Luckily for us in Tucson, there are lots of independent shops around town. Here are some of the best.
The most visible thing after entering the door of the Spanish Cross Trading Co. is an antique Mexican cabinet ($475). The paint has been oxidized into a pale turquoise color, and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe cover the doors. It's refinished antiques like this--as well as kitsch reproductions, like a classic blue glass hen candy dish ($15), vintage Coca-Cola-branded tables and chairs ($30-$65) and antique wire-and-wood bird cages (upwards of $25) that make this shop a good place to get Southwestern furniture and knickknacks.
It's not like a roadside souvenir shop: The Spanish Cross Trading Co. is totally authentic. Barry and Letty Coleman, the owners, have been running the shop for 12 years. In one corner of the store is a gigantic (about a foot short of life-size) statue of an archangel ($2,800). The angel looks like he belongs in the San Xavier Mission.
"We can only get reproductions of those," Barry Coleman told me. I guess churches aren't very willing to sell their angels to antique shops. The store is filled with curious artifacts such as antique horse tack and a "burden basket," a conical rebar-and-cowhide structure ($65) that was originally intended to be strapped to the back of a laborer.
Folks who don't have any photos of their great-great-grandparents can buy images of someone else's ($5-$10). Yes, it's kind of creepy, perhaps, but nostalgic nonetheless.
Nowadays, the shop's official hours have been temporarily cut down to just Saturdays, but the Colemans are more than happy to open the shop by appointment at just about any day and time, they said.
Preen is a cozy little place; vintage clothes and jewelry are hung on racks and stored inside jewelry boxes. It almost feels like maybe you're intruding, walking into someone's oversized walk-in closet filled with all their good, old stuff.
There's a lovely yellow crepe cape ($35) and old-fashioned hats ($10-$15). There are also purses, hats and a row of adorable shoes from $10-$35, arranged as they might be in a slightly messy bedroom.
The register counter has jewelry and hair broaches, including one made with a real orchid preserved in pink resin and Swarovski crystals ($80). There's also vintage costume jewelry ranging in price from $3 to $15, and something that might have a modern-day equivalent in a store such as Spencer's: a thirst-aid kit, with medical-style tubes labeled whiskey, vodka and gin, for $28.
The selection at Preen changes every few days as owners Emilie Marchand and Erin Bradley get new merchandise. On a recent visit, a table near the door displayed a pink bra (34B, if you're interested) in its original plastic box ($20). It's hard to determine exactly which decade the bra was made in, but it was before the days of treacherous underwires, to be sure. The fitting room is even comfortable, with a couple of chairs and a lamp providing some muted light.
Preen is a place to linger, to try things on and decide if you like them. There's no pressure to wriggle in and out of clothes in a hurry. The ladies at Preen will even do alterations if you need to adjust something that doesn't quite fit right.
But be sure to bring cash--as of now, they have no credit card machine. Truly vintage.
Holiday wrapping paper is, by definition, cheesy. Rolls of it--red and green sheets covered in gaudy images, like a caricature of Santa's face, over and over again--hide undisturbed in closets across the nation.
Rejoice, because there's a store in Tucson with every texture, pattern and color of paper imaginable. Cool gift wrap can really make a lame present exciting. So, if you've exhaust this gift guide and still haven't found something appropriate for the most difficult-to-shop-for person on your list, break down and find them something safe (a coffee mug?) and then wrap it up in a fancy ladybug print, or frogs, or stars!
Some of the paper can be a little pricey (anywhere from $3-$30 for a sheet), but good paper can be a lifesaver for a boring gift. And there are lots of crafty projects in addition to nifty paper. Paper Paper Paper also sells bookbinding materials and make-your-own journal, CD-case and photo-album kits ($9.99-$40), as well as special origami paper ($4 and up), fountain pens ($99.99) and wax letter-seal stamps ($9.50 for the stamp, $2.25 for the wax). There's also a big collection of unconventional greeting cards in case you haven't sent those out yet.
