(Close to the) last-minute gift guide

Our editors’ suggestions on knocking out your Holiday list

Photo By Tom Angel

This is our last offer of the year to help to get you through the holiday gift-buying frenzy. And if you’re like us you still have a way to go. What follows are suggestions of where you can go, along with a guide to the all-purpose perennial favorite, the gift-certificate.

But enough already; you’ve got some shopping to do. So study the following; heck pull it out of the paper, fold it up, put it in your pocket and take it with you on what should be your final excursion of the year. (Except for the one where you make all those returns.)

Green holiday
Planting an idea for the gift-giving season

I’ve been studying the holiday gift season seriously since I was a little girl, and I learned at an early age that the best part of the holiday season is getting gifts. Enough with the idea of being selfless and generous. When I give gifts, it needs to be all about me. So I give gifts that I know will somehow benefit me, if not now, then at least in the future.

Furthermore I give people things I think they should have, rather than giving them things they might want. I’m selfish that way, and I don’t care what they think about it.

I look at it this way: If I give someone a blender, the chances of that benefiting me are slim to none. I mean, maybe they’ll make me a margarita one day, but that just doesn’t seem likely. I want to give something that I can enjoy every single time I visit my friends. I want to give something that will make them remember me.

I also need to be able to get all the gifts, for everyone on my list, at one place. I’m not kidding. But I solved all of these problems a few years ago. I get to please myself and the person on the receiving end and buy everything in one place.

I just head to my nearest garden center. The Little Red Hen has everything I need for the holiday gift season, tools, seeds, plants, and more. Plants can be impressive gifts, and they encourage people to think about me throughout the year, because my friends definitely need my gardening advice. Little else pleases me more than to get my hands dirty in someone else’s soil. To be able to dish out advice about something I really know about, that’s almost better than working in my own garden. I get to bask in the glow of their admiration and appreciation.

Indoor plants are great for people who live in apartments. A beautiful Ficus benjamina adds life to any room, and it is pretty tolerant of people who aren’t inherently green thumbs.

Some people on my list don’t touch the outdoor garden until the weather warms up. In that case I like to give gardening books, tools, or basil seeds to keep them thinking about gardening, and to make sure I’ll have my fill of pesto come summer.

Flower seeds can be great for kids, since they get bored with anything that doesn’t make horrid electronic noises. Seeds are inexpensive, and come spring their parents will doubtless drag the kids outside to stick the seeds in the ground. Who knows, kids are curious creatures and might be impressed by nature’s handiwork—a whole plant full of flowers from a single seed. Plus, in the summer, when the plants grow up and bloom, I’m often lucky enough to get a bouquet or two out of the deal.

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN Take your pick of green gifts at the Little Red Hen.

Photo By Tom Angel

Flowers that are easy to grow are the best for kids, things like bachelor’s buttons, calendula or sweet peas. For those long-term friendships, I’ve found it is best to give fruit trees. Dwarf fruit trees can be kept in containers for years, and tend to produce fruit quickly. Friends always feel obliged to give me at least some of the harvest, and I get to help with the pruning (another way to make myself feel masterful).

—Friedel Neumann

Pull the plug
There’s more out there than electronic games

I don’t have to ask my 10-year-old son what he wants for Christmas. He wants an X-Box and the game Halo 2. This information has been burned into my consciousness through some sort of osmosis process. Or maybe it’s the fact this is all he’s talked about since before Labor Day.

“Did I mention that I want an X-Box and Halo 2 for Christmas?” is how our conversations begin lately.

And just to hammer home his point, he’s dragged me into every video game store in Chico. He points to the stacks of X-Box games on the shelves and hands me the cover to Halo 2, plucked from the plastic racks.

I look around and see a range of males, from a few years younger than him up to maybe in their early 20s. These guys are pasty and pudgy and look like they don’t get out much except to see what’s new on the video game circuit.

At this point I have a strong desire to grab my son by the wrist, rush him out of the store and lecture that there is more to life than video games.

