City Paper’s annual gift guide
Published: November 23, 2011
People like to complain about holiday gift-giving, but really, how great is it when that special someone (or even just-OK someone) unwraps your present and their eyes pop—actual popping, not just the polite kind? Pretty great, right? Not that we’re saying any of the gift suggestions in this guide to holiday gift ideas 2011 guarantee poppage—your mileage may vary, etc.—but your gift recipient will open your awesome/pretty/useful/fun/possibly even generous bestowal and know that you put some thought into it, which is really the point. Or they’ll know you also read City Paper, and that’s gotta be worth something.
This year’s batch of personal shoppers/blurb writers features Andrea Appleton, Michael Byrne, Laura Dattaro, Edward Ericson Jr., Lee Gardner, Tim Hill, Joe MacLeod, Van Smith, and Andrew Vogel.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcakes
Sweet Bakery, 239 W. Read St., (410) 728-2253, sweetbakerybaltimore.com, $3 each
We spoke directly to the milk-and-cookie man himself, and Santa Claus informed us that regular old cookies aren’t going to cut it this year. What you’re getting with this delicious flavor-melded treat is a chocolate-chip-cookie-dough cup magically oven-fused with—you guessed it—delicious cupcake goodness. Some cupcakes these days seem to be all for show, or heavily imbalanced on the icing-to-cupcake ratio, leaving you with a mouthful of overpowering sugary icing. Not so at Sweet Bakery. You’re getting a cookie and a cupcake that you will snack on until the last crumb and come back for more. Sweet also has great soft pretzels, cookies, a wide array of other cupcake flavors, and some really fancy-looking cakes too. City Paper demands the development (weaponization?) of cold-milk-in-a-glass cupcakes to complete the perfect pairing this holiday season.
Ravens Ca$h Fantasy Scratchoffs
Available at supermarkets, liquor stores, and wherever fine state-approved wagering opportunities are sold, mdlotteryravens.com, $5
This year’s version of the “Ravens Cash Fantasy” scratcher offers (as of press time) three $250,000 instant-win prizes, along with (estimated probability of winning: 1 in 3.43) chances for smaller amounts of cash from 10 grand (six of those left) down to five bucks (thousands of those), plus the “Extra Yards” feature where you accumulate points over the football season and enter drawings on the Maryland Lottery web site for a million bucks, tickets to Ravens games, a million bucks, tickets for life to Ravens games, and, we’ll say it one more time, a million bucks, which makes this the perfect stocking stuffer from gambler to gambler, and just remember to make that “split the winnings” pact before you start scratchin’.
Pratt Street Ale House Growlers
206 W. Pratt St., (410) 244-8900, prattstreetalehouse.com, $15-$23
Make holiday parties even merrier by bringing filled growlers from Pratt Street Ale House as gifts for the hosts. Not only do the parties get properly supplied with freshly tapped, carefully crafted beers, but the hosts get to refill the 64-ounce growlers later—at the Ale House, and at any of their favorite bars that cater to the growler set. The Ale House’s imported English brewery equipment turns out ales under the Olivers brand, which was started by the microbrewery’s previous owners in the 1990s, and the rotating varieties on its menu are a beer-drinker’s adventure. From the Bishop’s Indulgence, a strong stout that tastes of cocoa and vanilla and is best sipped rather than chugged, to Dark Horse, a low-alcohol dark ale that goes down well pint after pint, Olivers ales make a party heartier with each growler that’s emptied.
Chris Isaak Beyond the Sun
Wherever music is sold, $16.99
Forget what “the kids are listening to these days.” What the hell do you get your mom? Or your dad? Handsome neo-retro crooner Chris Isaak has an answer in his new album, Beyond the Sun. That’s “Sun” as in Sun Studios, the way-back birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and the source for the 14 vintage numbers (25 in the “deluxe” edition) Isaak remakes in straight-ahead fashion here. He covers the gamut from a rip-snortin’ obscurity like “Miss Pearl” to an “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” that doesn’t embarrass itself in comparison with the Elvis smash. It’s for throwbacks of any age, really, and there’s a vinyl version too if your intended recipient is up on the latest format. Protip: Moms especially love Chris Isaak.