It's "the little shop of wee trees and many treasures" located between a Walgreens and Western Warehouse that's raised my spirits. The good folks at the Bonsai Center told me that there's a reason all of my bonsai trees died upon entering my house: They said a majority of bonsai trees sold at street fairs and markets aren't really bonsais (adult trees trained to be small); they're just baby juniper trees and other evergreens stuck in a pot! The trees are supposed to live outdoors, but the correct directions are almost never sold with them.
Happily, the Bonsai Center sells trees that love to live indoors, such as a 2-year-old Fujian tea tree ($70) that produces white blossoms a few times a year. Other plants sold at the shop include a small money tree ($14.50) and lucky bamboo arrangements ($22.50).
So if you have a friend who is heartbroken that all his/her bonsai trees have died, stop by the Bonsai Center. There are also bonsai gardening tools (a complete set for $119) you can use to train a tree and keep it tiny. In addition to trees, the Bonsai Center has lots of Asian-themed gifts such as geisha statues ($35-$42.50), Buddhas (up to $225) and books to teach you just how to keep a little bonsai happy.
Holistic Animal care sells lots of herbal remedies for animal illnesses, and their staff is pretty knowledgeable about caring for pets on a more natural level. (Did you know that you can bring down the swelling after a dog is stung by a bee with a crushed vitamin C tablet?) However, Holistic also offers tons of gift items for pets.
Of course, there's a variety of St. Francis tags to protect your pet from harm; some of the craftier medals are decorated with bottle caps and glitter ($8), with the simpler ones in copper and silver colors ($1.99) .But what's better are the cute pet bowls that say, "I love my obedient owner," and gaudy collars and leashes for your pooch or kitty, starting at $6.49 for a red- or blue-velvet leash, and going up to $19.99 for "the perfect leash," a rubber contraption that prevents your hand from being hurt when an unruly dog tries to walk you.
Holistic even has bird leashes ($9.99) for larger parrots. There are also fantastic shiny cat toys (99 cents and up) and papasan-style beds ($36-$42, depending on size). And, of course, you can find little purselike carrier bags for super small doggies ($39.99) or whatever else you can cram in there. My dog got a giant femur bone ($3.99) and a peach Nylabone ($3.49) for his sweet tooth!
Not all holiday gift baskets must be one size fits all: That's the viewpoint of the folks at Ted's Country Store. Aside from having a deli stocked with Boar's Head meats and imported cheeses, Ted's also offers a gift-basket service. Folks can pick any one (or more) of dozens of baskets scattered throughout the store and load it/them up with tasty snacks, like Dare citron crème biscuits--adorable because of the cockatoo gracing the package ($3.49)--and beverages from around the store.
And there's plenty to choose from. Half of the store is dedicated to what the sign above the door calls "fancy spirits." An entire wall of the shop is filled with bottles of wine. Options include an adorable bottle of Ladybug red table wine from a vineyard in the Redwood Valley ($14.99); Tinto, a red wine made from organic Spanish grapes ($11.99); and bottle of Relax riesling (9.99).
Competing for attention is the enormous beer cooler, which houses delightful brews such as Rouge Ales ($3.79-$4.79 per bottle) and, of course, all of the beers from good ol' Nimbus ($1.49-$1.59 per bottle). For a drier basket, Ted's also has jars of cranberry ($7.99) and lemon ($5.39) curds, Jalapeno jelly ($3.99), and Barefoot Contessa peach or mixed-berry preserves ($4.99).
There are packets of mulling spices for ciders or wine in various sizes (75 cents to $4.59), olive oils infused with garlic or basil (7.99), raspberry white-wine vinegar ($4.49), lots of teas ($3.99-$9.69) and, of course, canned snails ($6.49).
There's also plenty for a bath basket. Ted's sells enormous cream bath bars ($8.88) and green-tomato-leaf vitamin E lotion ($9.99).
