“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”
In the stereotype, indifference or ham-handed ineptitude is at the root of a man’s difficulty when it comes to the ritual of gift giving. But no one wants the reaction Homer Simpson got when, in the first season of “The Simpsons,” he gave his wife, Marge, a bowling ball — with his name etched on it — for her birthday
For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.
I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.
It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.
Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…
What if I get someone the wrong thing?
What if they hate it?
I have no idea what they’d even like!
I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.
— I was far from 14
— I have no kids or nieces of any age
— She’s your daughter, dude!
None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.
Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”
We all do, kids.
In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.
Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.
This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.
The secret of choosing a great gift?
You need to know the person well.
The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.
Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.
As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!
(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)
Long-time readers of Broadside know this is an annual tradition. I love scouring the Internet for a few lovely things you might want to give others, (or hint for for yourself!)
I don’t include gifts for children/teens, sports/outdoor gear or tech toys as they’re not my areas of expertise or interest.
The thing everyone seems to want now is a great experience — an adventure to remember, not more stuff.
What one person loves (Mozart!), another hates, so I’m reluctant to make many specific suggestions here, but I agree.
How about giving a museum membership?
A subscription series of tickets to ballet, jazz, classical concerts, a choral music series?
Gift certificates to hotels, travel, spa days?
Even offering to head out for a monthly hike or long, lazy lunch with a dear friend, and sticking to it. That’s a gift to both of you.
Prices for this year’s list range widely, as usual, but many are less than $100, and some much less than $50.
I hope you’ll find some inspiration and fun!
1. Most essential this year? Give of yourself: your time, skills, expertise, hugs. Offer a package of home-made coupons to a friend, family member or neighbor for dog-walking, massages, baby-sitting, soup-making. If the disturbing rise in hate crimes in the U.S. has you concerned, donate to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or any of the many groups fighting hard to protect civil rights.
2. The British website, Plumo, has long been a favorite of mine, offering women’s clothing, shoes and accessories — and some home-focused items. These small gray ceramic housesare perfect to hold a votive candle; imagine a miniature village on a pale linen tablecloth or lining a mantelpiece. $15.83 each (plus shipping) Also in black, $31.66 (plus shipping.) And a taller, more ornate version in olive green$19.79 (plus shipping)
3. So many people are now worn out — and, worse, misled, by fake news. We read widely, and one of our favorite reads is the London-based but utterly global in scope, the Financial Times, which we read on paper. It’s unabashedly pro-capitalist, but nonetheless smart and insightful; we keep the weekend edition for weeks on end as it takes us so long to read through and enjoy it all: book reviews, travel, recipes, wine, interviews and profiles.$4.79 week for the digital version, including the weekend FT.
As someone who also writes freelance for The New York Times, (here are 22 of my stories, a fraction of what I’ve done for them), and has for many years, I’d also urge you consider buying someone a subscription to this American/global newspaper,especially for a high school or college student, or someone who’s never read it before. Someone who really needs to grasp the crucial difference between fake news and deep, fact-based reporting. Yes, their bias is liberal. But, more than ever, (they’re soon to cut staff again), deep fact-based reporting, comment and analysis relies on — and rewards — financial support. Only $3.13 a week for the first year, doubling a year later.
4. How can you resist the two major food groups contained in this jar — cognac and butter? From Fortnum & Mason, that elegant London emporium, cognac butterto slather on a hot scone or a waffle or a pancake or…$14.95
6. Love this white and denim blue cotton rug, clean and simple, but not boring. Reminds me of sunlight on water. It would be great a in a room with lots of crisp blue and white with color hits of lemon yellow, apple green or chocolate brown. $187.95 (8 by 10 size, comes in many different sizes.)
9.My favorite bookfor anyone aspiring to making art — dance, theater, literature — “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp. She’s tough! Lots of great, practical ideas and very low woo-woo quotient. Used hardcover copy, from Powell’s in Portland. $10.50
12. Regular readers here know I’m a huge fan of using candles, all the time, in every room. This gorgeous, unusual candlestick, designed for tapers, comes in two heights. This, the lower version, is $48
14. You can never go wrong with a bud vase: perfect for a bedside table, or a grouping of them in the middle of the dining table. $8-18.