“Why when I was your age,” I want to say. Then I think about when I was his age, or just a few years younger. I have it on tape— a recording of Christmas morning, 1961, post-present unwrapping.

With my dad acting as narrator, each member of the family (with the exception of my sister, who can be heard screaming “No! No! No!” in the background) is asked to recite what he or she got for Christmas. When it’s my turn I cheerily rattle off my take: “A Mr. Machine, a racin’ car, Color-forms and some slacks.” (I thought they were just a pair of pants, but when I heard my older brother refer to his as slacks, I figured I’d better follow suit).

My dad’s list of gifts received that year included a kerosene lamp and a carton of cigarettes. I’m not saying I’m going to buy my son a pair of slacks or that I expect a carton of Kent menthols. Times and tastes change.

But there are still a lot of cool things out there that don’t require a computer chip to enjoy. Best bet—head to Hobbytown USA in the Mangrove Shopping Center.

ZOOM! Take it for a test drive at Hobbytown USA.

Photo By Tom Angel

There is not a computer game or video game anywhere in the store.

“We get all kinds of phone calls about that, but the store just doesn’t carry any,” said Mike McGaha, the man behind the counter the night we scoped the place out.

Most popular right now are remote-controlled monster trucks ($357 and up) and cars ($155 and up). The store has plenty of really cool-looking radio-controlled planes, but that’s a trickier option, as gravity insists on trying to pull these wooden and plastic birds to the ground, resulting in expensive damage. Basic starter planes, with all the necessary equipment including engine, radio, fuel and starter, will run about $350.

Remember model cars? I sure do—an hour to put them together; a nanosecond to blow them apart with an M-80 or cherry bomb. Revelle and ATC put out three levels of difficulty—the first level is snap together, no paint; levels two and three require both. Model cars run from $13 to $16.

Cherry bombs and M-80s are illegal, of course, which raises the question: How about a chemistry set? Two models, both from Smithsonian, $70. How about a Smithsonian Complete Weather Station ($35)? And if the weather is right, you can try to harvest some ants (ant farm, $12).

Nothing says Christmas like an electric train set. Maybe you’ll ignite a life-long obsession in someone, leading to HO-scale autumn trees, bank buildings and even used car lots to line along what will become miles and miles of track filling an attic or basement rec room. Train sets start at $60 (HO scale) and go up to the Bumble Bee “G” scale ($260).

There you have it. Kids can survive the holidays without receiving electronic games. (All right, where’s the Halo 2?)

—Rod Flannagan

On nobody’s list
For the person who has everything— go vintage

This year, I’m gonna do something for you jerks who are difficult to shop for that I should have done 10 years ago. I refuse just to throw up my hands at the last minute and slouch once again down that well-tread path littered with socks, ties and gift certificates.

I can already hear what you bad, bad people are saying, “Don’t worry about it, Lila. Save your money.”

Hah! Never! I will not lose this reindeer game—I will draw your names in red and circle each with a bunch of annoying asterisks to set you off from the good kids I’ve already gotten gifts for.

THE COLONEL’S HOUSE Left, another one-of-a-kind find at the Antique Mall.

Photo By Tom Angel

Since there is apparently nothing on the lists of…

• my mother-in-law, who “has everything”

• my Uncle Leon, who says he “only wants a carton of smokes”

• my “bro” Chip, who is too “X-treme” for Christmas

• and my folks, who are under the delusion that “we’re not doing gifts this year”

…the only chance for victory is to go out of my way to find the stuff that is on nobody’s list. And, if any of you reading this have a jerk list of your own, I’m here to tell you that stuff isn’t as hard to find as you might think.

Here in Chico there are warehouses full of one-of-a-kind objects to fit every budget and difficult circumstance. These magical holiday shopping centers are called “antique malls,” and between 3rd and 20th streets there are no fewer than six of these treasure palaces.