One cool gift that Ted's has to offer, however, isn't officially for sale. Behind the counter sits a Jones Soda holiday gift pack, featuring five sodas in holiday flavors: turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and butter, green-bean casserole, cranberry sauce and fruitcake. The boys behind the counter didn't know the price, but said that if a customer was deeply interested, it would be worth making an offer.
On the far northwestern end of this gift-guide journey, I stumbled into Camille's, a fabulous shop in the Casas Adobes shopping center. Camille Rohrig, the store's owner, selects must-have items.
"What do you get the guy who has everything?" Rohrig said. "Get him a silver toothpick" ($128).
She also sells antiques--don't worry; the toothpicks are all brand-new--like coral jewelry ($150-$170) and mother-of-pearl caviar spoons (because caviar will stain silver, she said).
Some of the merchandise comes from private parties who want to sell their collections, and other items are imported. I found some cobalt-blue glass and sterling-silver salt-and-pepper shakers in sets of two ($20) and four ($27.50).
Rohrig said she reckons that the shakers are offered in sets of four because they're so small, and with an extra pair, you have a backup set ready, in case a guest runs out of salt or pepper at dinner. There are also tags to label liquor bottles (to prevent understandable confusion) as sherry, gin, vodka and scotch ($189). Rohrig also searches out missing pieces of tableware sets, in case Grandma wants a replacement spoon for her wedding silver set. Prices to find an individual piece all depend on the set, she said.
The Paris Flea Market is less of a flea market and more of a place offering clarification of the term "shabby chic." The shop is located inconspicuously on a corner of Loretta Drive and Grant Road, in an adorable little house that shopkeepers Cate Striegel and Amy Jesionowski have reinvented into an altar to genuine, sweet old stuff. All the tags are handwritten, and they describe items as adorable, precious and sweet. And accurate, they are.
One of the lovely things I saw on my last visit was a mirrored lipstick tray ($19).There are lots of fluers-de-lis, such as bookends ($14), and roosters in the form of salt-and-paper shakers. Almost all of the furniture in the house is for sale, such as an antique china cabinet ($325), a cherub-inlaid full-size bed ($289) and an antique high chair ($79). There's a yard full of art and "garden delights," like a pink ice cream parlor bench ($79) and two gold lions to guard the door ($54 each).
Oddly enough, neither Jesionowski nor Striegel have ever been to Paris. But, Striegel told me, that's part of the reasoning behind the name.
"I told Amy, 'If we call it the Paris Flea Market, then that means we have to go to Paris someday,'" she said.
In addition to the antiques, there are several new items, such as tea light holders ($8.50-$38) and watches throughout the store. And if you're lucky, one of the sweet ladies who works at the Paris Flea Market just might offer you a glass of iced tea to drink while you shop.
There's a new entity in the space on Fourth Avenue that used to be La Hormiga Blanca. It's worth checking out. One reason is that El Ojito Springs bought the remaining inventory of La Hormiga and is now selling the leftovers, such as Botero prints ($25). There's also a bargain table with various items from the old store, such as ceramic vases painted with calla lilies and sunflowers ($49.99), that are anywhere from 10 to 50 percent off.
Aside from that, El Ojito Springs is working to turn the space into a workshop-retail spot. The goal of Tim Chapman--a co-owner who carves ornate wood and wooly-mammoth-bone and walrus-tusk carvings into pendants (for around $180)--is to have everything that is sold out of El Ojito made at El Ojito.
Tucson Clayworks Co-op, a studio that is run out of El Ojito, makes dishes you can buy, from a coffee mug ($14) to a large bowl ($36); you can sign up for classes as well. There's also hand-blown glass art that is created at El Ojito, such as pendants with ornate flower designs ($25-$30), rings ($15-$17) and ear gauges ($10).