Charms City Company Necklaces
charmscitycompany.com or Double Dutch, 3616 Falls Road, (410) 554-0055, doubledutchboutique.com, $17-$54
This local company produces the sort of jewelry you might adopt as a talisman. An airplane, a vintage-style owl, a tiny working harmonica, all of these can be found at the end of a Charms City chain. Scoop up a tiny pair of golden binoculars for the bird-watcher or peeping Tom in your life, or a compass necklace for someone feeling lost. Many of the elements used in making the necklaces are found objects of one sort or another. Antique skeleton keys—of all shapes and sizes—salvaged chandelier crystals, typewriter keys, vintage chunky wooden beads, and game pieces are among them. Here’s to “upcycling.”
Steve Gdula Gobba Gobba Hey: A Gob Cookbook
Wherever books are sold, $18
If you’re not from Pennsylvania, you probably don’t know what a gob is. If you are from PA, you probably know that a gob is more or less the same as a whoopee pie, and having said that, most folks reading this probably know what a whoopee pie is, as they have been anointed a hot foodie sweet treat. (We forget if they come before or after macaroons, but we digress.) In any event, they’re delicious little morsels featuring two soft cakes with fluffy cream in between, and author, former Baltimorean, and erstwhile City Paper contributor Steve Gdula lays out recipes herein for whipping up seriously mouth-watering upscale variants (e.g., green tea gobs with lemongrass-ginger frosting). But more than a cookbook, Gobba Gobba Hey also tells the story of Gdula looking for a sideline after a move to San Francisco, turning to the humble treats of his Johnstown childhood, and transforming himself into a successful street vendor in one of the more lively street-food scenes in the country. In short, a great cookbook where you actually wanna read the stuff that isn’t recipes.
Brian Ralph Daybreak
Wherever books are sold, $21.95
Zombies = still hot. But back before they got, like, ridiculously hot (you know, for dead people), comics artist/illustrator Brian Ralph (an occasional City Paper contributor) launched his Daybreak series, which told the nearly wordless story of a young boy and his dog adrift in the zombie apocalypse. Enlivened by Ralph’s elegantly chunky style, the books proved funny, grim, and surprisingly touching. Now Drawn and Quarterly has collected the Daybreak saga, if you will, into one slim, handsome, hardcover volume. Some surrounded-by-brainless-idiots kid you know needs this, and maybe some zombies-on-the-braaaaain grownup does too.
Gilbert Sandler Home Front Baltimore: An Album of Stories from World War II
Wherever books are sold, $29.95
In this nostalgic season, what better gift than a portal to Baltimore’s past? Gilbert Sandler’s fascinating coffee-table book tells the story of what life was like in the city while the war raged overseas: what locals ate, what they talked about, what they wore, where they worked, what they did for fun. The shipyards and steel mills cranked 24 hours a day, staffed in large part by women; dancing was so popular that people quickly wore out their war-rationed shoes; and families heard only rarely from their loved ones in the services. Accompanied by numerous photos from the era—including many familiar corners rendered unfamiliar by the passage of time—Home Front Baltimore is a gift that will painlessly ground young people in the history of their city and encourage older folk to reminisce.
