Start Your Engines 

Ten interesting gift options for people who'd prefer not to wind up at the mall.

Some aspects of the holiday season are so cozy -- wreaths go up on doors around the neighborhood, shiny signage is hung from light poles, and there's loads of eggnog drinking to attend to. But then there's the shopping. It seems like it'll be fun, but then you find yourself rushing out to the mall on December 23 to fight other shoppers for the last Le Creuset omelet pan available at Macy's.

Instead, why not peruse our suggestions and start your shopping engines early? You'll be done by midmonth and really have a chance to celebrate the end of the old year and the start of the new in relaxed style.

The Twelve Days of Cooking

Have a friend who's dying to be the next Martha Stewart (without doing hard time, natch)? Send her (or him) on the path toward culinary goddess-hood with the twelve-week cooking series at Walnut Creek's Viking HomeChef. It starts with the basics -- stocks, soups, and sauces -- and gradually ramps up to such tasty delights as soufflés and pastries. There are lots of other classes available, from "Basic Knife Skills" to "Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes," and even workshops for teens and kids. Get the juices flowing, and you can even pick up some epicurean accessories at the accompanying gourmet store.

Twelve-week series is $389; single classes $49. Viking HomeChef, 1604 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. 925-943-3191, VikingHomeChef.com

Art for the Young Set

In a little house in Lafayette surrounded by oaks and big bins of impatiens is a burgeoning art school that teaches kids the basics of everything from drawing cartoons to painting in watercolor to playing with clay to fashion illustration. Various classes target ages four through teens, so there's something for everyone. Class size is limited to eight, and each session consists of six classes. Give your favorite kid pal a gift she can really grow with!

Teen and kids' class series range from $90-$150. The Art Room, 50 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette. 925-299-1515, TheArt-Room.com.

Trainspotters

Know any locomotive lovers of the young or old variety? If so, choo-choo it to Oakland's Tinplate Junction to stock up on new and vintage electric toy trains and a whole slew of other motor-related items, including toy and collectible cars. There isn't a whole lot of outlets left for train enthusiasts, but this is one of the best. The shop's collection of vintage train sets makes it a museum as much as a shop. You can even bring in your own trains to run on the junction's tracks on Saturdays from 4 to 6 p.m.

Starter train sets run from $150-$250. Tinplate Junction, 681 4th St., Oakland. 510-444-4780, TinplateJn.com

Chopper Heaven

Remember your halcyon childhood days spent cruising the 'hood on your Schwinn Sting-Ray? Well, what's old is new again, and now you can let the younger generation in on the fun with a brand-new revived and redesigned 'Ray. And we older folk don't need to feel left in the dust: a brand-new full-size (i.e., adult-size) Sting-Ray Spoiler just hit the market. It even has a custom-embroidered leather saddle. Pee-wee Herman never had it so good.

16-inch kids' version $129, adult Spoilers $599. Fremont Schwinn, 4040 Papazian Way, Fremont, 510-656-8610; Copeland's Sports, 185 Sunnyvale Mall, Concord, 925-685-1022.

Craftsman Style

As it turns out, finding the perfect accoutrements for an East Bay Craftsman house is a snap. Simply head to the Craftsman House in Berkeley. Located just down the hill from the Claremont Hotel, this little store is chock-full of furniture and accessories to make a Craftsman cottage come to life. From couches to ceramic tile to exactly right electrical plates, this store is a one-stop mecca for the Craftsman purist on your list. Some highlights: softly lit golden-hued landscapes by local artist James Armstrong starting at $180 (framed, even!) and "Present Time" Craftsman-style clocks handmade by Washington State artist Jim Daily.

Present Time clocks $125-$425. The Craftsman Home, 3048 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. 510-655-6503, CraftsmanHome.com

A Hunk of Junk

If you're one for the antiques and collectibles, you've chosen a swell spot to make your home. After all, you're near the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Fair, the Bay Area's best antique flea market. You won't see the usual piles of sweat socks and cleaning supplies found at most flea markets. Instead, everything on sale is at least twenty years old, so you'll find treasures from vintage toys to Victorian sofas to all sorts of knickknacks and baubles for home and hearth. The faire happens only once a month and the last date before Christmas is December 5, so mark it on those calendars and Palm Pilots. It could be the only shopping trip you'll need to make this season.

First Sunday of every month. Main gate at the end of W. Atlantic Ave. at the intersection of Main St., Alameda. 510-869-5428, AntiquesbytheBay.net .

In the Garden

Keenan/Heinz Company's motto is "Really cool stuff for home and garden," and this little shop, tucked in downtown Lafayette and surrounded by aged steel sunflowers, delivers grandly on that promise. Take a walk around the shop's back garden and you'll spot all sorts of items for the green thumb on your list, from garden Buddhas to massive fountains to ceramic mushrooms. There's even a nine-foot $1,500 aged-steel sculpture of a giraffe! Now who doesn't need that?

Steel sunflowers $225, ceramic mushrooms $13-$23. Keenan/Heinz Company, 3454 Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette. 925-284-0159.

Cute Stuff for Cutiepies

Nothing really beats sparkly pink Mary Janes, right? Well, not if you're a five-year-old girl in the throes of a princess or fairy phase. These and other such lovely items can be found at Red Wagon, with locations in both Berkeley and Lafayette. The merchandise, in the form of tots' clothing and toys, can be a bit pricey, but is way more stylish and well constructed than what you'd find at Baby Gap. The store even makes custom baby gift baskets for the newly parented!

Pink Mary Janes $50. Red Wagon, 2926 Doming Ave., Berkeley, 510-254-8216; 3535A Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette. 925-962-1450, RedWagonKids.com

Giving the Dog a Bone

Don't forget Fido in the rush of shopping for Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Jack. After all, he is your best friend, n'est-ce pas? Looking for a studded pink leather dog collar? A car booster seat for your tiny pooch so he can watch the scenery go by? A doggie bed made of hemp? Look no further than Lafayette's Nitro Dog. This friendly little shop has a range of luxurious products to titillate, nourish, comfort, and deck out your favorite canine. It also has all sorts of "breed" merch -- tchotchke boxes sporting collies, picture frames sporting bulldogs, etc. -- perfect for that Scottish terrier nut on your list.

Hemp dog beds $75-$120, car seats $89-$149. Nitro Dog, 61 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette. 925-963-2275, NitroDog.biz

Sipping Soda Through a Straw

On a budget, but want to take your honey out on an old-fashioned holiday season date? Treat her (or him) to an old-fashioned milkshake or ice-cream soda at Elmwood Pharmacy in Berkeley's Claremont district. The 1920s-era corner boasts a bar-stooled soda fountain replete with the hot fudge sundaes and BLTs of yore.

Shakes $4.50, ice-cream sodas $3.50. Elmwood Pharmacy, 2900 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-0989.

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