A music box seems like one of those gifts that you might buy for someone you barely know. A distant relative you've not seen in years is the perfect victim for a music box that plays, oh, "The Blue Danube" or "Für Elise."
But at Victoria's, you're more likely to find a music box that you'd want to give to someone with whom you're close. It's is a nice spot, because Victoria's sells music boxes that can have custom-ordered movements. They work with several different companies and have pages and pages of songs that can be ordered for most of their lovely Italian music boxes ($97-$3,000).
My favorite was a Wizard of Oz snow globe, with Dorothy and her friends riding in a carriage through the Emerald City with music from the movie ($87.50).
Victoria's has other gifts as well, including a huge selection of beautiful cameo jewelry, from rings ($65) to large pendants ($330).
Victoria's also sells sewing trinket, like ornate thimbles and scissors ($25-$30), as well as hankies ($8 and up), just in case a song from one of the boxes creates a tear or two.
Blaze Threads is like a grown-up Hot Topic that's still totally punk rock. It's located next door to the Majestik Tattoo shop, and it's where they do all their piercings, which are always on sale for 2-for-1.
In addition to lovely body jewelry ranging from ornate nipple guards ($60) to simple nose studs ($60), they sell sarcastic T-shirts ($5-$30), obnoxious hats (also $5-$30) and offensive belt buckles ($16.99).
My favorite items include the Lucky 13 onesie baby outfits that say "tattoo your soul" ($23.99) and a clever oversized purse that says "nothing to declare," with an X-ray image of a lot to declare, such as a homemade bomb and a knife hidden underneath a lei and some makeup ($44.99).
It's nice to know that there's a toy store in town that doesn't push fake guns and scantily clad skinny dolls.
The overwhelming amount of books in Kid's Center is part of its charm. There are über-affordable Dover activity books that teach kids about desert critters, dog breeds and the like ($1.50); a rubber rattlesnake ($12); and dozens of animal puppets, from a sea otter to a Siamese cat ($20-$22). There's also an extensive dress-up section for both boys and girls, with crowns and tiaras ($12.99-$32.99), and lots of kitchen play toys like wooden rolling pins ($3.99).
Kid's Center even has marbles in beautiful colors. Most kids think marbles are for lining fish bowls. But at $2.50 a bag, it's a small investment to see if children can find another use.
My favorite part of the store was the huge array of Klutz books: activity books that include kits for knitting, friendship bracelets ($12.99) and less productive endeavors, such as those detailed in the glorious Encyclopedia of Immaturity ($19.99). These books are incredible, because like most of the toys and books at Kid's Center, they get kids thinking and being creative.
The Myriad is kind of hard to find. Fortunately, a purple sign on the side of the street in front of the shop alerts passers-by to a "rad sale today." Three or four open signs line the walkway to the tiny shop that's like a cove, hidden away on an otherwise bland street.
The Myriad is one of the most affordable and down-to-earth shops I've found in Tucson. Most of the tchotchke items found inside have no price tag, but few end up costing more than $20. A common question heard coming from the register is: "How much do you want to pay for this?"
Happily, most of the clientele at Myriad is laid back enough to not take advantage of the atmosphere. And it's a beautiful thing. The shop is a resale shop, purchasing anything that "seems cool" from customers.
There's a chair in front of the cash register, luring the customer to linger during a purchase. This is how I ended up sitting and talking to Kenny Alden, the cashier for that day, as I was purchasing an adorable Russian nest-egg doll ($6).
The stock is constantly changing, but my last visit uncovered incense (for 20 cents to a dollar), tiny brass and cloisonné bells ($3 to $6) and jewelry. Handmade items, like notebooks made from scrap paper ($2), and lots of inventive art fill the two tiny rooms that make up the Myriad. Many of the items in the store are labeled "participant," and when they wear price tags, they usually cost anywhere from $7 to $20. At The Myriad, participation is the rough equivalent of consignment, meaning that local artists and crafters bring their stuff to The Myriad so others can see and buy their stuff.