Damn Good Doormats
Every year around this time, we come across local artist Spoon Popkin’s hand-stenciled coir doormats and give a dramatic, moony sigh. So far, the subtlety hasn’t worked, so this year we’re spelling it out: We LOVE these doormats, hint hint. Especially the ones with animals, especially especially the one with the stencil of the honey badger. Or maybe the blue wood-grain one. ’Nuff said. If you’re looking for something more message-y, consider the handy keys, pants, dignity doormat or this is a house of learned doctors. Ranging from ironic—say, an Atari Pong graphic—to warm-hearted—leave your worries on the doorstep—to officious—go away, i bite—you’re sure to find the appropriate tone for everyone on your list.
firstname.lastname@example.org, commission only, about $30-$50
Baltimore jewelry artist Kim Johnson may be better at promoting a cause than promoting herself. Her fledgling company, Magpie Earrings, doesn’t yet have a web site, but all of her jewelry is made with materials that are neither derived from nor tested on animals, and she donated a good portion of what she had stocked up to Ruth’s Closet, a storefront that sells new and used clothes and other items to raise money for the Maryland House of Ruth. Johnson makes naturally pretty earrings, broaches, hair accessories, and other works from materials like wire, uncut stones—fluorite, prehnite, pyrite—glass, and bits and pieces from antique jewelry. It’s like buying a tiny piece of original art you can wear, and it supports a local who’s busy supporting good herself. Doesn’t get much more holiday spirit than that.
McFadden Art Glass, 6800 Eastern Ave., (410) 631-6039, mcfaddenartglass.com, starts at $30
Hand-made gifts are some of the best; they can be as simple as a card cut from construction paper and decorated with crayons or elaborate as heirloom crafts. Imagine a team of skilled artisans standing in the glowing orange light of the forge. You can feel the heat of the furnace as they pull out a formless mass of white-hot molten glass that is blown and shaped into a unique design. At McFadden Art Glass, you can be part of that team. McFadden offers a wide range of classes and one-off holiday-themed workshops. Sign up and hand make your own holiday ornament to give to that special someone, or if you’re more the “I can’t draw a stick figure” type, gift your creative loved ones instead for an unforgettable hands-on experience. Don’t be afraid; McFadden accepts all skill levels and the atmosphere is inviting and friendly.
Bottle of Sloop Betty Wheat Vodka
Various locations, sloopbetty.com, $31.99
We won’t be satisfied with the Maryland craft-booze scene until we get Pikesville Rye back in Pikesville. But we will still celebrate every new brewery and distillery that comes our way, so a warm welcome to Stevensville’s Blackwater Distillery and its signature product, Sloop Betty. It’s not a rye or whiskey, but wheat vodka’s at least somewhat of a relative (rye and wheat are in a tight family together). It’s also a vodka that you can sip, unencumbered by mixers, without having it eat through your esophagus, which is sure to blow your booze-newb giftee’s mind.
Putty Hill/Hamilton DVD
Wherever DVDs are sold, $34.95
Now you too can send someone home with their very own cinematic slice of Northeast Baltimore, thanks to Cinema Guild’s DVD release of Matt Porterfield’s recent art-house sleeper Putty Hill, which comes with a second disc featuring his 2006 first feature Hamilton. Sure, maybe you drive through Hamilton and Parkville all the time, but seeing them through Porterfield’s eyes (and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s lens) offers a take on the ’hoods (and on the people, and cinema in general) that you don’t pass on Harford Road every day. Your film-nerd loved one will thank you for it.
Stuff for Your Dude from 16 Tons
1100 W. 36th St., (410) 554-0101, shop16tons.com, prices vary
16 Tons is the perfect masculine/distressed/outdoorsy shop to find your man something he looks hot in (for you) and will also wear more than once. Right now it’s fall/winter, so you’re going to find perfect vintage Lee and Levis cords in all kinds of colors, sweet Ben Sherman cardigans, rugged Spiewak outerwear, natty vintage tweed blazers you’d swear were brand new, thick flannel and denim shirts, great gloves, neckties, belts, cozy socks, cool hats a hundred times better than what you’d find at Target or Lids, wallets, and whiskey flasks, plus bay rum soap and grooming products. For his beard. Seriously.
