Except for hoarders, Americans are working on curbing their love affair with stuff. We're no longer compelled — or financially able — to go into debt to appease some manipulated urge to accumulate. But giving (and receiving) can still be a rewarding experience, especially when your gift hasn't been plucked from the factory line. This season, why not give something unique, with meaning? Many locally based artisans and businesses offer custom-made products, though many are available only online. With a little planning and thought, your gift can stand out from all the rest. Here's how:Restore a Family Photo
Old family photos are often the only physical pieces of evidence that tie us to our past. But years of neglect and improper storage can lead to fading and creases, which may prevent us from displaying them. While restoring old photos isn't anything new, the process has become a lot more streamlined thanks to technological advances. Online sites such as AmericanPhotoRestoration.com allow you to upload your photo from home, but for a more personal, artistic touch, head to Photo Lab in West Berkeley. They'll fix up your old photos (including daguerreotypes, tintypes, and cabinet cards), resize them if need be, and will hand you back prints on archival paper plus the images on CD or DVD. Their work is superb. Call, e-mail, or visit the store for a quote.Can Your Own Food
With a multitude of books about urban farming and the First Lady espousing the grow-your-own philosophy, gardening on any size plot has now become a no-brainer. The logical next step in this trend is learning to preserve your homegrown edibles so you don't have to gorge on tomatoes for months. Learn how to pickle vegetables, preserve fruit, and make your own cheese and yogurt at workshops in Oakland hosted by Happy Girl Kitchen. Brightly colored fruits and veggies inside glass Mason jars make particularly festive-looking gifts, and your friends and family will no doubt be impressed by your newfound homesteading skills. And if you've got a brown thumb or don't have time or money to attend a workshop, simply buy one of Happy Girl Kitchen's ready-made sampler jars online.Screen-Print Your Own T-Shirt
T-shirts are always a safe purchase for that hard-to-shop-for person on your list (teenage nephew, punk-rock nanny, grandpa, neighbor Bob). The annual Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair has a multitude of screen-printed tees for the politically, Berzerkeley, and musically inclined, but to lessen your chances of your $25 purchase ending up as a rag, try designing one that has special meaning to the wearer. Unlike many screen-printers, Oakland's Rise Above Graphics doesn't require a minimum number of garments, so you can specially design a tee for each person on your list (although you could save time and money by designing one for all). Best of all, you can provide your own shirt so you're not stuck with some neck-choking Hanes Beefy tee. As an added incentive, the local company is currently offering "recession pricing," at around $.50 to $1 cheaper than their listed prices.Colonize a Found Paper Journal
Journals and notebooks make inspiring gifts for the creative types on your list, but sometimes those ornately designed leather-bound styles can be a tad intimidating when it comes time to actually commit those thoughts to commit to paper. The Found Paper Journal, designed by husband and wife artists Pete and Narangkar Glover of Rowan Morrison Gallery and Artist's Bookstore, binds together vintage "found" (but unused) paper, including onion skin, letterhead, accounting ledgers, graph paper, and others, each containing some mysterious local history. The 120-page journals are handcrafted by craftsmen in Oakland and feature an embossed scissor-design cover designed by Narangkar, so it's funky inside is balanced by its gift-appropriate outside.Publish Your Own Book
Many of us dream of writing a book one day, but considering the state of the publishing industry, that day may have to be self-initiated. Now, even hobbyists can feel legitimate thanks to Blurb.com, which allows the everywoman to affordably make her own book online using Blurb's free software. Add and arrange text, photos, and artwork to make a completely professionally looking book (available in softcover or hardcover, with or without a dust jacket, in various sizes) of beloved family recipes, wedding photos, childhood memories, your latest batch of poems, or anything else you desire to see in print. The book is then mailed to you in seven to ten business days.
Want to give your loved one something shiny but can't stomach generic designs from Zales.? Try creating your own designs using metal, whose heaviness and presence spell sophistication and durability. The East Bay has no shortage of metalworkers to learn from, the most obvious place to start being West Oakland's the Crucible, which offers three-hour "holiday taster" jewelry and enameling workshops on December 19 and 20. And if your creative juices aren't flowing, stop by the Crucible's free holiday gift fair on December 12 and 13 to find art, photography, jewelry, and other unique, imaginative gifts made by local artisans.Order Custom Furniture
Got a bit of money to drop — perhaps you received that bonus — and don't mind slipping your sweetie an unforgettable IOU? Give Oakland custom furniture designer Nick DeSario a call and invite him over to scope out your space. With a degree in architecture and a strong bent toward sustainability, this 31-year-old founded DeSario Design in 2008 to create one-of-a-kind furniture for clients who crave unique urban design. Using reclaimed local materials including car and bicycle tires, bamboo, palm, steel and recycled plastics, DeSario will concoct the bench/desk/chair/lamp/you-name-it of the lucky recipient's dreams. His eye for detail and innovation are impeccable — which help explain why the likes of Nike, Macy's, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Jamba Juice have all called on him to spruce up their interiors. Prepare to be patient — turnaround time for your masterpiece may be a couple months. Not a bad deal considering it'll last a lifetime.Design a Custom Tea
Want a tea that goes beyond your ordinary green or black? How about strawberry cheesecake? Banana nut bread? Carmel apple? Handpick from a mind-boggling array of flavors to create your own unique brand of tea, courtesy of Alameda-based Custom Leaf Tea Shop. Start with one of six bases (black, green, honeybush, rooibos, white, or yerba mate), then mix and match any of Custom Leaf's flowers, fruits, herbs, or flavors (including caramel, sasaparilla, gingerbread, almond, marshmallow, sangria, etc.) — which are all kosher, vegan, and gluten-free. It's all online, and teas ship in just one to three business days. (Full disclosure: the owner's day job is at the Express.)Commission a Fine-Art Portrait
Thanks to the recession, there is a surplus of talented artists hungry for work. Which means it's also a perfect time to commission a portrait of your loved one. Peruse the Creative Services section of Craigslist to find contacts and samples from such artists as Kevin Kihn of Alameda (TheLoveWarrior.com/sfa). Or, if that seems too daunting, contact your local art gallery for recommendations. (Hint: Oakland's Pro Arts would be a good place to start.) Many artists can work with photos, so you can get a portrait of someone who's passed on, grown up, moved away, or won't sit still (think children or pets).Buy Anything!
Maybe you saw a dress in a store that you liked except for the weird asymmetrical hem, or a stuffed toy that was cute but you thought you could make better. We'd all be creative types in our spare-time dreams, but since we're currently stuck in no-time reality, try living vicariously through the designers, craftspeople, and hobbyists on Etsy.com. A portal for selling and buying all things handmade (or vintage), Etsy also has a unique feature that allows you to put a bid out for a customized project. You can contact a specific designer you like or put a general call out to receive bids. (You can also search by geographic region to find local items like the custom photo pendant by Oakland-based Mangosteen Jewelry.) And because of the egalitarian nature of Etsy, you can request an extremely reasonable (or damn near criminally cheap) price for your item. For wannabe designers and picky types, it's a dream come true.
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