Best/Worst Presents Ever — And A Few Ideas

Presents Under the Tree
Image by di_the_huntress via Flickr

As most of us, eagerly or reluctantly — (I love buying presents!) — start holiday shopping, if you work retail you can feel the gift anxiety level rising, like a low-grade hum in the background.

In my part-time retail job, I see this panicked insanity launch like some toxic stink bomb on Black Friday. By Christmas Eve, the last refuge of the utterly disorganized or desperate, people are almost vibrating with stress over whether their presents will find favor. I literally had a guy come in last year, Greenwich-elegant, and start pawing through the racks in a fugue state of frustration. “Can I help?” I asked.

“I need a present for a pain in the ass!” he spat. Poor bugger. I calmed him down, found him something and watched his shoulders drop with profound relief.

Some people, sadly, are almost impossible to buy for: fussy, spoiled, eccentric, unfocused tastes, already have everything. Which is why so many of us love to give, and get, cash.

The secret to the absolutely best gifts — within reasonable range (i.e. not a Mercedes) — is finding out what your recipient is utterly passionate about, no matter how obscure. What color(s) do they love or hate? Allergic to wool? A huge fan of motets or Chinese calligraphy? People who know me well know I am mad for Paris, so almost anything with a French or Parisian theme would be welcome. Ditto lush cashmere.

A lukewarm gift radiates blah, boring, I-couldn’t-be-bothered. Avoid whenever possible. Few gifts are as precious as someone paying careful attention to what you most crave and maybe can’t even say out loud. (Maybe, for a worn-out new Mom or Dad, a months’ worth of free babysitting or housecleaning services, from you or a service.) The very best presents often don’t come from any store or wrapped in a box.

Here are (I think) a few fail-safes for many adults, all available through on-line resources:

gorgeous soap (Roger & Gallet, Fresh, Lafco); thick towels (Williams-Sonoma), lovely linen or cotton napkins (Pottery Barn, Anthropologie and Sferra always have good options); fantastic cheese/condiments/chocolates/cookies (Crate & Barrel’s peppermint bark); a fabulous cookbook or coffee table book on a topic they adore; really good wool or cashmere socks.

My go-to bargain choice? Buy a bag of lavender ($10 or so), some vintage or antique fabric and a needle and thread — whip up some home-made sachets people can tuck in their linen closets, suitcases or drawers. But I’m obsessive enough I already have those things in my home, ready to go.

Here’s are some presents that, over the years, truly gladdened my heart:

Best

An antique Japanese chest with mirror, gray pearl earrings, Times Atlas of The World, skis, boots, poles, a new toaster and colander when I was really broke, a fuchsia leather Filofax (still going strong after 10 years), a gift certificate for Sephora, gift certificate for Saks, gift certificate for Barnes & Noble and one for Posman Books (a great New York city independent bookstore.)

Worst

Anything that said “not for individual resale”, books clearly off the remainder table, snowshoes (perfect for someone else, I know.)

What’s the loveliest or most thoughtful gift you ever received? Or gave? The worst?

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