Coincidence? We think not.
Nobody wants our city to turn into one of those homogenous concrete jungles where you can't turn around without running into a Starbucks or Wal-Mart. And at this time of year, amidst the rampant materialism of the holidays, it's really important to seek out the unique—particularly when it comes to gift-giving. It's the thought that counts, right? So why not put some thought into your shopping?
It's not hard if you know where to look: Lucky for us, there are still a lot of cool, local businesses here in Tucson, and it's not too late to discover their potential. From books to bikes to fake plastic vomit, the merchandise these stores offer is anything but commonplace.
So if you want to give your loved ones meaningful, individualized gifts, and support local business owners at the same time, then keep reading.
Otherwise, just go to the mall and buy some gift cards like everyone else.
ORDINARY BIKE SHOP311 E. Seventh St., 622-6488
Tucson has all the fundamental features a bicyclist needs: sunny weather, level ground, enough bike routes to get around on and a great, unique independent bike shop. That's right—and I know it's been said before—but Ordinary Bike Shop is far from ordinary. Rather than confronting the customer with rows and rows of identical, overpriced road bikes, Ordinary offers a wide selection that includes something for every bicyclist on your list. For the hipster type, there are plenty of beach cruisers and chic-looking vintage bikes ($350 and up), while any sporty outdoors enthusiast would have a field day among all the different kinds of mountain bikes (you can get a Diamondback Transporter with all the trimmings for $420). And yes, while this bike shop is not one of those elitist bike-Nazi places—you know what we mean—there are also some shiny new racing bikes your Spandex-sporting uncle would love. Or, for those without the bucks for an actual bicycle, you can make sure your loved ones' riding experiences are safe, comfortable and worry-free by buying them a helmet ($14.85 to $44.99), a U-lock ($55) or maybe a pair of biking gloves. If you're not so practical-minded, try an interesting stocking stuffer like custom grips with pink flames ($11.99) or cool biking sunglasses in a variety of styles. Want to get something really extraordinary? Act fast, and snap up the store's only unicycle ($75).
TOQUE DE PASIÓN3000 E. Broadway Blvd., 881-0411
Toque de Pasión means "touch of passion," and that's exactly what this stylish, classy little boutique has. Native Peruvian Cesar Zegarra, one of the owners, opened the store last September, wanting to provide Tucson women with an outlet for authentic fashion from his home continent. So, making use of up-and-coming designers from throughout South America, he's stocked the store with beautiful handmade clothing—flowing skirts (around $75), intricately embroidered blouses ($99) and lots of sexy, colorful tank tops. The jewelry display case is full of accessories from the Brazilian Bakana line (bakana is Portuguese for "hip, fun, cool"), including crocheted gold and silver wire jewelry interlaced with semi-precious stones, beads and freshwater pearls; and earrings, necklaces and bracelets made of things like jarina, patua and jupati seeds, all of which come from plants in the Amazon rainforest. This stuff is totally affordable considering its exclusivity—a beautiful patua and pupuranhana necklace is just $34.99. And you don't have to worry about supporting far-away sweatshops or contributing to environmental destruction when you shop here. Zegarra only works with individual artisans and fair-trade companies, and he deals with textile manufacturers who use progressive environmental and employment practices.
YIKES!2930 E. Broadway Blvd., 320-5669
Yes, Yikes! is a toy store. But it doesn't carry alphabet blocks or Barbie dolls. In fact, its merchandise is probably at least as appealing to adults as to kids—but those adults would have to be pretty immature, in a good way. Take the wall stocked with cheap gags like squirting lighters ($2), fake vomit ($3.50) and whoopee cushions (only $1.50), or the shelves of toys like realistic-looking rubber snakes ($10), big plastic Godzilla dolls ($14) and full sets of magnets depicting cat butts. You really have to be an adult to appreciate many of the toys here, like the "Cold War unicorn" box set ($12) and the "grow a new mother-in-law" kit ($3). And the action figures! You have to be a certain age to want dolls modeled after such individuals as Carl Jung, Edgar Allan Poe, Zeus or Jesus. But don't get us wrong: There are plenty of sweet, wholesome toys for real kids—they're just a little less conventional than those you'd find at Toys 'R' Us. Every kid has a stuffed bear, but who has a stuffed armadillo puppet?
