The Great Recession is apparently over, at least according to economists, but that doesn't necessarily mean anyone's feeling quite ready to return to conspicuous consumption. Besides, provided you didn't lose your house or your job, there was something sort of backwardly nice about not having the means to just run out and buy whatever was easiest: It forced us to seek out interesting and creative ways to make our loved ones happy and find gifts that were truly worth our hard-earned cash. Regardless of what the experts are saying, keep that spirit alive. The East Bay is positively brimming with stores selling unique, affordable gifts, and buying local is, as ever, a much better investment than patronizing big boxes. Here, ten stores and artisans worth your money:
Allan Ayres Photography
By day, Allan Ayres works at the Lawrence Hall of Science, but his extracurricular activities are decidedly right-brained: Ayres is one of the East Bay's most prolific — and talented — amateur photographers, having perfected a composite-layer technique that allows him to create haunting, evocative photographs, mostly of various elements of East Bay urban life. They're creative enough to impress art buffs, but plainly beautiful enough for everyone else. Ayres' work is available on his web site, and his series of photos from the Port of Oakland is currently being sold at Modern Mouse (2228 South Shore Center, Unit A, Alameda).
Good stationery is surprisingly hard to find: All too often, it's either greeting-card-aisle generic, overly formal, or hit-you-over the head design-y. Enter Oakland-based ByLee, a design and brand-strategy firm with a side business in creating cards and other paper products that manage to be modern-looking and design-forward without being cutesy. Available at various stores in the East Bay, including Twig and Fig (2110 Vine St., Berkeley) and the Oakland Museum of California Gift Shop (1000 Oak St., Oakland).
10562 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-528-5210; Miyoko Mall, San Francisco, 415-409-0472; 1150 El Camino Real # 164, San Bruno, 650-244-9920. IchibanKanUSA.com
When the Japanese import company Ichiban Kan shut down its web operations last year, the outcry seemed to come from all corners of the Internet. But what was a blow for far-flung Bento box collectors and lovers of Japanese kitsch was a blessing in disguise for those of us lucky enough to live near Ichiban's three Bay Area locations, because going to the brick-and-mortar store is so much fun. Sure, the aisles are narrow and the displays disorganized, but what Ichiban lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in having damn near everything you never knew you needed: off-brand tupperware in hard-to-find sizes, tiny fruit-shaped pencil erasers, every weird flavor of Pocky imaginable. It's all also absurdly cheap — you'd be hard-pressed to find anything over $5 here — making buyer's remorse basically impossible.
June Taylor Fruit Products
The Still Room, 2207 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-548-2236, JuneTaylorJams.com
As gifts go, food is basically foolproof, and especially when it's made as well and packaged as prettily as June Taylor's. The Berkeley-based artisan chef uses organic, locally farmed rare fruit, homegrown herbs, and old-world techniques to make jams, preserves, and syrups that are unique and entirely unlike anything you'd ever find at a grocery store: think pluot-sage fruit butter ($14), Meyer lemon-and-myrtle marmalade ($14), and a collection of syrups in flavors like wild fennel, spiced blackcurrant, and blood orange ($16). Find it at various specialty-food shops in Oakland and Berkeley, the San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market (1 Ferry Building Plaza, San Francisco), or Taylor's own shop.
Nathan and Co.
4025 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-428-9638, NathanandCo.com
The problem with gift shops is that they suck you in: You stop by intending to grab something and leave, and then three hours later you find yourself marveling at yet more trinkets and tchotchkes. Don't be fooled by Nathan and Co.'s unassuming Piedmont Avenue storefront: This place is seductive. Be ready to get sucked in, and you may emerge with kids' stuff, cute home furnishings, accessories, and more for everyone on your list.
1 By Liz
Everyone needs a clock, so why not make it a pretty one? Oakland-based designer Liz Dickey uses old bicycle gears and reclaimed textiles to create clocks (as well as magnets, ornaments, and other knickknacks) that are as unique as they are attractive. Perfect for bike enthusiasts, as well as anyone who can appreciate inventive design. Dickey's Etsy shop contains all of her newest work; she'll also be at the Holiday Bazaar at Namaste Yoga (5416 College Ave., Oakland) on Dec. 3, 7 p.m.-9 p.m.
1167 65th St., Oakland, ProfessorSquirrel.com
Professor Squirrel bills itself as "an emporium of fascinating artifacts and delightful objects," and it certainly delivers. The tiny shop, which is tucked inside Compound Gallery, carries a mix of vintage and new home furnishings, accessories, and more. The professor — actually a collective of local artisans and designers — appears to have a taste for the twee, whether it's a self-proclaimed "old-timey letter kit" ($14) or a tea towel hand-printed with the image of a spindly little bicycle ($9). But the real draw here is the weirder, artier, more quietly surreal stuff, like San Francisco artist Michael McConnell's utterly arresting graphite-and-watercolor drawing of what appears to be a little girl with the head of a water buffalo ($35).
The Girl and Rhino
Nobody doesn't like a good funny T-shirt, and The Girl and the Rhino's are among the best. The Oakland-based indie designer — also known as Adam Boroian — uses comfortable, cotton American Apparel tees, hoodies, and onesies, onto which he screens graphic-looking drawings and unusually witty, referential slogans (recent designs riff on Magritte's pipe, The Velvet Underground's famous banana, and Gavin Newsom's good looks). Available at markets and street fairs throughout the area, or online.
Treehouse Green Gifts
2935 College Ave., Oakland, 510- 204-9292, TreehouseGreenGifts.com
When it comes to apparel, accessories, and home decor, "green" can sometimes conjure up images of shapeless linen tunics and raw-hemp jewelry, but Treehouse Green Gifts proves that eco-friendly doesn't have to be ugly. Sure, everything's recycled, handmade, organic, fair-trade, or some combination of the above, but most of it is also so surprisingly modern you'll forget it's good for the planet.
3339 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland. 510-419-0451, UrbanIndigo.com
No matter what your price point or intended audience, you'll be able to find something at Urban Indigo, where owner Cynthia Bragdon has curated an amazingly well-edited collection of design-minded home furnishings, jewelry, toys, and more. Pick up a Spanish-language Bingo set ($10); a sextet of brightly colored cappuccino mugs ($26); a pair of gold-plated earrings, hand-brushed with love by local designer Zina Kao ($34); or one of the store's most popular items, an illustrated map of Oakland with cheerful, cartoony icons for each neighborhood ($12.50).