A Clean House from Ecolistic Cleaning
(888) 432-6547, ecolisticcleaning.net, one-time cleaning rate $40 an hour, initial cleaning priced after estimate
OK, this one will require some advance planning and possibly subterfuge if you want it to be a surprise, but for a hard-to-buy-for, hard-working Santa’s helper, we can’t think of a better gift than having the crew from Ecolistic Cleaning perform one of their new-client initial cleanings, which includes services such as vacuuming; dusting; cobweb busting; cleaning of bathroom fixtures, mirrors, kitchen rangetop, microwave, cabinets, floor; and lots, lots more, all finished off with an antibacterial essential-oil room spray, and what’s great about Ecolistic is it is committed to natural and eco-friendly cleaning products and practices, and hey, Ecolistic does windows, for an extra charge.
Shiny Happy Artwork by Loring Cornish
917 N. Howard St., (443) 622-2869, loringcornish.com, $40-$1,200
The sheer existence of this studio and store is already a gift, beaming vibrant energy and bright colors into Howard Street’s sleepy “Antique Row,” so stop in to the new storefront of “outsider artist” Loring Cornish, and once you figure out what powers the front wheel of the mirror-covered bicycle (on top of the mirror-covered pool table, naturally) in the front window, have a look around at the incredible wall-hanging mosaics constructed of kabillions of pieces of glass, mirror, tile, crockery, stone, beads, keys, shoes, plates, baby dolls—you name it—along with everyday objects like toasters, lamps, and chairs transformed into amazing and inspiring pieces that will put a smile on your face, and chances are you’ll see something that will do the same for someone on your list.
Summoner Wars: Master Set
Canton Games, 2101 Essex St., (410) 276-2640, cantongames.com, $49.95
If mixing elements from a deck-driven card game and elements of a strategic board game sounds like a great way to spend an evening, or maybe you’re just a little board-game curious, Plaid Hat Games’ Summoner Wars is worth picking up. There’s a lot in this box—six entire armies to battle it out against your opponent and easy-to-follow rules that keep the emphasis on game play but still give you tons of replay value and room for future expandability. Each faction has its own unique play style that really gives the six decks a different feel. You’ll find yourself strategizing about flanking your opponent’s ranged units as you skirmish back and forth across the battlefield, making sacrifices and waiting for the perfect opportunity to unleash your powerful champions to drive back the enemies’ unrelenting waves as you dodge behind a wall for cover then finally make the decisive strike to annihilate their summoner and claim victory. Whew.
Fells Point Chess Club Membership
1717 Aliceanna St., (410) 327-9191, $50 ($30 if under 18 years old)
Hitting a pawn shop to buy holiday gifts generally isn’t good form, but if you’re buying something for a competitive chess player—or someone who hopes to be—shopping at the Fells Point Chess Club is a strategic move. In Baltimore, this is where the real players play, and you can’t beat the setting: just off Broadway in historic Fells Point. Members avoid the hourly or per-day costs of sitting down to play, and they get reduced prices on equipment and tournament fees. And this gift has a potential payoff, since chess-tournament winners take home real money; the Maryland Chess Association’s 2012 Baltimore Open, in February, for example, pays winners $50 to $600. Giving a membership for the holidays will afford your favorite player ample opportunity to bone up with other contenders in time for the big event.
Alien Abduction Lamp
abductionlamp.com, $84.99 or $8 worth of junk
This Alien Abduction lamp (complete with about-to-be-mutilated cow) is the living end for kids and nerds alike. The diode-illuminated “tractor beam” provides not quite enough light to read by, the better to stare at it lovingly. The unfortunate cow is replaceable and the company promises new abductees shortly. Of course, at 85 samoleans (plus shipping,), this is not an impulse buy. It’s, let’s say, a future family heirloom. But if you’re not ready to commit, and especially if you’re a crafty sort, you can yoink the style by heading to your local dollar store and collect, for about $8, all the hardware you need (including multiple farm animals and aliens) to make a pretty funky facsimile of the real, Chinese-made Alien MacCoy. Big ups to Heather at the Dollar Store Crafts blog (dollarstorecrafts.com/2009/03/alien-lamp) for thinking this up and to Jack Hitt and The New York Times Sunday Magazine for lighting the way to them. Let a thousand saucers bloom!
