Baltimore City Paper

City Paper's annual holiday gift guide

Yes, we know, things are still a little tight for most folks. And while it’s the thought that counts and all that, you’re probably going to need to figure out something to put in a box to represent that fond thought for at least some of the people in your life. Plus others could likely use a little of that bit of economic stimulus you’ve got in your pocket. Thus our usual compendium of gift ideas, as locally sourced as we could manage and arranged roughly in order of most inexpensive to spendiest.


Green Toys

Amuse, various locations,; Shananigans, 5004-B Lawndale Ave., (410) 532-8384,, $4.99-$39.99

When our young’un tore the paper from this Christmas gift last year, we stared slack-jawed in jealousy. Enclosed in a sturdy cardboard box sat a two-tone green recycling truck of a stout and rather funky design, made of, what else, 100 percent recycled plastic. That thing is tough. It’s endured indoor and outdoor play, and still looks good after a year of use. He doesn’t care that Green Toys are a smart, ecological-minded company based out of (where else) California that manufactures a whole line of hardy plastic toys from wheeled vehicles (including a newly-released fire truck) to kitchen sets, blocks, and baby toys. He just loads it up with his own recyclables and off he goes. He also doesn’t care that Green Toys manages the entire process locally, from sourcing the plastic to manufacturing. But we do, and he will too, eventually. Green Toys are available at area aMuse toy stores and Shananigan’s in Roland Park, where they stock pretty much the whole line.

Clay Rowhouse Ornament, $7.50

Painted crab shells and Natty Boh-can angels aside, Baltimore isn’t the kind of city that inspires a lot of Christmas ornaments (unless you count those festive strands of yellow police tape). But for decades, Jon E. Stephens—who grew up in a rowhouse on 39th Street—has been producing charming 2-inch-by-3-inch clay rowhouse ornaments as a tribute to Baltimore. Sure, the real deal tends to be a bit narrow and dimly lit, but the close quarters foster a sense of community. And Stephens’ ornaments—each of which is unique—somehow capture that feeling. They’re carved and painted by hand—with delicate details like marble steps, doorknobs, and street trees—and strung from a satin ribbon. For the price of a decent sandwich, you can make someone nostalgic about their origins or simply happy to be home.

Raw Olive Body Products,

Elizabeth Voss, the woman behind Raw Olive, started making her all-natural body products when she realized so-called natural products she found at health stores still contained ingredients such as parabens, sodium laurel sulfate, and petroleum. Her bath and body items stick to human-friendly goodies such as cold-pressed olive oil, raw sugar, and honey, and she’s created an impressive line of indulgent skin treats. We swear by the tangerine mint lip balm ($3) and the grapefruit bergamot soap ($4), but the sugar scrubs—such as the peppermint mocha latte or margarita sugar ($15 each)—look like great gifts. If we don’t decide to keep them for ourselves.

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

Ostrowski’s Famous Polish Sausage

524 S. Washington St., (410) 327-8935, website, various prices

When you’re trying to find a gift for one of those hard-to-buy-for or person-who-has-everything types, food is generally a good call, and the great thing about food is it’s meant to be shared, so save the money you’d waste on some sort of generic basket of holiday gift-garbage and plan a pop-in sausage party for the holidays with one of the impeccable pork products from Ostrowski’s, which are available only at its South Washington Street store. Make the effort to call ahead and find out what’s fresh and you will be rewarded with a cornucopia of kielbasa, both smoked and fresh, and don’t forget to grab some of the homemade horseradish.

