Refillable gifts: Good or bad idea?

 Refillable gifts: Good or bad idea?
(Illustration for the Tribune by Elaine Melko)

Dear Answer Angel: I gave my friend one of those old-timey napkin holders that you see in diners. Now the napkins are gone. Where do I find replacements?

— M.P.


Dear M.P.: Your question gives me the opening I've been waiting for to issue this important holiday gift warning: Beware of the dangers of buying a present that becomes a useless dust magnet without the special refills that are either expensive or hard-to-impossible to find.

So, before you buy, make sure that the replacements, refills, special batteries, teensy light bulbs, gum balls, coffee pods, etc., etc., are readily available and don't cost more than the gift itself. Also, check and make sure you don't need an engineering degree and a hard-to-find tool to take apart and then reassemble the item to replace the whatevers.


Back to the napkins: I found several frugal resources for your napkins on Also, restaurant supply stores can help you out, or you could just ask the manager of your local diner where she buys napkins.

Dear Answer Angel: We just moved, and I'm wondering if I should give our new neighbors (we barely know them) a Christmas gift. And if so, what?

— S.N.

Dear S.N.: You can't go wrong gifting a neighbor. Anything that establishes good will with the folks who live near you is a genius long-term investment. They're the ones you'll be apologizing to when your kid wakes them up playing noisy basketball in the driveway at 6 a.m. or your dog takes a liking to their front yard. But there's no need to go overboard. A plate of homemade cookies, a loaf of bread from your oven, an amaryllis plant — all wrapped up with a festive ribbon — those are good neighbor gifts and the real payoff could be that you'll make friends for life. As for the wrapping on those cookies, I'm a big believer in using high quality satiny ribbon that you buy by the yard or spool at a craft or fabric store. That totally classes up your gift. If that kind of ribbon is good enough for those blue boxes from Tiffany, it's highly recommended for your banana bread.


Two if-the-shoe-fits questions ...

Dear Answer Angel: Help! I'm rather thin and am finding it impossible to locate boots for thin legs. Everywhere you look, there are wide-calf boots, but where are the narrow-calf boots? I can't find them anywhere! I have tried on at least 30 different styles of boots, but they all look terrible. The shaft is way too wide! There are lots of women in the same boat as me, so please, please help us!

— Kathy G.

Dear Kathy: The British-based has boots in up to 21 calf sizes starting at 11.8 inches (to 19.7 inches). The site offers free worldwide shipping. Women's boots start at $230.

Dear Answer Angel: My mom was in a car accident, and her right foot and ankle were crushed. She's had multiple surgeries including ankle fusion. Lefty is fine. As you can imagine this causes difficulty finding shoes! Where can she find something for two completely different feet that is supportive yet stylish?

— Erin

Dear Erin: Nordstrom ( will sell split sizes at no extra charge if the difference between the two feet is at least 1-1/2 sizes. Nike offers one style of custom athletic shoe ($155) in mixed-size pairs. Go to, and search for "independent sizing." You can also choose your own colors for soles, uppers, laces and more. Also, an Oregon-based Birkenstock retailer offers custom footbeds and discounts for those who need split sizes or just one shoe. I'm not a big Birkenstock fan, but they were the only shoes my mom's sore feet could tolerate, so I understand why they're popular. Go to, click on "Size & Fit," then scroll down the text to the link for "split size," or call 800-451-1459. If your mom does wind up buying two pairs of shoes (ask if there's a discount), send the leftovers to the Arizona-based National Odd Shoe Exchange (, which happily accepts unworn mismatches, regular pairs and single shoes.

Dear Answer Angel: Are there any women's blue jeans manufacturers that don't put spandex in their jeans? Even Levi's jeans for women have some spandex in them. I hate these kinds of jeans, as they never stay up. Am I destined for the men's department?


— Jennifer

Dear Jennifer: You're right that most jeans for women have a bit of spandex, but Levi's 501 jeans for both women and men are 100 percent cotton. Give them a try.

Reader rant

Phew! Lots of responses to my opinion in an earlier column that gray hair makes you look older. A sampling:

Dear Answer Angel: You owe every woman and man an apology. To say gray hair often adds 10 years to your age is a ridiculous statement.

— Anonymous

Dear Answer Angel: Well, I would like to disagree with your answer about gray hair. Everyone is always surprised to find out how old I am, even now. Many women with gray or white hair are very glamorous. I think it should be encouraged.

— Bette

Dear Answer Angel: I have to disagree with you about gray hair. I started turning gray at 35, and I'm now 63. No one ever said I looked 10 years older. I dated older and younger men and eventually got married. To me, a woman with gray hair styled right looks fabulous and always gets a double look from me. Gray hair done right is never dowdy; it's very cutting edge.

— Sheri

Dear all: For some women, embracing the gray makes them even more beautiful and dramatic. But I still think that it makes the majority look 10 years older. Let me add that not a single person who replied to that column agreed with me. Not one.

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