PINEY HOLLOW427 N. Fourth Ave., 623-4450
If you really want to give a gift with meaning, you should make it yourself. But not all of us are artisans, and clay ashtrays and macaroni sculptures lose their charm when the giver is more than, say, 9 years old. Don't worry, though—anyone can make a beautiful, quality piece of jewelry at Piney Hollow. They have a huge selection of beads of all sizes, shapes and origins: amber beads from Russia, Chinese porcelain beads, Indian and Japanese glass beads, and turquoise beads from our own American Southwest. Basically, name the bead, and Piney Hollow has it. Best of all, you can make jewelry there in the store—employees will provide you with threading materials, tools, clasps, guidance and anything else you might need. You can spend whatever you wish, depending on the value of the beads you choose. And for all of you last-minute shoppers with no time to spare—or for those who are just a little lazy—the store has some great ready-made jewelry, from $10 earrings to a 1,000-year-old white coral necklace worth $125. And every piece is made by an individual person—not a factory. So whether you make it yourself or buy it, handcrafted jewelry is a gift you can be proud of.
ANTIGONE BOOKS411 N. Fourth Ave., 792-3715
What can we say about Antigone Books? Those folks just get it. You know that because, in contrast to other independent bookstores that have struggled and gone under, this store is not only still around; it's bigger, better and more diversified. First opened as a women's and lesbians' bookstore in 1973, Antigone began its operations in a tiny Fourth Avenue storefront. Although the shop is right next door to its old location, the new space is huge in comparison, and they've expanded their merchandise selection to include not just books, but greeting cards (check out the funny and unique Pondering Pool cards at $2.50 each), toys (you can get a Sherlock Holmes or Shakespeare stuffed doll for $18.95) and T-shirts (our favorite, reading "Well-behaved women rarely make history," goes for $16.95). While Antigone now carries all kinds of things, it's still Tucson's only feminist bookstore. You just have to look around to see that they're proud of their radical roots—even the kids' section is full of titles like Mama Went to Jail for the Vote and My Senator and Me. And the gay and lesbian shelves are almost as big as the fiction shelves. Overall, Antigone seems to have gotten the hang of balancing popular appeal with politics. Co-owner Trudy Mills says it well: "We combine being progressive with being fun."
SILVERBELL TRADING7119 N. Oracle Road, 797-6852
Are you looking for cheesy Southwestern-type gifts like howling wooden coyotes painted in whimsical colors, or metal silhouettes of Kokopelli playing his flute? Then don't go to Silverbell Trading. They're all about the Southwest, but they only carry the real thing. Barbara Rose, one of the owners, first opened the store in 1985, because she wanted a venue to sell her own handmade jewelry. Then she started carrying the work of native people she knew, and the store's selection just grew and grew. Now, the small storefront is chock-full of one-of-a-kind items by local and native artists—museum-quality rugs, mesquite furniture and really cool kachinas of all sizes. There's an excellent bookshelf with a Southwestern theme, featuring a poetry anthology by local Native American children ($10) as well as a wide variety of handcrafted jewelry that's really unique, such as sterling silver bracelets with desert themes made by Tohono O'odham artist Rick Manuel ($300). And while the intricate work can, of course, be expensive, there are some very affordable items, too, like hand-painted cards suitable for framing ($2) and inexpensive Tarahumara baskets that can serve either as gift boxes or as gifts themselves. In any case, if you want to show your East Coast relatives the kinds of beautiful, authentic stuff that comes out of our region, you can't go wrong with this store.