City Paper Cartoonists’ Books

Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, (410) 662-4444,, various prices

Emily Flake (Lulu Eightball), Dina Kelberman (Important Comics), Tony Millionaire (Maakies), and Tom Tomorrow (This Modern World) all have books jammed full of their comics that will make lovely holiday gifts while encouraging reading, or at least concentration while looking at the pictures. Ben Claassen III of Dirt Farm fame promises us a new release next year, but in the meantime hit him up for one of his classic EMERGENCY CARE FOR CHOKING posters found in the “Comic Features” section of

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

Milagro Handmade Jewelry

1005 W. 36th St., (410) 235-3800, prices vary

Veteran jewelry maker Kimry Perrone opened her shop Milagro six years ago, but now that she has a 7-month-old son, her creativity has spiked and Japanese landscapes and bird paintings share wall space with Mexican decorations and other art. She sells other baubles too, but her affordable pretties in crystal and delicate sterling chain, faceted stones in rich goldenrod and jade green, textured silver in subtle to glamorous circles, fun enamel flowers and plastic stud hearts, 3D horses and painted owl rounds, and glass strawberry beads offer such diverse style, you’ll find something for your younger sister and your mother-in-law. Combo gift-give that special lady by pairing one of Perrone’s pieces (most range $12-$35) with a woolly scarf and whimsical knit mittens, a cozy coffee/tea/red wine mug from Tunisia, organic cotton long-sleeve tops or easy wrap dresses from Synergy, a soft screen-printed baby onesie or T-shirt, funky Japanese hostess items, $12-a-yard Mexican oil cloth, or original art.

B-More Bags

House of Ruth, trunk show Dec. 2, 6-9 p.m., Green Spring Station, 10479 Falls Road, Lutherville,,, prices range from $12-$45.

For the last 33 years, Baltimore’s House of Ruth has relied on a combination of paid staff, volunteers, and donations to take in and care for women and their children needing to escape abusive homes (see “Surviving Christmas,”). Patrons can give a flat donation, but those seeking a more creative interaction can attend the B-More Bags trunk show, which features all varieties of bags—totes, purses, evening bags—each of which is handmade by volunteers from donated materials. This means two things: All of the proceeds go to the House of Ruth, and each bag is entirely unique. They are also, conveniently, gorgeous, which means you can directly help a worthy cause while giving a gift that will be genuinely appreciated. Up till now, the bags could only be purchased at the yearly trunk show, but fortunately, the House is opening up a permanent resale boutique with a storefront at the Valley Village Shopping Center in Owings Mills, where the bags and other items can be bought year-round. The grand opening is the first week in January, but there will be a soft opening sometime in December. (E-mail for more information.)

Celebration, Hello Paradise

Various retailers and, $14.99

are album releases even all that anticipated anymore? Indie music, mainstream, whatever, most of that stuff’s out there already via internet and an album “dropping”—into a physical store—is nearly a joke these days, for a whole lot of people at least. And by the time this record, a sublime mix of lovely inner-space rock songs, finally comes out in December, most every one of its songs will have been up for free on the internet, via the band itself.  But here’s the thing: There still exists music that is good enough, special enough even, that you want to put down actual money for it, own a vinyl slab of it, and watch it spin around on a turntable. This is one of those records.

Michael Formanek and Michael Kannen: 1971 tickets

Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place, (410) 234-4500,, $15, $10 seniors, $5 students with ID

There are can’t-miss shows and then there are events that just don’t happen that often at all. Take Michael Formanek and Michael Kannen’s 1971 at the Peabody Institute. On Jan. 26, 2011, the Peabody Jazz Orchestra leader and director of the chamber music department, respectively, team up for a concert boasting a playful program. Everything dates from 1971, and contrabassist Formanek, violonocellist Kannen, and other faculty members—flutist Marina Piccinni, reeds player Cam Collins, guitarist Paul Bollenback, pianist Seth Knopp, violin badass Courtney Orlando, and members of the Peabody Percussion Studio—will tackle George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Part 1, John McLaughlin’s “Meeting of the Spirits,” selections from Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, Josef Zawinul’s “The Unknown Soldier,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks.” Formanek’s jazz arrangements are always ingenious, so this evening promises to be a sublime treat.

