Sure, museum gift shops stock their fair share of totally tacky knick-knacks. (King Tut floaty pen, anyone?) But amid the hokey T-shirts and souvenir mugs, you'll find one-of-a-kind handcrafts and other unique gifts. Best of all, part of the proceeds usually goes to support these cultural outposts.
Museum of Contemporary Art
For the design geek on your list, this sleek but pricey shop has all the highly stylized alarm clocks and "deconstructed" serving spoons anyone could ever hope for.
Splurge on: Colorful "Riedizioni" handbags and wallets made by artist Luisa Cevese from industrial waste materials ($35 for a small change purse; $275 for an oversized tote bag).
Secret Santa budget buy: Ward off evil spirits as well as everyday sniffles with a tiki tissue box cover ($20). Place this plastic Easter Island-inspired box over a standard tissue container, and pull your Kleenex through a tiki statue's nose.
To love the wares at this gift shop, it really helps to love the collection. The museum's most notable works, such as such as "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," by Georges Seurat and Grant Wood's "American Gothic," have been plastered on every conceivable surface, from mouse pads to coffee mugs to neckties.
Splurge on: Posters ($17.50) of paintings by Picasso, Seurat and O'Keefe are plentiful, but reproductions painted on canvas ($100-$300) are more drawing room than dorm room.
Secret Santa budget buy: Palm Pilots are so passé. Help reintroduce somebody on your list to the simple pleasure of keeping track of contacts and appointments by hand in a hardbound address book or calendar ($10-$25). There are hundreds of cover designs to choose from.
With unique objects from all over the globe, this enormous gift shop is like a museum unto itself. A tiny sampling of the wares includes Tibetan "singing" bowls which, when struck with a mallet, produce harmonic tones that help induce meditative states ($30-$70); carved soapstone bowls and boxes from Kenya ($20-$36); reproductions of famous Egyptian sculptures ($11-$90); and a collection of painted, lacquered boxes from China ($30-$60).
Splurge on: A gorgeous painted porcelain teapot from Japan ($100) is perfect for your prim and proper grandmother, while an etched African gourd ($80) should make your crunchy aunt happy.
Secret Santa budget buy: Pakistani onyx is a smooth, heavy silicate, streaked with bands of white, green and reddish brown. Find it carved into the shape of tea light candle holders ($17), vases ($13-$35) and a coaster set ($25).
Mexican Fine Arts Center
You could spend months traveling in Mexico, climbing hilly streets in search of silver jewelry from Taxco or riding a rickety bus to the tiny town of San Martín Tilcajete, famous for elaborately painted wooden figures. Or you could simply pop into this Pilsen museum's gorgeous gift lair, where the hard work has been done for you.
Splurge on: Get a jump on next year's Day of the Dead celebration with hand-carved and painted wooden sculptures of nattily dressed, guitar-playing skeletons ($500-$3,000).
Secret Santa budget buy: In a tiny, out-of-the-way town in Oaxaca, artisans carve and paint totemic figurines called alebrijes in their homes. These statues are brightly colored, intricate reproductions of everything from porcupines (with removable, toothpick-sized quills) to space aliens ($23-$135).
DuSable Museum of African-American History
Although this small, disorganized gift shop lacks charm, it's packed with unique finds, including books and music by and about Africans and African-Americans, along with lovely handcrafts.
Splurge on: Hand-carved African masks ($180) or a handmade Kwanzaa candleholder set ($40-$50).
Secret Santa budget buy: Gift card box sets with paintings by African artists ($10-$15) are perfect for those post-holiday thank-you notes.
Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
OK, so this choice isn't exactly on the museum campus, but the huge variety of traditional Lithuanian crafts, including jewelry, dolls, dyed Easter eggs and textiles, makes this quirky shop worth a stop.
Splurge on: An enormous selection of amber jewelry such as one-of-a-kind hand-wrought silver and amber necklaces ($500).
Secret Santa budget buy: White paper drinking straws are cut up and strung together to create simple, traditional Christmas ornaments in the shape of stars, birdcages and snowflakes ($4-$8).
The tacky souvenir quotient is awfully high at this small store, but there are a few finds among the star charts and kids' toys.
Splurge on: The stargazer in your life will swoon over a working astrolabe ($95-$135) or nocturnal ($130). These navigational instruments are made of polished brass and mounted on cherry wood bases.
Secret Santa budget buy: Although not the best gift for a co-worker who sits all day in a windowless cubicle, a folding paperboard box that opens up to reveal an intricately designed sundial provides a unique way to keep track of time for those blessed with access to daylight.
Mark Sinclair is a metromix special contributor.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times