with scarves, baby clothes, jewelry, dinnerware, art and more that the shop normally stocks, Christmas merchandise fills the shelves.
One "signature" item, carried every year, is a hand-knit Christmas stocking, said shop volunteer Marion Goodkind. The wool stockings were first made about 15 years ago by a member of the guild, a mother, and the work has since expanded to her daughter and friends.
Goodkind recently picked up a $60 green, red and white stocking adorned with a fuzzy-bearded Santa.
"You can't find this anywhere," Goodkind said, cradling it in her hands. "It's a labor of love."
Ceramic artist Lee Middleman of Portola Valley stopped by to drop off some of his vases.
"It's a real nice feeling," he said of the fact that store profits are donated to the children's hospital. "It's a good, synergistic thing. I make lower-priced work (for the shop), priced so it will sell."
Middleman's recent works — elegantly rounded vases that had been precisely glazed — were priced in the $70 and $110 range.
"The benefit to me is in the exposure," he said, adding that people have told him they first saw his work at Allied Arts.
Running a store that benefits a nonprofit — and staffed by volunteers — can be challenging, said Tita Kolozsi, a volunteer and a ceramic artist whose works are displayed at the shop.
"It's not easy for any kind of artisan shop nowadays to stay in business," Koloszi said.
Shop director Elaine Scotten relies on four volunteers who work full-time and 18 volunteers who take shifts at the store each week. The shop donated about $30,000 to the children's hospital this past year, she said.
At Town & Country Village shopping center in Palo Alto, the boutique In Her Shoes looks like any other shop for the well-heeled, with high-end merchandise and spacious, well-lit displays. And it is, except that its profits go to the Global Fund for Women, a grant-making foundation that invests in women-led organizations worldwide.
Most customers don't even realize the store is a nonprofit, one salesclerk said. Its mission is not announced to shoppers, save for a display about the Global Fund along one wall.
Among the merchandise sold at In Her Shoes are Anyi Lu pumps, handmade in Italy. The shoes — in chocolate, taupe, gold and leopard print — cost about the same as at other retailers, up to $425.
There are also Frye leather boots, priced in the $300-$500 range, Skechers flats, and rhinestone-encrusted silver sandals by Vera Wang Lavender.
A black cashmere hoodie with grey knit lining by OATS retails for $150.
Some brands, including Frye boots, discount the price of their merchandise to In Her Shoes, in order to boost the amount that is donated to the Global Fund, according to the fund's website.
Pamela Rosekrans originally launched the venture in downtown Palo Alto in 2006. She takes no salary herself, the website stated.
Other retail avenues for benefiting charity this holiday season include numerous second-hand shops that support local nonprofits. For-profit stores also are hosting one-time events, such as a Dec. 3 art show and sale at Gitane in Town & Country Village, which will benefit the Global Fund for Women.