CHOCOLATE IGUANA500 N. Fourth Ave., No. 1, 798-1211
We generally don't recommend giving food as a present. Cookies, cheese logs and fruitcakes are so cliché. But candy is different—everybody loves it; it takes a long time to go bad, and there are so many kinds that it can be a very personal present. Chocolate Iguana has all the varieties you'll need and more. While the store doesn't carry any actual chocolate iguanas, they have plenty of other stuff for the chocoholic on your list, including milk- and dark-chocolate-covered honeycomb pieces ($11 per pound), chocolate cigars ($12.95 a box) and even chocolate pasta ($7.95 a bag). International delicacies abound, from English toffee to German raspberries, and for the coffee lover, there are amaretto cordials, chocolate-covered espresso beans and mocha lentils (which sound kind of gross, but trust us, they're mouth-watering). Finally, if you don't think candy is enough of a present, stop in the gift shop part of the store, where you can find all kinds of fun items like handmade teacups and saucers ($7.95-$10.50), a Hindu lunchbox ($7.95) and a "We Can Do It!" nightlight ($4.50). Oh, and for some reason, the gift shop has a lot of ceramic garden gnomes. Don't ask us why.
TUCSON MUSEUM OF ART GIFT SHOP140 N. Main Ave., 624-2333
You don't have to shell out a boatload of money on an original Miró to give someone an exceptional piece of art—the gift shop at our city's own art museum has plenty of options. First, take a walk through the museum itself, and check out the exhibits (just to get inspired). Then, go to the east end of the lobby, and find yourself surrounded by authentic art—much of it made right here in Tucson—in all its imaginable manifestations. Want practical art? Buy a couple of ceramic tea bag holders that look like flowering prickly pear pads, by local artist Sharon Procter ($5 each), or one of many beautiful baskets by fiber artist Robin White ($75 to $295). Know a woman who likes to wear her art? Get her a Venetian heart set in sterling silver by talented jewelry-maker Wendy Hendrickson ($155). Other artsy items range from really cool Guatemalan masks (as low as $16) to colorful hand-painted tiles depicting animals of all types ($20 to $25). As with all gift shops, this one has its share of mass-produced items, but everything here is related to art in some way or another—from Mexican folk-art coloring books to cards, calendars and journals featuring prints of the great masters.
METAPHYSICS WORLD2559 E. Broadway Blvd., 327-7449
Christians have Christmas; Jews have Hanukkah; Buddhists have Rohatsu ... even pagans have the winter solstice to celebrate. But with everyone so focused on gift-giving and materialism these days, it's hard to remember how important spirituality is. Well, the folks at Metaphysics World won't let you forget. "Whatever someone believes in, they can find it here," promises the store manager (who prefers to go unnamed). And she's right: This place has everything you can possibly think of relating to spirituality—Tarot cards, holy statues, incense, meditation music, religious pendants and a whole room full of spiritual books. New Age novelties are everywhere. You can buy your child a "graceful journey into the future" with a genuine fossilized Orthoceras egg ($6.77). Or get your girlfriend a lapis lazuli pendant, said to attract spiritual love and fend off infidelity. For the Hindu, try a big, silver Ganesh statue ($57.77). Or, for the Buddhist, go for a little bronze statue of Buddha himself ($4.77 to $17.77). Have you noticed that every price in this store ends with $0.77? Well, the owner just likes it that way. It's a very metaphysical number.
HEAR'S MUSIC2508 N. Campbell Ave., 795-4494
One reason Hear's Music is so great is—you guessed it—you can actually hear the music right there in the store (all the used stuff, at least, and a lot of the new). This means you have the opportunity to approve a present before you buy it. But there are a lot of other reasons to shop here. For one, though the place itself is small, it has one of the biggest selections of world music in town, with CDs from countries beginning with pretty much every letter of the alphabet. There's a lot of local stuff, too—an entire section is devoted solely to local blues acts, and it's one of the only places in town where you can get Lullabies for New Beginnings, a great compilation by Tucson women singers and songwriters ($14.99). The new CD by Dylanesque young local Andrew Collberg goes for just $10.99, and it's worth it: "Collberg is really amazing," promises Chris, one of Hear's Music's enthusiastic employees. If you want to splurge, though, and know a baby boomer who just loves folk, we recommend the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-CD box set with 84 songs on it ($84.99). In any case, if you look and look, and the store doesn't have what you want in stock, its employees promise to find it and order it for you.