15. Nothing makes me feel more organized than a fistful of lovely sharpened pencils. Like these. $14
16. We’ve all got a nasty little umbrella we bought for $5 on a street corner when desperate one rainy day. But what a delicious luxury to own a beautiful, and beautifully-made umbrella, with a smooth but lightweight wooden handle and a wide, protective span. I love this one, (I snagged mine at a discount store version of Longchamp, in burnt orange); here in a warm creamy beige and a few other options. $195
17. I love this other French luggage brand, Lipault, and use their chocolate brown satin backpack when I travel. I really hate logos and prefer something classic and simple, yet well-made and not boring. That’s a lot to ask of a backpack, but here’s Lipault’s answer:in red, deep purple, black, turquoise or ruby, at $54.
18. Watches are still cool. I really like the simplicity of this one, suitable for a man or woman, (38 mm in diameter), with a tan webbing strap, glow in the dark hands, black face and European/military time as well. (But I confess confusion — why isn’t 2:oo p.m. marked as 1400 hours?) $110
19. My wedding earrings from Joselook just like these— I wear them everywhere, every day. These are from Neiman-Marcus, simple, clean and, yes, diamonds! $750
20. Hell to the yes! For a man. For a woman. For your teen (s). A gray sweatshirtwith one key word on it — Feminist. $20.
21. Why would anyone want to sit in total silence for days at a time? Because it will totally shift their relationship to words, action, social behavior. I did a seven-day silent retreat in the summer of 2011 and it was both challenging and life-changing. Here’s a list of six places around the U.S. to go for this experience. (It was my birthday gift from my husband.)
28. Bonjour, Monsieur! The quintessential Frenchman’s style is a muffler at the neck of a blazer, tied with rakish nonchalance.This one is on a woman’s site, but is perfectly unisex, navy blue with a thin white stripe. So chic and so damn cheap. $36
29. This season’s color is copper.This large, flat leather pouchis perfect as a small clutch handbag or (as I do with mine), for stashing my phone, charge cord and earpieces so I can find them easily, and keep them clean and organized. $88
Broadside now offers more than 1,700 published posts, many of them offering helpful tips for fellow writers and travelers.
But today’s journalists, many of us now full-time freelance, are working with the only safety nets possible, our own savings. I’m now co-chair of an all-volunteer 13-member board, an organization that offers grants — up to $4,000 within weeks — to qualified writers in financial crisis. Every penny we collect goes directly to those in need. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund!
Dash & Albert make fantastic and well-priced throw rugs in a wide assortment of colors and styles. I love this wool throw rug in tones of lavender, cream, kiwi fruit and raspberry sorbet. 3×5 size $262.00
A watch? Yes really!
Enough with staring at your phone to tell time! Bring back the pleasure of wearing an elegant watch, complete with black crocodile strap. This one is gorgeous, made in arrangement with the British Museum and sold through the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. $129.00
Now, of course, you need a lavender glazed teapot — one of 320 (!) china and metal teapot choices (from the shop we buy all our tableware from), William Ashley in Toronto. Yes, they ship domestically and to the U.S. $186.00 ($140.00 U.S.)
I love to sew and mend. Yes, very retro! If you know someone who does, they might appreciate this charming pin/needle holder, a tiny bird with a grey cotton cushion. Mothology is one of my favorite websites; roam around a bit if you like their esthetic. $22.95
These shawls from the Aran Islands of Ireland are a classic, perfect for travel and a lovely winter accessory — knit in baby alpaca and silk — in a range of neutral tones. $209 (186 euros)
These earrings! Bronze and sea-glass. $60 (Check out their entire site. Some of the most interesting jewelry I’ve seen in years.)
One of New York City’s most elegant menswear shops is Paul Stuart, founded in 1938, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th. Here are some fun socks, in several colors. I like these bright blue ones, possibly terrific spotted between a pair of dark wash denim and polished black loafers. $44.50
Readers of Broadside know how much I love to entertain and to set a beautiful table. We only use linen or cotton napkins and I have a small collection of colorful tablecloths. This company offers exquisite linen napkins, runners and tablecloths in 16 colors, from a soft red to teal to classic white, oyster and black.
You’ll have to trust me on this one. This soap! Crisp, fragrant, creamy, dreamy. Lasts for ages. $42.00 (for three)
Or a mysterious and lovely historic photo…
Fascinated by the American Civil War? Or pinhole photography? The photos made of Civil War re-enactors by our friend, the talented New York photographer Michael Falco, are truly mysterious. Like this one. Contact him for print prices.