The newest of the bunch is the recently expanded ARC Trading Company’s Antique Mall at 1900 Park. Just a couple blocks down from the ARC Thrift Store, the Antique Mall separates the wheat from the chaff, putting the best of the vintage donations in this new location alongside consignment items and the wares of local antique and collectables dealers.

Without taking anything away from the rest of these businesses, the new kids on the block have the most varied and quality-controlled selection. Almost immediately upon entering I found a unique something for most of my troublemakers.

There’s the 4-foot tall, all-metal Colonel Sanders weather vane (with his can pointing to the sky like a lightening rod) I’m looking at for my folks for $1,495, as well as the impressive wall of vintage metal lunchboxes featuring the likes of Evel Knievel ($110), The Fonz ($125), Mork & Mindy ($78) and the Hee-Haw one I’d like to get for country boy Uncle Leon, with Buck Owens and Roy Clark painted across the front for $105.

But by far the coolest, or I should say hottest, find at ARC hit my nose as I walked into the vintage toy area. The feint odor of kerosene grew strong as I pulled the lid off of a long metal canister leaning against a tripod. Inside was the X-tremest of X-treme toys, a fire baton, for only $125. Put down that snowboard, Chip; it’s time to learn some really hardcore tricks.

I haven’t purchased anything yet, so that cool stuff is still available, as are thousands of smaller and far less pricey antiques and curiosities at ARC and the other stores: The Difference (W. 9th Street & Cherry), Eighth & Main Antique Center, Victorianna (325 Broadway), Country Squyres (164 E. 3rd St.) and another, newer spot, Attic Treasures (3rd and Main), where I found the hardest-to-find of all my gifts…

BIRD IN HAND A good bet for shizzle gifts.

Photo By Tom Angel

The sign in the “attic” area of Attic Treasures read: “Searching for that unique gift—you found it. ‘Photofinishes’ on stone.” Oh sweet mother-in-law, this original piece of art is for you. Priced from $25 to $90, these photo images of nature scenes and various wild animals combine with “the stone’s flesh, color, shape and texture ever changing, allow[ing] each image its own unique identity.” I think I’ll buy her two.

If someone you care about enough to factor into your holiday budget list tells you that there’s nothing he (or she) needs, this year prove him wrong.

—Lila Poogy

Downtown’s the bomb
Last-minute or first-minute, shopping is good downtown

When it comes to buying gifts, there are two kinds of people in the world, last-minute shoppers and first-minute shoppers, otherwise known as men and women.

My daughter-in-law is a perfect example of a first-minute shopper. She actually dragged herself out of bed before the crack of dawn on the day after Thanksgiving so she could make it to the mall before the doors opened on all those early-bird sales.

My son had promised to join her, but there are only a few things guys will get up at 5 a.m. to do, like stand thigh-deep in duck blind water or hop on a bicycle and whip off to Cohasset and back before work. Shopping is way too difficult at that hour. He slept in.

Guys know there’s never a hurry when it comes to Christmas shopping. It’s not like the stores are going to run out of stuff. We’ve seen what the shelves look like on Dec. 24, messy but still full of sweaters, trains sets and dolls that go pee-pee. And by that time they’re on sale, so why shop earlier?

I like to shop downtown. It’s just friendlier than the mall—and more strollable, so to speak. Besides, the profits stay in Chico, which is good for all of us who live here. Do the Waltons of Bentonville need my money? Hardly.

A good place to start is Tomfoolery (126 W. Third). Besides its extensive collection of fine leather goods and bar paraphernalia, it’s got all kinds of great games and joke gifts for stocking stuffers. Any boy on your list would enjoy the Pig Catapult ($6) or the Remote Controlled Fart Machine ($22) that “works up to 50 feet and through walls.” For grown-up boys, there’s a fabulous “Old Century Baseball” pinball-style game ($169), made with aged wood and as beautiful to look at as it is fun to play.