¡AQUI ESTÁ!204 S. Park Ave., 798-3605
Though it's hidden away in the Lost Barrio, this store's eye-catching sign literally screams, "Here it is!"—demanding that we enter. Well, enter we did, and we were glad. Stepping up the stairs and into the spacious, well-laid-out rooms of ¡Aqui Está! would make anyone want to redecorate a house with all the beautiful Mexican furnishings it offers. Everything is handmade, so each piece of furniture has a rustic, wholesome asymmetry that makes it unlike any other. This is especially appealing in furniture sets, like the set of chairs with different tropical parrots carved out of the backs ($320 each), all poised around a huge, sturdy mesquite table ($2,400). And it should be noted that, besides importing furniture from Mexico, the store will build furniture here in Tucson, customizing it to fit customers' spaces and tastes. But if you're not down for spending big money—or if furniture just isn't what you're looking for—there are lots of smaller imported items that are no less unique, from a brilliantly colored, hand-painted porcelain iguana ($44) to a cute little milk pourer shaped like a cow. As for stocking stuffers, there are magnets and little wooden matchboxes decorated with rhinestones, portraits of saints and pictures from Mexican bingo cards ($3 and $4). Or if your wallet's really getting empty, you can buy milagros—tiny Mexican religious charms—for a dollar each. That's a lot of spiritual bang for your buck. Oh, and there are lots of holiday items. Handmade ornaments representing everything from Christmas trees to sombreros are just two for $1.50.
THE RUMRUNNNER3200 E. Speedway Blvd., 326-0121
Back in the '60s when the Rumrunner first opened its doors, it was actually a drive-through liquor store. Now, it's a high-class wine shop, spirits emporium and gourmet market. How did that happen? No matter. The point is, it's the perfect place to do all your holiday booze shopping—whether it's for something fancy to bring to a formal office party or just something to put under the tree for your liquor-loving cousin Bert. The store's walls are lined from floor to ceiling with current varieties of wine from Arizona and all over the world, the most impressive of which is a bottle of Chateau Margaux ($495). But they have stuff that's a lot cheaper—it's just not of such collectible quality. As far as spirits go, you couldn't ask for a wider selection of single-malt scotch, their best-seller (which goes for anywhere from $29.99 to $1,500), or a better deal on a huge bottle of Wild Turkey ($15.99). Ready-made gifts include a very classy Remy Martin box set with glasses ($132), an already put-together "Ultimate Margarita Kit" and our favorite wine gift basket, "The Bacchus Box" ($80). If you'd rather be creative, the store will custom-make any gift basket you choose, and they'll gift-wrap anything you buy—for free! Plus, they have a lot of unique, hard-to-find liqueur flavors like pomegranate, green tea and chocolate-orange (from Israel). Yum!
R-GALAXY2420 N. Campbell Ave., 322-0422
Is your friend, relative or significant other a comic book nerd? Let them know it makes them special with a cool gift from R-Galaxy, one of Tucson's best and biggest comic book shops. This store has all the latest issues of the most popular titles, and they buy, sell and trade so many comics that you can probably find just about any back issue you need. (If not, it can be special ordered.) R-Galaxy isn't just about reading comic books—they're about living comic books—and you can tell by the huge assortment of accessories they carry: posters, art books, anime soundtracks, plush toys, calendars, T-shirts, imported trading and playing cards, stickers, even original art and anime cels. What appealed to us the most, though, was the diverse selection of toys. You can get everything from '80s-era Star Wars action figures still in the box (a C-3PO with removable limbs is $90) to a brand-new Sin City doll (both Kevin and Wendy go for $19.95) to a three-piece Hellboy action figure set ($17.95). And intermingled with everything else are countless boxes of Simpsons toys—every character you can imagine, in every possible outfit.
YONG SHENG HERBS AND MORE2615 E. Broadway Blvd., 325-6829
Research has found that the holiday season brings with it more negative health effects than any other time of year. From the stress of hanging out with relatives to the heartburn brought on by too much feasting, many of us will feel less than lusty by the time New Year's gets here. That is, unless we receive gifts bought at Yong Sheng, Tucson's best Chinese herb shop. It's a small store, but the shelves are lined from floor to ceiling with teas, pills, tablets, drinks, loose herbs and anything else you can think of to promote health. Does your loved one drink a little too much wine? Give them some liver-soothing shu gan wan. Are they anxious about the mother-in-law coming? Try a bottle of tong jing wang—that means "calm in the sea of life." Prices on herbs vary widely, but you're sure to get your money's worth, because all of this stuff is authentic and straight from the Orient—you can tell because of all the pretty packaging and Chinese writing. Other health-promoting Asian things found here include imported tea sets ($13.49), ginseng cookers ($9.99) and Chinese therapy balls ($7.99), which come complete with a velvet-lined box and instructions. And if you really don't care about health but just like unique stuff, go for one of the more traditional gifts—pretty embroidered coin purses are just $3, and there are all different kinds of rings, necklaces and bracelets for $16 or less—all imported, of course, from China.