In a world where tedious email and torrents of texts is the norm, few items are as deliciously old-school as personalized stationery, a gift I had made for my husband a few years ago. These letterpress cards, handmade in London, (but shipping worldwide), are simple but charming. $57.92 for 25 flat cards.
Eager to raise your writing or blogging game? Want to write a non-fiction book? Break into freelance writing? Ask your sweetie for an hour of my coaching. One man gave this to his delighted wife for her birthday this year. $225/hour.
Almost anyone with a laptop would appreciate a handsome leather laptop sleeve. I own this one, in tobacco color, from legendary Canadian retailer Roots. $78.00
Come on, it’s time to finally get your sweetie/son/daughter/spouse (stylishly) organized for 2015! I love my Filofax personal-size organizer in soft red leather; this one is in gorgeous electric blue leather (unisexy!) $72.45
Have you heard (of) The Hot Sardines, whose French/Canadian vocalist, Miss Liz, (and the lone woman in a band of eight), have recently released their first album? Maybe you’ve seen them perform in New York City, Toronto, London, on their national U.S. tour…? I’ve known Miss Liz for a few years and love their renditions of 1920’s and 30’s music. Check it out!
I’m writing this post under the halogen-bright pool of light cast by this extraordinary classic lamp, The Tizio, designed in 1972 by Richard Sapper. I bought mine in 1985, after many long months of sitting in the dark and saving up my money, as a young newspaper reporter with expensive taste! I’ve owned and loved it ever since then. It comes in black, white and silver, and various (less costly) sizes. Unregrettable. $395.00
They call this a make-up pouch, but it could be a pencil case, or (as I use mine for) to keep your cellphone easy to find, protected and clean from all the other junk in your purse or backpack. Silver leather, kids! (OK, also available in solid colors like red, black and purple.) $55.00
Tuck these luxuriously fragrant soap bars between your folded sheets in the linen closet, or in your suitcase or lingerie drawer– before use. Their scent is fresh and distinctive. I use and love them, Eau d’Italie. $42.00 for three
Oh, my! If you’re ready to pop the question — or have deep enough pockets to simply knock her socks off with this gorgeous and unusual diamond ring (seriously, you’ve never seen anything like it), take a gander at this, on Etsy. $2,610.00
The books, magazines, newspapers and websites you read are written — of course! — by professional writers, many of whom (like me) are full-time freelancers whose incomes can vary year to year, even month to month. No matter how hard-working, talented or experienced we are, when disaster strikes, financial mayhem can ensue. Please consider donating to the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, on whose board I serve; we send out a one-time grant, and quickly, for up to $4,000.
Shameless plug — how about an hour of fab/helpful consulting on a blog/thesis/pitches/article? That would be an hour with me, devoted to turbo-charging your ambitious writer pal’s skills for 2015 and beyond, $150.00; or a webinar, at your convenience; $125. Or a copy of my 2011 memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”?
Or this, for the literate/stylish Jane Austen fan in your life, a Pride and Prejudice book scarf. $42.00
If you live anywhere within driving distance of New York City, I know a terrific portrait photographer ready to shoot a lovely headshot or family portrait. (Yup, my husband, Pulitzer Prize winning career photographer, Jose Lopez.) Here’s a photo he shot of me last spring, which I love…
Whichever holiday you celebrate — may it be lovely, safe, warm and filled with joy!
Or these really comfortable lug-sole black patent leather loafers. Comfy, water-resistant; $99. I own them and love them!
This Turkish seasoning is the bomb! Rub it into chicken or pork. Add it to Greek yogurt. A big $3.49.
How about a meter of this amazing Liberty print cotton? Red, yellow and blue ladders designed by an award-winning film and fashion designer. From my favorite London shop, Liberty. 21 pounds; $38.85.
From one of my favorite old-school Manhattan shops, founded in 1907, Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, a pound of chocolate cinnamon coffee; $9.95. Their teas are great as well.
Here’s one of my favorite lingerie stores, in Canada, La Senza. Two of these floral push-up bras for $39.50. Deal!
I love this tight close-up color photograph of a cowboy’s tools of the trade, by a Wyoming female photographer on Etsy; $20. If you haven’t yet explored Etsy, get on over there! It’s a huge on-line marketplace of things all made by creative individuals worldwide. (I’ll be opening my site there in 2012.)
