"It's so much more memorable to have something physical and hand-made," she said.
It was this fascination with the hand-made that inspired Willis — a former graphic designer — to start her own antique letterpress printing business, aptly titled "Missive," in 2008.
Using a trio of antique letterpress machines — including a 100-year old, 2,000-pound behemoth — she prints and sells personalized stationery, art prints and invitations. Her collection includes greeting cards for various occasions: from holiday cards with vintage fonts printed on 100 percent soft cotton paper to "just because" cards made of recycled kraft paper.
"It's completely custom-made, but there's also a collection of items on our website that can be personalized with font, color, etc.," Willis said.
"In the past, for letterpress, everything had to be typeset," Willis explained. "Nowadays, it is more flexible. Any design you draw up can be made into a printing plate."
What started as a creative outlet from her corporate job soon turned into a "family thing," with her software-engineer husband pitching in to manage their Treasure Island studio, while she works on the designs at her Palo Alto home.
Letterpress printing appealed to Willis because the products were "beautiful and hand-made, as opposed to everything you see today that's just digital, done really quickly and missing that hand-made element," she said.
In the last few years, Willis has seen many such letterpress studios crop up across the country, reflecting a growing trend in holiday shopping towards hand-made and personalized rather than "mass-produced," she said.
"People are starting to look for something that is made with care."
With off-the-shelf gifts a dime a dozen at every store, simply adding a name, a date or a special message to a holiday gift will make it unique.
"The fact that you took the time to personalize it makes it special," Colin Jenkins, owner of gift store Occasions, Etc., said. "There's an old saying in this business: 'If you put somebody's name on something, they'll never throw it away.'"
Jenkins' Menlo Park store sells personalized gifts for all occasions — "from cradle to grave," as he put it. His wife, Carrie, initially made and sold engraved sports trophies out of their home, 20 years ago.
Although plaques and trophies still occupy a corner of the downtown store, holiday best-sellers fill the front: newborn baby T-shirts that spell out "iPoo'd" and "Googoo," "First Christmas" photo frames for new parents, custom-embroidered holiday stockings and jewelry boxes engraved with memorable dates.
"We even bronzed a bagel for someone once because it was a special thing between her and her brother," Jenkins said.
Most of the engraving, embroidery and printing is done at the store, and gifts are usually ready for pick-up in three to four days.
"That time increases as we get closer to the holidays, of course," he said.
Select items such as kitchen and glassware can also be found at stores such as Beau-coup Favors in Mountain View or Emily Joubert in Woodside, while Letter Perfect in Palo Alto and Paperwhirl in Los Altos offer custom printing options for holiday cards.
For someone with a bigger holiday budget, getting customized jewelry is another option.
Lockets, charm bracelets, pendants — most jewelry can be set to a specific design or color, or engraved with names and dates, according to Carol Young, jeweler at Darren McClung Jewelry on Welch Road, Stanford.
"We recently had someone get a custom-made bypass ring set with his children's birthstones for his wife," she said.
For smaller items — stationery, smartphone cases, bookmarks and such — Cranberry Scoop in Menlo Park has a few offerings.
Planning and ordering ahead — months in advance, sometimes — are needed as personalizing gifts can take anywhere from three days for apparel to six weeks for custom jewelry, depending on the type and design.
"We have clients who have already done their Christmas shopping by now, but we also have some come in on Dec. 19," Molly Gibbons, co-owner of Palo Alto monogram store Bespoke Home, said. "We try to accommodate everyone, but the earlier they come, the better."
Gibbons' Town and Country Village store — co-owned by friend Abby Durban — stocks a wide range of home wares and gifts that can be monogrammed or customized: from $20 terry beach towels to $1,295 Italian briarwood poker sets.
"We have everything from napkins, tote bags, towels, bath items and bedding to little baby accessories and silverware. Anything that's in the store can be monogrammed," Gibbons said.
Gibbons and Durban opened Bespoke Home two years ago, after they moved to the Bay Area after living in London and New York and "didn't find many places to buy fun and interesting gifts."
Bespoke Home's customers want to give their loved ones gifts that are "special and memorable," Gibbons said. "We have people walking in with Excel spreadsheets now, shopping for the holidays."
"Most people know what they are looking for," Jenkins, of Occasions, Etc., said. He has, however, seen his share of customers from the other end of the spectrum, too.
"A lot of the time, people just come in, pick something and go, 'Hey, this will work.' It's kind of sad," he said. "Anything personalized is special, and all it takes is two trips: You have to come in and order, and then come and get it."
Local stores with personalized gift options
Cards and stationery
Apparel, photo frames, trophies
Home and kitchenware