Across the street, at Nantucket (127 W. Third), you’ll find a wide range of gift items, from beautiful hand-woven throw pillows ($39-$64) to candles, soaps and lotions. A fleecy pair of satin brocade slippers is only $33, and a really cool “Shark Poker Set” on a ceramic base is $37.

Head around the corner, and you’ll find Bird in Hand (320 Broadway), another terrific gift shop that has one of the best games sections in town. There’s also a section devoted to mind-stimulating toys, where I found a great eight-piece microscope set for $56.99. The store also has an extensive selection of Christmas tree ornaments that make good stocking stuffers.

YOU’RE COVERED Gift certificates make wrapping a snap, if necessary.

Photo By Tom Angel

Other good gift shops downtown are House of Rice (338 Broadway), with its extensive catalog of Asian import items, Brambley Cottage (218 Broadway) for gifts in the pastoral English vein, the Phoenix Gift Shop (300 Broadway), Zucchini & Vine (2nd and Main), Made in Chico (232 Main) with its wide range of local products, the new To Market To Market (236 Broadway), and the venerable Collier Hardware, with its many kitchen items.

I really like The African Connection, in the Garden Walk Mall. Look for some beautifully colorful scarves from West Africa, and if someone in your family likes playing hand drums, this is the place to buy a djembe ($145) or other authentic drum. And while you’re in the Garden Walk, check out Kat’s Meow if you’ve got any tots on your list. You’ll find a lot of great gifts there, toys as well as clothes.

Speaking of which, there are clothing stores downtown, too, far too many to list here, as well as a couple of antiques outlets, several art and framing galleries, and several bicycling, mountain sports and outdoor adventure shops. And if you need a break from shopping, a hot mocha or toddy is just a few paces away. Downtown’s got it all, really.

—Robert Speer

The envelope please
Giving gift certificates is as simple as signing their names

For those who find themselves in that familiar situation of scrambling to find last-minute Christmas gifts, I offer a perfect solution—gift certificates.

Just the sound of those two words together is soothing. Say it with me—"gift certificate.” It rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?

Gift certificates, which have been replaced with the sleeker gift card, are offered just about anywhere, from strip malls to strip clubs. And if you are a certified procrastinator, which most of us are, buying a gift card might avoid any snap decisions on your part.

Not only do gift cards make your job as the procrastinating present-purchaser easy, they also prolong the Christmas cheer. Think about it. With your standard gift, the wrapping paper is ripped to shreds, you give the obligatory, “I love it!” and the White Chicks DVD is watched once before being shelved for eternity, all before the Christmas ham has even made in the oven.

However, the recipients of gift cards simply tuck the convenient piece of plastic in their pockets, give a sincere, “Thanks!” and use it around the start of baseball season, if they so choose.

A logical place to start is the Chico Mall. I know—that place scares me, too. The beauty is you don’t have to step foot inside. Gift cards beginning at $20 are available outside at the mall office, right next to Tri-Counties Bank, and they’re good at any store that accepts American Express, which is just about all of them. And within those sturdy walls of consumerism, it’s a safe bet the recipient of the gift card will find something to his or her liking.

One predicament you may find yourself in is trying to find a gift for someone who is impossible to shop for. In my case it’s my dad, who owns every tool under the sun. I work this in my favor by buying him a gift card from Tower Records and praying that he buys the new Nirvana box set.

Another snag I hit is when someone buys me a present and I feel obliged to return the favor. This is where shear logic comes into play.

You can never go wrong with food, coffee and gas, right? Well, there are gift cards designed to “fill ‘er up.”

I’d go with a gift card from Peet’s Coffee and Tea, which is available in any amount. Then there are the classic McDonald’s gift certificates, which have been around since the beginning of time and are actually still in certificate form. A book of five is only five bucks. But if you’re really in a bind, AM-PM offers gas cards, and they’re open 24 hours a day.

So, as you can plainly see, everybody wins with gift cards. If the recipient uses his to buy Twinkies and Marlboro Reds, you still have the satisfaction of knowing he truly got what he wanted for Christmas.

—Nathaniel Rackerby