This year, instead of circling parking lots, fighting over tie racks and fidgeting in department store lines, try bypassing the mall for holiday shopping.
The visitor centers and gift shops at local museums and ecological and educational organizations stock a surprising array of innovative, high-quality and hand-crafted items. Offerings range from Guatemalan jackets in the gallery store at Cal State Northridge, to turquoise jewelry at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, to homemade jams and jellies at St. Joseph Medical Center's farmers market.
Not only can you pick up neat gifts, but a portion of the money spent may benefit a cause. And since many shoppers never think of looking for presents in museums, nature centers or missions, there are rarely crowds to contend with.
Here are a few places to try. None of these charge admission for those who want to shop only:
Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum store, 4700 Western Heritage Way, in Griffith Park, across from the Los Angeles Zoo; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Christmas. (213) 667-2000.
This festive store is stocked with clothing, toys, tapes, videos, artwork, crafts and memorabilia--all with a Western theme. You'll find cowboy duds for children and adults, including hats, vests, chaps, spurs and boots, as well as silver and turquoise jewelry, belt buckles and bolos. Works by Native American artisans, including pottery, beadwork, rugs, moccasins, kachina dolls and feather headdresses are also available. The large book section includes titles on Western architecture, history, cooking, humor and fiction. You'll even find cowboy gift wrapping paper.
Natural History Museum gift shop, 555 N. 3rd St., adjacent to Media City Center, Burbank; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (818) 557-3562.
This gift shop specializes in kid stuff, but don't look for Power Rangers or Barbie dolls. Instead, you'll find educational books, toys, stickers, puzzles and construction kits. There's lots of bug stuff too: rubber bugs, containers to collect and house bugs, books about bugs and an "Insect Lotto" game.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area visitor center, 30401 Agoura Road, Suite 100, Agoura Hills; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (818) 597-9192.
Ecologically themed books, posters and videos are the specialty. You'll find titles on natural history, wildlife and Native Americans, as well as a good assortment of children's books that promote environmental responsibility. Pick up hiking, biking or walking trail maps and guidebooks for the outdoor lover on your list, or buy a specialized field guide.
Theodore Payne Foundation, 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley; 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. (818) 768-1802.
This organization is devoted to promoting native flora, and its nursery stocks a huge assortment of California indigenous trees, shrubs and flowers, including giant coreopsis (which has a large daisy-like bloom and grows in the Santa Monica Mountains), several fuchsia varieties, monkey flowers and California lilacs. Also for sale are dried flower arrangements, wildflower seeds, gardening books, field guides and "California Native" T-shirts and sweat shirts that sport a bright orange poppy on the chest.
Farmers Markets, 3rd Street and Orange Grove Avenue, Burbank; 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays, including Christmas Eve. Market benefits St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. (818) 845-5718. Also at 17400 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday except Christmas. Market benefits the Organization for the Needs of the Elderly. (818) 708-6611.
As many as 40 farmers, bakers and growers sell their wares at these outdoor markets, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, flowers, home-baked breads and homemade jams and jellies--everything you need to put together a gift basket of goodies. About a dozen artisans also sell crafts at the Van Nuys market.
Old Mission gift shop, San Fernando Mission, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (818) 361-0186. Just about everything in this shop--from lapel pins to Christmas ornaments--is religious-themed. Even the 500-piece jigsaw puzzles portray such works of art as Da Vinci's "Last Supper" and Raphael's "Madonna of the Chair." The store has a good assortment of Nativity scenes, toys and California history books.
Cal State Northridge Art Council gallery store; 18111 Nordhoff St., Art Annex 116, Northridge. Noon to 4 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, closed weekends. (818) 885-2226.
This store specializes in eclectic and exquisite items such as paperweights, perfume bottles, jewelry and art books, as well as international items including puppets made in Ecuador, African backpacks and Thai sculptures.