WHEN IT COMES to shopping, I take a middling position. I love giving gifts, but I detest the sifting, the foraging, the wracking through racks. Buying must be done all at once and quickly.
My shopping inadequacies, though, are never more exposed than in the green and red glare of twinkling holiday lights. I don’t navigate department stores well, and fluorescent lights make me look sickly. Add the fact that I’m ecologically fussy and squander precious moments reciting the holiday catechism: Does this beauty product burn up valuable ozone? Were any animals harmed in the making of this video? Recyclable or landfill-bound? Cottage industry or sweatshop labor?
While eco-consciousness isn’t quite second nature yet, manufacturers have realized green begets green. Merchandise has evolved from frumpy old macram purses and skin-sloughing sweaters in shades of manure brown or compost yellow. These days, it is possible to give world-friendly, environmentally sensitive and just plain cool gifts that make both the giver and receiver feel good.
Best yet, some stores do the sifting for you, so you don’t have to stand there trying to read behind the marketing euphemisms. The season of joy shouldn’t just be between giver and receiver, but the hard-working creator, the honest middleman and the sincere retailer. Sounds like a yuletide fantasy? Not with our recommendations.
As seen on TV
Yes, it’s corporate. Yes, it’s a chain. The mission of the Discovery Channel, though, has always been one of education, of bringing the world to the people, and its stores carry out that objective on a take-home, hands-on basis.
What better way to see one’s place in the world and universe than through a telescope, from the $79.95, 50-milliliter model to the $3,150 whopper which lets you see 6,500 celestial objects.
Start an insect sect with farm-raised bugs and butterflies captured by rainforest inhabitants and mounted in plexiglass boxes ($16-$175). The critters come from places like Malaysia and New Guinea, and the plastic encasing may convince queasier parents to give in to the kids’ urgings for a giant tarantula. Fountains, aromatherapy candles and Raku pottery pieces make retail bedfellows with pajamas and World War II bomber jacket replicas. Of course, then there’s the Discovery Channel videos that make mind games worth playing.
Discovery Channel Store, 1236 Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, 925-935-9556. Open holiday hours 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 24. Stoneridge mall, Pleasanton, 925-416-0107. Open holiday hours 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays.
Around the world in less than 80 minutes
Talk about one-stop shopping: A single Global Exchange spree can help preserve Aymara Indian-weaving traditions and fund a disabled person’s training in Bombay. This human rights nonprofit organization has two Bay Area outlets, both of which are part of the international Fair Trade movement. No child labor, no sweatshop labor, and the producers of the goods sold get an approximately 15-30 percent share of the retail price.
So what does this strategy net? How about a Thai scrapbook made of recycled paper and cotton interwoven with flowers and banana fronds ($52)? Help an executive weed out the mess on his or her desk with organizers made from Brazilian vines. Instead of chopping down the tree, makers cut down the vine and make boxes, pencil holders, frames and mirrors.
Beanie Babies just can’t compare with the multihued turtles, hippos and donut slugs ($12-$44), made in a Sri Lankan cooperative, in bright colors courtesy of Swiss ecologically sound dyes. The South African mobile ($28-$45) dangles ceramic handpainted and beaded fish, snakes and dogs with a Keith Haring-like flair. Goods range from a $1 Guatemala friendship bracelet to a $150 Haitian iron metal oil drum sculpture mirror.
Global Exchange: 2840 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-0370, www.globalexchange.org. Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. 4018 24th St., San Francisco, 415-648-8068, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.
Store most likely to make you want to bargain higher
Indonesian candleholders depicting free-form, free-spirited couples for $17-$22? Russian nesting dolls for $9-$50? Sarongs for $17-$20? You practically want to beg the tiny UNA-UNICEF store to raise its prices. Sure, you’re supporting the United Nations Children’s Fund, but you would have paid more in a department store or gallery.
UNICEF goes beyond greeting cards, although this amply stocked, small retail outlet sells those as well. Those who hate to wrap or, worse yet, who hate to watch others unwrap can buy $5 American Indian dreamcatcher earrings, enclose it in an El Salvadoran handpainted box ($9-$20), attach a UNICEF card and go. Or, wrap up the Italian melamine serving trays ($4-$20) with Irish tea towels ($12) or stuff those sarongs in Guatemalan or Turkish purses $22-$30.
Incidentally, the volunteer staff means no aggressive salesclerk ambush, reason enough to go.
UNA-UNICEF, Gift and Information Center, 1798 Shattuck St., Berkeley, 510-849-1752. Open Mondays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Princess and the organic pea
Sleep easy knowing your gift recipient will loll happily on buckwheat hull sleep pillows ($40) or organic bedding from Earthsake. This store offers stuff that’s alternative and natural the upscale way, from a terry velour bathrobe made in Turkey ($86) to bedroom furniture. Local artisans sell their wares here, like the Carhood Critters dog or cat sculptures crafted from automobile parts ($28) or the Buddha tabletop fountain ($105).
