Go-to gifts | December 9, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- December 9, 2011

Go-to gifts

Basic yet thoughtful presents to have on hand

by Casey Moore

With the arrival of the holiday season comes the flurry of planning and purchasing presents for everyone on your list. But when the unexpected happens — an office Secret Santa, new acquaintance, distant cousin or surprise holiday guest suddenly turns up — even the most creative gift-givers might need some backup.

Non-specific yet classy gifts can be kept on hand to please a range of people and preferences. Local stores stock their shelves with a variety of options to bring cheer to every newfound friend and reconnected relative:

Hand-crafted heartwood boxes, made in Washington state and designed from woods such as cherry, maple and teak, are among the most popular offerings at Shady Lane in downtown Palo Alto. Designs include the trademark "puzzle boxes," which remain locked unless opened by a unique series of taps and twists. Other styles, from small sliding-top "secret boxes" to multi-drawer jewelry boxes, can hold collections of trinkets beneath their custom laser-etched lids.

For a present that would make an impression, Shady Lane carries decorative containers that can be given alone or used to package smaller gifts. The metal-framed blue-glass boxes appear decidedly feminine, while the striped onyx jars and vases could please either gender. Paired with a few smaller items — like a heartwood bookmark or decorative blown-glass paperweight — the containers could charm the mother or father of a significant other.

As a more specialized option, Kepler's Books in Menlo Park carries — you guessed it — an array of books. Each of the store's employees specializes in specific genres, everything from mysteries to fine art and photography to science to children's books. The staff provides personalized recommendations upon request.

"Say your 83-year-old great uncle comes to visit," said floor manager Nancy Salmon, herself a specialist of fiction and biographies. "I'll usually ask: What are his interests? What kinds of things does he like to do?"

For bibliophiles, Kepler's carries Mudlark "book lovers" sets, complete with miniature notebook, magnetic page markers, bookplates (or name labels) and bookmarks.

But the store is not limited by its name. Bosses or recent graduates might appreciate the old-fashioned fountain pen collection, while crossword fanatics would appreciate the famous Seven Year Pen or the Puzzle Pen, which erases when used on newsprint.

Looking for something generic yet tasteful (no pun intended)? Gift baskets, such as those offered at Draeger's Markets in Los Altos and Menlo Park, come prepackaged with an assortment of goodies to please any palate. Holiday varieties include the "Epicurean Holiday" — complete with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, imported pastas, specialty meats and Amarettini Italian cookies — and the "Holiday Snack," with truffle almonds, popcorn, candies, cookies and chocolates.

As a more classically feminine option, the store designs holiday-themed floral arrangements, along with their year-round offerings of potted hydrangeas, orchids, parade roses and azaleas. Draeger's edible selections include fine chocolates, olive oils and wines recommended by the wine specialist-in-residence.

These top-quality specialties are "things that people don't just go out and buy for themselves," said Ron Piazza, Los Altos store manager.

Aspiring chefs or masters of the barbecue may enjoy a bottle of Palo Alto Fire Fighters Pepper Sauce, sold at the University Art Annex in Palo Alto. The condiment was originally an experiment run by Palo Alto firefighter Lee Taylor, who concocted a sauce from peppers grown behind Palo Alto Fire Station 5. Today, the sauce is bottled professionally and sold all over the country, with proceeds going to various charities and scholarships for local high school students.

The spicy sauce is often purchased with a set of screen-printed cotton dish towels, "one of our tried-and-true" gift suggestions for both men and women, said Tina Ford, store manager of the Annex. Hand-towel designs include a pepper medley, garden vegetables, fall leaves, trees and colorful blooms.

For nature lovers, check out the shop's Juniper Ridge potpourri sachets, small drawstring bags containing fragrant and sustainably harvested native Western plants like Siskiyou Cedar, Big Sur Sage and the seasonal Christmas Fir. One customer, Ford said, gifted the sachets together with the Annex's decorative plant pot holders, which are made of burlap and insulated with waterproof plastic.

Got a free spirit or eccentric relative on your list? Therapy of Mountain View carries a collection of quirky knick-knacks, such as the centipede-shaped silicone ice-cube tray, mustache mirror clings and penguin bottle-opener. The eclectic offerings could charm a young adult or perfectly suit a high-spirited white-elephant gift exchange.

For those who simply long for the return of spring, Therapy carries branches of garden lights in varieties such as amber plum tree, green plum tree and pussy willow. The tiny bulbs can illuminate both the interior and exterior of the home to bring aesthetic pleasure and brightness to an otherwise dark winter night.

Another option is the shop's soy based candles and gift sets, with subtle scents ranging from fresh cade wood to goji and tarocco. Each candle contains an extra plus: Its brightly-colored aluminum canister can be reused after the candle quits burning.


Posted by Joanne, a resident of another community
on Dec 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Washington-made boxes going on my Wish List. Great article!

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2011 at 11:10 am

Thank you for this article w/these great suggestions. I love Shady Lane & have shopping there since I was a kid. Kepler's, The Art Annex & Therapy are also great places to get gifts.

I'd like to mention Opalz in Midtown Palo Alto, on the opposite side of the small shopping center where Starbucks is. It offers skin care products such as wonderful soaps as well as classes in soap, bath product & perfume making. You can get adult & girl kid gifts there at reasonable prices. I recently purchased a hostess gift there that they happily wrapped at no additional cost.

I've hung onto quirky, well-made gifts through the years - wine stoppers, cheese knives, bookmarks, pillboxes - that came from stores like these.

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