Baltimore Counts! A Children’s Counting and Art Book

Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. or, $20

People like to say the printed word is dying. But what do infants and toddlers seem to love most? Books. Their apparently innate love of holding them, opening them, turning their pages, chewing on them, or banging them on the floor just can’t be sated by a computer or smart phone. So add to a youngster’s library this holiday season with Baltimore Counts!, a brand-new book by Siri Lise Doub and Wayne Arnold that will help teach counting from one to 25, a formidable achievement when you’re a wee one. Each of the numbers is associated with something Baltimore- or Maryland-centric, and each of the images was created by a locally based artist. Its purchase supports ORCHkids, a music program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that teaches kids to play instruments.

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

Video Americain Gift Certificate

3100 St. Paul St, (410) 889-5266; 400 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 243-2231;

Yes, the recipient of this gift will be required to get up off the couch, physically go to one of Video Americain’s two Baltimore locations, and, like, actually look through shelves and shelves of actual DVDs (and VHS tapes!) for a movie to watch. And, yes, that person will have to eventually get up off the couch and bring it back, lest he or she be asked to pay a modest fine. But, hey, exercise, plus we’re talking shelves and shelves of the one of the finest home-entertainment libraries on the East Coast, an exquisitely curated collection full of titles you will surely find nowhere else and probably didn’t even know you absolutely needed to see until one of the flesh-and-blood clerks turned you on to it. VA could use your support, and plus, those savvy clerks probably won’t size up your rental history and digitally poop out the notion that you’d love Legends of the Fall.

Baltimore Print Studios STRATEGIC PLAN Poster

16 W. North Ave.,, $20

“So what?” you ask. It’s a poster with words. Well, yes, but it’s the first “mass” run from Baltimore Print Studios, a new Station North storefront whose line is printing things onto paper—via screenprinting, letterpress, etc.—teaching people to do it, and renting out studio/equipment time. Maybe it’s just the paper lining our own souls here, but that’s exciting. And the posters are done by hand and individually signed. You can consider the $20 sticker price a direct donation to the sort of DIY business that can’t happen in many places but our fair city. Let’s make sure it sticks around.

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

The Peanut Shoppe Gift Basket

The Peanut Shoppe, 222 N. Charles St., (410) 685-3731, $25

Pity the souls that are allergic to peanuts, for they must forego the Peanut Shoppe. Nearly four generations old, the Baltimore institution has moved a few blocks from its long-time location on Lexington Street, and is now happily nestled in the shopping center at Charles and Saratoga streets downtown (plus a satellite location at Belvedere Square). A Peanut Shoppe gift basket offers bags of fresh-roasted peanuts (both in-the-shell and shelled), cashews, pistachios, and mixed nuts, along with bags of chocolate-covered peanuts, raisins, and pretzels, and rounded out with some Goetze’s Bulls Eye caramel creams, Red Bird peppermint candies, and Chew-ets Peanut Chews (formerly Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews). The overstuffed basket comes wrapped in festive cellophane and tied with a bow, ready for some lucky, allergy-free soul to unwrap.

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

An Afternoon of English Tea

Tea on the Tiber, 8081 Main St., Ellicott City, (410) 480-8000,, $25 a person, includes a pot of tea each, a prix fixe menu to share, and tax and gratuity, reservations requested

For many of us Americans, tea is hot water and a bag of Lipton microwaved in a mug and taken with sugar. That’s not what tea is. Tea is homey elegance, delicate finery, rich spices, and, most importantly, warm conversation. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, tea is a gathering point, a way of inviting others out of the cold and into your home. And that’s what it is at Tea on the Tiber, a cozy English tea room in a wonderful old building in Ellicott City. It’s lovely any time of the year, but during the holiday season, it’s a peaceful little hideaway from the frenzy of parties and presents. This year, gather a small group of friends or family and decide to forego gift-giving in exchange for an afternoon spent sipping tea and nibbling pastries. The quietude and unobtrusive service of the place encourages kindly conversation, something we all need at the crazed closing of the year.