THE FOLK SHOP2525 N. Campbell Ave., 881-7147
If you're seeking musical instruments, Tucson has more than one great independent store to meet your needs. But no store is quite as unique as the Folk Shop. They specialize in acoustic and ethnic instruments from all over the world—both new and used—and they're unbelievably proud of all the "weird stuff" they carry. Where else could you find a beautiful Paraguayan harp for $495? Or a brand-new sitar for $495? Actually, the store's most popular item is totally American: "It's banjo heaven here," says co-owner Brenda Hendrickson. And, of course, they have great guitars, mandolins and fiddles up the wazoo, starting at just $99 new. For those without innate musical talent, a rainstick is ideal—they come in all sizes and prices. And for the kids, try an old train whistle ($5.95), or—if you think your ears can handle it—an airplane kazoo that looks just like a tractor ($9.95). Everyone in this store is really friendly, including the customers—"good old folk people" who like to stand around, chat and play music. And the staff is always ready with advice and gift suggestions. If you're not sure what to get, keep in mind that accordions, apparently, are "really hot right now."
KANELLA'S338 N. Fourth Ave., 884-0022
Kanella's is the perfect place to buy a gift for that ultra-fashionable individual—anyone who likes to make a statement through his or her appearance. A strong statement. Because the stuff in this store isn't only unique—it's out there. If you're looking for women's footwear, for example, you won't find just boots, but shiny, thigh-high vinyl boots with stiletto heels ($60) and boots made out of pink imitation snakeskin ($39.95). Or, if you're looking for a dress, you'd better want a cleavage-revealing, puffy-skirted red party dress by Ruby Rox ($59.95). And don't even get us started on the racks and racks of wacky lingerie. It's definitely not just a women's store, though—head toward the back, and you're in cool-guy paradise. There are leather jackets, leather chaps, a whole wall full of cowboy boots and even real blue suede shoes—just like Elvis'—for only $49.95. And you can't miss the pimp jackets hanging near the ceiling—they come in almost every color and pattern you can think of (and some come with a fedora). But really, you don't have to be shopping for a sex worker for this store to be appealing. There's lots of good old fashionable clothing—jeans, shirts, stuff like that. And the accessories—if you can get past the crazy-colored wigs, dead scorpion belt buckles ($22.95) and sexy fishnet stockings—are things anyone would love. As long as they're not a dork or a wuss.
UPTOWN PUP2980 N. Swan Road, Suite 143, 795-7387
If the last thing you got your pet for the holidays was some leftover turkey, it's time to upgrade. Head down to Uptown Pup, Tucson's premiere boutique for classy canines and cats, where you can find all kinds of goodies to make your animal friend—or your animal-owning friend—drool. Cute little dogs (like the store's darling mascot, Lola) can don gay apparel such as a warm sweater with a snowman on it ($24), a sparkling pink tutu ($36) or a pearl necklace collar ($14.95). You can even paint your dog's nails red for the family's holiday photo with some special "nail pawlish" ($9.95). Of course, pets with a more hard-core image will probably prefer to wear a punk rock camo collar ($39) or chew on a kitty catnip cigar. And this store goes way beyond fashion accessories to cover all your pet's at-home "needs" with comfy little beds and couches, ceramic food dishes that say things like "eat, drink and be hairy" ($26.50) and gourmet organic food and supplements. As an extra-special treat, pick up some locally home-baked holiday cookies for dogs, complete with frosting and yummy ingredients like carob and peanut butter (50 cents to $3). These cookies are healthy, tasty and definitely human-quality—Julie Steiner, Uptown's owner, personally samples each new kind that comes in. And we don't blame her. They look delicious.