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Why the best holiday gift comes with a backstory

Why the best holiday gift comes with a backstory
The perfect gift. (Sarah Wilkins / For The Times)

These are interesting times to be a gift giver.

In some ways, purchasing presents has never been easier. Last year my husband and I knocked out nearly eight nights of Hanukkah gifts for our two sons in less than two hours in front of the computer.

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Fortunately, my 7- and 10-year old are not particularly discerning about where their Lego sets and video games come from.

But finding a special, meaningful gift for adult friends and family poses more of a challenge. In a time when the Internet allows so many people to easily get whatever they want whenever they want it, what can the gift giver offer that is unique and exciting?

I’m a writer, so I may be biased, but I’d argue that the best gifts are those that come with a backstory.

If you bring a bottle of wine to my house, I will thank you very much. If you bring a bottle of wine that came from a little vineyard in Ojai you fell in love with the last time your sister was in town, I will still thank you, but I will feel something else: honored that you chose to share this particular bottle with me. The gift is elevated by your story.

Last year I brought 1-pound bags of Semolina Artisanal Pasta to every dinner party I attended. The pasta is handmade by my neighbor Leah, who lives just a few houses up the street from me. Not only is her pasta especially delicious, but gifting it to my friends allowed me to share a piece of my quirky and creative neighborhood with them.

If you receive it as a gift from me I might mention that I’ve seen her pasta drier up close and personal and which shapes of pasta she told me are hardest to make. Gift as learning moment.

I have another neighbor, also named Leah, who lives just a few houses away in the other direction. “Down the street Leah,” as my husband and I call her, is a costume designer and stylist who also designs children’s clothes. Her Chaboukie label started off simply with a line of baby leggings but over the past few years the enterprise has grown to include onesies, coats, dresses and tops.

The clothes are not cheap, but to me, they are worth the extra cash. They’re all made in Northeast L.A., where I live, which means the environmental footprint of this particular present is low — no shipping from Vietnam or China. Gift with a side helping of eco friendliness.

But perhaps the Leahs on your block don’t make things. If that’s the case, how do you set out to find a gift with a backstory?

Buying locally is a great way to start.

My friend Emily, a letterpress printer and graphic design professor, thinks local gifts are more meaningful than those purchased at big-box stores because of their specificity.

“I think of my Chinese students, who often bring me back gifts from when they go home,” she said. “They are almost always a product from their city, like a regional tea, or a carved ornament made of a type of wood that just grows in a particular area.”

A gift like this serves as a sort of introduction, Emily said. A way to meet the places that her students come from. Gift as ambassador.

For some people, a gift without a story is a gift not worth buying.

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A few weeks ago, the public elementary school in my neighborhood hosted a crafts fair that featured artisans from the area.

Pauline Wolstencroft, a Los Angeles ceramicist who makes bright graphic plates and hanging discs, was assigned a booth across from the lemonade stand where I was volunteering. After staring longingly at her wares all morning, my friend Elizabeth finally broke down and walked over to purchase a plate.

As Elizabeth mused over which one to buy, the artist said that she always sells a lot at this particular crafts fair, where the clientele are her neighbors and the parents of her children’s friends. Here the backstory of her ceramics is built right in — a mom at my kid’s school made this plate!

When she goes to makers fairs up in San Francisco, however, she’s frequently asked about her personal journey — how she was trained as a painter, became a librarian, and now carves out time for pottery between working a day job and raising three kids.

“People come up to me and say, ‘What’s your story?’ ” she said. “That’s how important a narrative is to them.”

Later in the day, I spoke with Linda Hsiao, another local ceramicist who runs the company Knotwork LA. She had many beautiful items arranged on her table, but I was eyeing a small creamer in the shape of a bird as a gift for my sister.

The artisan told me she began her career as an industrial designer making mass market objects, but over time she grew worried that the items she was producing were destined to become landfill. So she decided to switch gears. In 2014 she helped found Arroyo General in Highland Park, which sold a wide range of locally made products, including produce grown in the neighborhood.

The store was initially designed as a two-month pop up, but it did so well that it remained open throughout the end of 2015. Now, however, she is focused on producing ceramics in her studio in Highland Park.

I bought the creamer. Gift as a way of supporting a talented, local artist.

In case all this talk of locally produced artisan wares is beginning to feel a bit holier than thou, let me be clear: I am not here to judge. I know that you, and I, may very well end up at the mall or a big box store or, even more likely, doing our last-minute shopping online as the holidays draw closer.

But until then, you might keep your eyes open for gifts of small works of art created right here, in our wonderfully diverse and creative city. Farmers markets are a good place to look, so are pop ups, crafts fairs and neighborhood boutiques.

And don’t forget the value of word of mouth. We do each other a nice turn when we share these makers and their stories with friends. It adds to the rich fabric and joy of life in Los Angeles.

As Linda wrapped up the bird creamer for me, we talked about the value of supporting the people who live around us, and the satisfaction you get from knowing that your money is going to the person who invested their own time in making a particular object -- be it food, clothes, or incense burners.

Then she invited me to tour her studio, any time I’d like.

Of course I plan to take her up on it. Just imagine the story I’ll be able to tell.

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