I hope, wherever you shop and whatever you buy, you give as much business as you possibly can to your local retailers, the men and women who give our cities and towns such character and style.
Be sure to say a genuine thank you!!! to the weary associates helping you. Their feet are killing them, they’re making minimum wage and no commission and working crazy-long hours. (Give the best ones a candy cane! Then tell their manager how helpful they were. That way they might get hired on after the holidays.)
Twenty more shopping days ’til Christmas. I’ve already mailed my mom’s presents and still have no clue what to get my Dad.
Here’s my alphabet of non-mall, somewhat unstandard ideas:
A: Antiques. Not everyone is as crazy about them as I, but this time of year there are antique shows all over the country, from small, affordable local shows to the glossiest, vetted international events. If someone you love is a collector — of magnifying glasses, or walking sticks or majolica or Depression glass, an antique show is a fun, efficient place to find all sorts of good things and high-quality surprises. Auctions: again, many smaller, regional auction houses have extremely affordable possibilities, much of it viewable on-line and biddable by phone or email, from crystal decanters to prints. One of my favorites, William Smith, recently offered lovely 200+ year-old Japanese woodblocks, some estimated as low as $150 apiece. Alpaca: is light, warm, lovely change from cashmere. One of my favorite sources with sweaters and shawls of alpaca is the 33-year-old company Peruvian Connection.
Baked Goods. If you can afford a loaf pan, some flour, eggs, sugar and fruit, you can make banana, lemon or cranberry loaves. They’re quick, easy and delicious. Delicate cookies are impressive indeed, but anything home-made with love (and some skill!) is a treat.
Charity: For the person who already has everything, make a donation in their name. Camera: My sweetie, a professional photographer, gave me the Canon G7 Power Shot, a tiny digital camera that fits in the palm of my hand and takes fantastic images. I started my career shooting with Nikons. This is just as good — I’ve sold my images shot with it to The New York Times and Toronto Star, so far.
Duvet: It’s a European thing, but the best! Not cheap, but a great lifetime luxury. Light, warm, comfortable year-round. Cuddledown has good choices.
Elephants: I love elephants. I even rode one in Thailand, best travel experience ever. Here’s a great list of terrific non-fiction books about these creatures. If you don’t know and love the 78-year-old children’s storybook classic Babar, about an elephant family, check it out.
Fountain pen. I know, some people think they’re pretentious. Nuts. Using my Lamy makes even writing out my quarterly tax payments a little less painful. Filofax. Equally old school, equally elegant and sensual way to stay organized. Mine is a decade old, fuchsia leather. I love all its accessories — yeah, pre-Iphone apps — like a ruler in metric and Imperial, map of the world with time zones, NYC subway map and notepaper for jotting down random ideas.
Glasses. Champagne flutes, martini glasses, fun juice glasses. Crystal or glass, antique or new. I like these, with bees embossed in them.
Hermes scarf. Oh, go on. $300. Gorgeous. Their silk twill has a lovely crispness and feels like no other. The patterns can be spectacular and come in wonderful color combinations. Their site has perfume (Caleche is a crisp classic), men’s and even baby gifts.The orange box is heaven and so is the chocolate brown twill ribbon printed with their name; I wear an antique locket on mine.
Isamo Noguchi lamp. I love his simple, quirky white paper lamps, like this one, at $105.
Kitchen timer. Boring? Not if you have a crummy old stove or oven and/or you do a lot of cooking. Helpful to have several to coordinate the chaos at dinner party time. Affordable, cute, stocking stuffer: chickens or cow, $7.99 each.
Massage. Give one, get one. Or give a gift certificate for one.
Notecards. I’m crazy for beautiful stationery and recently discovered this great national chain, Paper Source.How about a set of personalized cards?A nice touch for all those thank-yous you have to send out while job-hunting.
Soap. Few affordable presents beat a hard-milled, long-lasting (like a month) fragrant bar of soap. Here’s all-natural, woman-owned Sarva soaps. Sephora carries Fresh soaps, $14 each, and anything by Roger & Gallet, three to a box, is a do-able luxury at about $16.
Toile de Jouy. (Twal de Jwee, for the non-Francophiles!) This is one of my favorite things in the whole world, a fabric design that dates back centuries. Pottery Barn has lovely cosmetic bags, two for $36, as well as bed linens and shower curtains, in this pattern.
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:
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.)
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?