Edgar Allan Poe Shoes
Baltimore’s tie to Edgar Allan Poe may be tenuous, and the funding for his home/museum here dwindling into oblivion, but we still love him, dammit, and we want everyone to know. We hope someone who likes us has caught on to our frequent proclamation that “Annabel Lee” is our favorite poem ever and splurges on a pair of Poes for our toes from edgarallanpoegifts.com, which also carries myriad other Poe-themed swag. Maybe we’ll get the I’m a POEser high-tops, with Poe’s brooding face straight-up pasted onto the black shoe, like, eight times. Or maybe the simpler Nevermore slip-on—classy white canvas with a silhouette reminiscent of “The Raven.” There’s stuff for the kiddies too, ’cause it’s never too early to introduce the children to one of the literary greats. And maybe scare ’em a little.
National Aquarium Membership
Individual $74, couple $109, aqua.org
Here’s the thing about the National Aquarium: While one of the best things the Inner Harbor has going for it, it’s expensive for a more than once-a-year or so visit at $24.95 per adult head. And the experience of being in an aquarium, the almost therapeutic feeling of being around all those tanks full of gracefully swimming creatures, is something you’d love to have, well, a lot. Like, as a retreat of sorts. And weird fish, like a Banggai cardinalfish or feather blenny, are very cool as it is. So at just over a hundred bucks for a year per couple (any two people at the same address), you’re giving the gift of access to a beatific if occasionally creepy alien planet.
John Fahey Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years 1958-1965
Wherever CDs are sold, $80
The late guitarist John Fahey is a totem and touchstone for all manner of music and musicians, both old and new, forward-looking and retro, weird and otherwise. But 50 years ago, he was just a talented if somewhat aimless collegiate lunk from Silver Spring who spent a good bit of time in his buddy Joe Bussard’s basement in Frederick mounting his own attacks on the then obscure canon of the Delta blues and hatching the sort of expansive experimentation that would help revolutionize acoustic music forever. Primo label Dust-to-Digital’s new five-CD box set of Bussard’s prefame recordings of Fahey—many of them never heard anywhere outside that basement—with a hardcover book’s worth of liner notes and interview material is just the thing for the hard-core music nerd on your shopping list. (If it came on vinyl, you’d never have to buy him anything again ever.)
Various prices, zipcar.com
Perhaps you, like many, many car owners who live in urban areas, are besieged with ride requests from the carless. “Hey man, I need to get some new curtains at Ikea.” “Hey can you make a run with me to Laurel to thrift?” “Cool show in Philly, you drivin’?” It happens, and it’s totally natural. But, now you have an ally: Zipcar. For less than $100 (for a yearly membership), your favorite ride-leech can exercise some goddamn self-reliance via the car-sharing organization, which has made a huge push into Baltimore in the past year or so. It’s pretty simple: Zipcars are all over Baltimore, you reserve them online or via an iPhone app, and you take them out hourly or daily. Gas is free, there are no hidden insurance fees, the cars are all pretty nice—and now you’re the one riding shotgun.
Energy Inc. Home Energy Monitor
To conserve electricity in the old days, you just went around the house and turned off lights. These days, there are so many little electricity vampires and power leaks—power strips, electronics that stay on in standby mode, and so on—it’d take you an afternoon to shut them all down. And you still wouldn’t find devices that draw without your knowledge. Information is the first step to managing your power usage. Simple energy monitors, such as Energy Inc.’s TED 1000, give you real-time statistics on how much electricity is flowing out of your outlets and projects how much your utility bills will run. Plug the unit into an outlet and watch your bill rise and fall. Go for the more sophisticated TED 5000 and you can track your usage remotely—on a web site, or in an app, naturally—collect years of data, and nail down all the energy leaks in your house. Either way, it’s a good investment, and you should recoup your money in less than a year. Energy Inc. says if you use the device to curtail your electricity use and eliminate energy leaks, you could reduce electricity bills up to 15 percent. Every kilowatt counts.