That standby of gift soaps gets sophisticated with triple-milled soaps made of vegetable oils and botanical essences harvested in Provence ($9.50). Pictures may yap a thousand words, but magic stones ($12) need only one. Icons or words like “compassion” are hand-etched onto small glass stones; give it as a gift or tie it as an innovative gift tag.
Earthsake not only searches for manufacturers who don’t employ child or sweatshop labor, they donate a portion of after-tax profits to community-based organizations.
Earthsake, 1772 4th St., Berkeley, 510-559-8440, www.earthsake.com. Open holiday hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Also locations at 2076 Chestnut St. and 1 Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and in Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Corte Madera.
Where old rubber baby buggy bumpers go to retire
If baby buggy bumpers still existed, Used Rubber U.S.A. would recycle them. More often, the store reclaims rubber from inner tubes and turns it into wallets, belts and daily planners ($15-$100). The company’s latest rescue is a rubber backdrop used for photo shoots, so for a limited time, differently colored placemats ($12) or coasters ($1) will be available.
The Berkeley and San Francisco stores also carry merchandise made from remnants of computers, bicycles and glass. Invite a friend to pop a top with a bottle opener made from bicycle chains and gear sprockets ($12), then pour into drinking glasses made from wine and beer bottles with their heads lopped off and polished ($8-$9 each). The well-dressed gent silently reveals he is a man of words with his typewriter keys cuff links ($40/pair).
Used Rubber USA, 2500 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-644-8339. Open noon-7 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays, noon-6 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays. Also at 597 Haight St., San Francisco, 415-626-7855, . Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; call for additional holiday hours.
Truth in advertising
Feel the sun in your laptop’s portable energy system ($369), breathe in the wind from your air purifiers and flush the water in your composting toilet.
With jewelry, toys, bath and kitchen items, the self-proclaimed “country store of the future, ” Real Goods is much more than a place to pick up hardware. Hemp is everywhere, from purses to shower curtains to button-front shirts. Tea drinkers will appreciate putting the cordless electric kettle ($59.95) next to the plug-hogging office coffee pot. If couches can be inflatable, why not a portable solar hot tub? It’s $249, catalog only, but you can order in store.
Seller of the season: the Affirmation station alarm clock $99.95, which lets you rouse the gift recipient up with your own tender vocals (“WAKEY WAKEY!”). A less alarming alarm clock is Zen, which gently chimes a little louder each time to escort you from your alpha ($109). The ultimately timely gift for under $10: “Disaster Preparedness: A Resource Guide for Y2K and Beyond, ” a booklet for dealing with the year 2000 computer bug ($5.95).
Real Goods and Real Goods Outlet, 1324 10th St., Berkeley, 510-558-0700, www.realgoods.com, other locations in Hopland and Eugene, Ore. Open holiday hours 9 a.m.-6 p.m. today and Dec. 20, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 7-11, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Dec. 14-19, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 12-22, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 23-24.
Your friends and family will genuflect more easily, thanks to your thoughtful gift. The Chi Pants store offering pants with the diamond gusset is back. That extra cloth strip makes wedgies obsolete and, as the staff puts it “allows chi energy to flow in your body.”
While the prototype can be traced as far back as the 12th century, when warriors in the Far East needed some comfortable pantswear beneath their inflexible armor, modern clothing history was made when a woman gave Laurence Ostrow and his first wife some pants. It had the extra cloth at the ankles for that bell-bottom look, but more importantly, it had that extra cloth in the, er, inseam.
The 1989 earthquake succeeded in shutting down the store’s retail presence in Santa Cruz and Berkeley, but it didn’t stop the pants from selling on the Internet the last three years to its loyal following. This past summer, a physical retail presence returned. Made of cotton, organic cotton or hemp, the pants and jeans range from $49-$72. Other items include T-shirts ($16), shirts ($45), hemp and cotton jackets ($95), shorts ($39-$49) and hemp hats ($16).
Chi Pants, 148 Townsend St., San Francisco, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 415-512-9153, www.chipants.com.. Other location in Santa Clara. One-hour validated parking available at PCI lot between Third and Fourth streets on Townsend Street.
If the Velveteen Rabbit wanted immortality
The Velveteen Rabbit could have lived forever with the Re-lovables lifetime guarantee. Then again, it would have been the cotton patchwork rabbit, which probably would have made for a different story altogether.
Local artisans make child-safe bears at this Sunset District manufacturing center, now two years old. Its flagship bear, Baby Bear, measures just nine inches tall. His (or her) latest buddy to join the handmade assembly line is the tie-dyed bear.
Besides products of an ursine nature, Re-lovables sells baby quilts and aprons for children and adults. Everything falls within the $15-$41 range, except for the do-it-yourself bears for $7.50-$9.50. Made in America of reclaimed fabrics, with a lifetime warranty, they stand as proof they do make them like they used to.
Re-lovables: 2636 Judah St., San Francisco, 888-664-7402, www.relovables.com. Open Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday-Sunday noon-6 p.m., closed Dec. 4-6.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features