Kiva Gift Certificate, $25 and up

Kiva is a “microfinance” organization that helps individuals lend money interest-free to entrepreneurs around the world. Gift certificates start at $25, and the recipient then chooses who they want to lend to, from a list of thousands. Choices might range from a farmer in Uganda wanting to buy seed to a mechanic in Bolivia hoping to buy new tools. Each borrower profile includes a photo and a bio, and accountability is built into the system. On-the-ground microfinance institutions send updates and ensure the loan is repaid. And once it is, you can lend it out again to someone else. It feels a lot better than throwing your money at some vast nonprofit that doesn’t have to tell you what they’re going to do with it.

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

Hippodrome Hatters Hat

318 W. Baltimore St., (888) 727-HATS (4287),, various prices

any knucklehead can make a present of a baseball cap or a gift certificate to one of those cut-rate lid shops at the mall where the clerk thinks a homburg is what they serve at Five Guys, so be a thoughtful gift-giver and hook up your favorite holiday head with a trip to a real-deal Baltimore hat shop that’s been in business for 80 years, and arrange a casual but personal consultation with an expert who will properly measure the target dome and help figure out a style that won’t make them look like a tool or a poser. There’s a lot more to put on someone’s head besides a flimsy discount Kangol or a cheaply made porkpie that only comes in small/medium/large. Hippodrome has all kinds of fedoras, boaters, and safaris in a variety of felt, fur, leather, straw, and wool, plus higher-quality Kangols than those generally available at the place with those dopey Yankees caps in 20 different colors. Plus, you never know-ho-ho, you might want to treat yourself for being such a discerning gift-giver and walk out with a sweet new leather C-Dent snap brim, or a crazy wool gambler, aw yeah.

H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices

Various retailers, $35, $70 for boxed set

Though reading Mencken’s endless skewering of the buffoons, charlatans and pretenders who populated the country’s political and intellectual scene in the 1920s and ’30s has a palliative effect—damn, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?—it’s hard to imagine a man of his intellect getting a word in edgewise today. Back then, Mencken could savagely dress down a figure like William Jennings Bryan—as he did in one of the more famous essays in Prejudices, the collection of editorials, essays, and articles recently published by the Library of America—and it would have a ripple effect. In today’s logic- and debate-deprived climate, a Bryanish character like Glenn Beck could simply box Mencken as an atheistic, out-of-touch East Coast snob and that’d be the end of it. You could buy this elegantly republished two-volume collection for yourself or for someone who’d appreciate the caustic (and, indeed, rather prejudiced) Mencken, or you could send it to that bombastic, e-mail-forwarding boob in your family, and wait for the fireworks. If they get around to reading it.

Paper Art by Annie Howe

Red Tree, 921 W. 36th St., (410) 366-3456,, $40-$120

Annie Howe can do some pretty incredible things with an X-Acto knife and an envelope. By cutting out the negative spaces in a scene, she creates intricate pieces of art, each a blend of painstaking precision and free-spirited imagination. Some scenes are whimsical cross-sections, exposing animals in their underground burrows and the interwoven roots of trees. Others include cityscapes, bicycles, winding roads, elaborate bird cages, you name it. Howe can even do sayings. The pieces are displayed on a colorful paper backing, framed, or on an unframed backing board wrapped in cellophane. And if you have a scene or theme in mind, Howe happily does commissions. (Contact her at

Credit: Jefferson Jackson Steele

Worm Composting Kit

Mill Valley General Store, 2800 Sisson St., (410) 889-6842,, $45

A colony of worms may not seem like a heart-warming holiday gift. But think of a worm composting kit as a bow-tied bin of wiggly, garbage-snarfing elves. The worms will devour all the onion skins, broccoli stalks, and apple cores you throw at them, and in return, produce a potent “tea” that makes great fertilizer. They require little care, don’t stink, and reproduce of their own accord. Hamilton Crop Circle, a Northeast Baltimore urban farming project, sells vermiculture kits—that’s the fancy term—constructed from blue plastic bins, all necessities included. Still not squirming with joy? Consider the fact that food scraps make up 19 percent of the waste in our nation’s landfills. Plus, you know, you’ll make a lot of worms really happy.

Hold Fast FRS

Baltimore Bike Works, 1813 Falls Road, (410) 605-0705,, $59.99

Hold Fast is a company based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that over the past year has started setting up shop in other cities—most notably, Baltimore. Its product is simple, but also kinda revolutionary: a heavy-duty fabric strap to keep your feet attached to your pedals, taking the place of clipless pedals or awkward metal cages—or, worse, nothing—and built for the kind of nonstop abuse that riding around these parts delivers.  If maybe none of that makes any sense, just understand that the city’s bike community has grown enough such that a company like Hold Fast can justify moving here and making stuff for bikes.

Zipcar Membership, $60 and up

If you have a buddy with a truck, betcha wish he or she’d answer the phone more often. In this multiple-university/college town full of cyclists and public transportation-humpers that’s just recently introduced a free bus service, a whole hell of a lot of us wish we could use a truck/minivan/hybrid just for the day. If you know anyone else in the same boat, gift them a Zipcar membership. Zipcars can be found all over Baltimore, and the system is super user-friendly: Once you belong, reserve online or by phone, use your Zipcar card to activate any of the cool MINI Coopers, Toyota trucks, or Priuses chilling at Zipcar sites (all can be found—including photos—online); do your business and pay by the hour or day while gas and insurance are all taken care of; and return the wheels to their original location. It’s like taking a joyride to Target or the Eastern Shore, except not illegal. An annual fee of $60 gets you started, and Zipcar is totally gift-certificate savvy.

Jimi Hendrix, West Coast Seattle Boy box

various retailers, $69.98

Just when you thought your rock ‘n’ roll man (or woman) had all the Hendrix he/she could handle, along comes this flabbergastingly solid collection of previously unreleased material from Sony Legacy. Yes, that’s Hendrix laying down the licks on the Isley Brothers’ 1964 “Testify.” Yes, that’s Hendrix backing Little Richard on the gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got, But It’s Got Me.” And, damn, that’s Hendrix putting the serious hip shake into King Curtis’ “Instant Groove.” And that’s just the first CD of this four-CD/DVD box set (also available as eight LPs). Break out the silk head scarves and velvet pants: It’s gonna be a very groovy holiday.

Laura Lippman’s The Girl in the Green Raincoat and rain boots

Coming in 2011; Benjamin lovell shoes, 618 S. exeter St., (410) 244-5359,, VARIOUS PRICES

Baltimore’s favorite mystery-writing daughter Laura Lippman debuted her new novel The Girl in the Green Raincoat in serialized form via The New York Times Magazine in 2008. The juicy little whodunnit features Tess Monaghan, aging girl detective whose unexpected pregnancy and eighth-month mandatory couch-rest changes the rules of her game in this Rear Window-like story of a fashionable girl in a green raincoat and Wellies who disappears. The Girl in the Green Raincoat doesn’t come out until 2011, so make a promise of a first edition (bought from a local bookstore) along with a pair of Hunter Wellingtons from the Harbor East Benjamin Lovell Shoes in hunter green, natch. Rain boots are super efficient in a coupla feet of snow—as long as you layer wool socks to keep your tootsies warm—but they’ll keep you dry into spring’s showers and during weekend-long music fests too.

Canton Kayak Club membership

9817 Finsbury Road, Rosedale,, $150

Here’s a thing you probably didn’t even know existed, and, based on the name “Canton Kayak Club,” would’ve guessed to be a bit more lame or, at least, inaccessible. Here’s the deal: CKC has four docks at various places around the harbor, and two others further east in Dundalk and Essex, stocked with boats. A membership entitles its owner to use a boat any time and without a reservation. It’s kinda like Zipcar, but with boats and paddles and no hourly rate, though you can’t really get a couch back from Ikea on a kayak. Also: The more people that get to know the harbor, the more people that care about the harbor. And maybe, just maybe, one day you won’t think “ewww gross” at the idea of tipping a kayak over in it.