When holiday shopping for the family back East, I'm always torn between the desire to get them something uniquely L.A. and the desire to do as little legwork as possible. My first impulse is to avoid the seasonal mayhem and shop online. But I've found that from an individuality standpoint, cyber commerce is really no different than going to the mall--a sea of soulless cookie-cutter stores such as Amazon, Williams-Sonoma or Pottery Barn. If I send a gift from one of those e-tailers I might as well be living in Hoboken instead of Hancock Park.
My wife is the opposite. She is a professional-grade shopper who can multi-task at her laptop on four or five windows at once, manipulating images of shoes, hats, jackets and purses on the screen like Tom Cruise in the opening scenes of "Minority Report." Sometimes her raw desire to purchase seemingly wills Web sites into existence.
While I may never shop on the same level, her retail prowess inspired me to seek out favorite L.A. shopping haunts online. Many of the trendy Melrose boutiques, 3rd Street shops and assorted neighborhood stores are increasingly taking up residence in cyberspace. So I can cyber-shop with confidence that when the packages are finally opened, my family will realize that this year my gifts didn't just come from the heart--they came from L.A. too. If you're looking for a more personal touch without the hassle, the following links--some with full online service and others offering a selection that can be ordered by calling the boutiques--are a great place to start.
Newport Beach designer Paul Frank's store on 3rd Street is Hello Kitty meets "Planet of the Apes," offering funkified clothing and accessories (T-shirts, backpacks, boxer shorts) decorated with Frank's cartoon creations. The most recognizable is a wide-mouthed monkey named Julius that serves as the company mascot. The store's online selection (www.paulfrank.com) isn't as comprehensive as the boutique's, but it's a great place to eyeball the company's fall 2003 collections, find a wristwatch or pick out a retro animal-emblazoned wallet bearing the slogan "I'm not a prairie dog y'all" for your favorite animal lover. Paul Frank collaborated with PETA, and a portion of the proceeds go to the organization.
Another onetime Paul Frank collaborator is the Orange County-based artist Shag. Inspired by the commercial illustrations of the '40s and '50s, he paints a colorful world of swimming pools, mixed drinks, buxom women, tiki heads and pencil-thin hepcat lounge bachelors, which makes it pretty much a cartoon version of how the rest of the world views L.A. Wares include drink coasters, greeting cards, books, clothing and bar accesories. Since there isn't a Shag store (his original paintings are sold through galleries and Shag swag is sold at various boutiques across the city), the Web site (www.shagmart.com) is a real timesaver when snapping up prints, books, ties and, for the mixologist on your list, a "Shag's Around the World in 80 Drinks" 2004 calendar featuring a year's worth of Shag art and cocktail recipes.
If your taste in art is more rocking chair than on the rocks, point your Web browser at Santa Monica's Gallery of Functional Art (www.galleryoffunctionalart.com), where limited-edition and one-of-kind art furniture pretty much guarantees your giftee won't already have one just like it. Ahead-of-the-curve home furnishings include trippy cracked-pottery mosaic lamps by local artist Shannon Landis Hansen and brilliantly warped metal furniture sculptures by artist John Suttman that would be at home in Roger Rabbit's Toon Town.
Los Angeles' granddaddy of functional art is downtown's new Walt Disney Concert Hall. A drafting pencil's throw across Grand Avenue is the Museum of Contemporary Art and its gift shop (www.moca-la.org/store), which is the perfect place to pay retail homage to L.A.'s "Man-of-the-Moment" and Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry. In addition to the book "Frank O. Gehry: flowing in all directions," the store offers a selection of Gehry gear (postcards, miniature chairs, T-shirts). Other notables include limited-edition replicas of Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog sculpture, some of the slightly used 3-by-7 1/2-foot lamppost banners used by MOCA to promote past Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol exhibits, and the usual assortment of museum-quality vases, jewelry and candles.
For candles themselves, Illume on 3rd Street has an L.A. sensibility, Hollywood pedigree and eclectic selection of candles in tempting scents such as pineapple cilantro, mulled wine and gingerbread. The Web site (www.illumecandles.com) points out that Melanie Griffith once placed a single-season order for 120 Illume gift baskets (available online from $35 to $325 each), and that Courteney Cox Arquette loves the company's pomegranate-scented candles. If it's good enough for these Hollywood ladies, it's good enough for me.
Two more trendy 3rd Street shops you can browse without actually setting foot in are Plastica (www.plasticashop.com) and ZIPPER (www.zippergifts.com). Plastica dishes up all things plastic: faux wood-grain vinyl logs, elephant-shaped tape dispensers, oversized molars that double as toothpick holders, and Rody--an inflatable riding toy that resembles a cinch-waisted, crayon-colored llama. ZIPPER is the perfect place to zip through the rest of your shopping list with both out-of-the-ordinary gifts (pig-shaped soap, chrome-plated Zen egg chimes) and more traditional fare (dice-shaped cufflinks and hand-knit baby sweaters).
The nearby hipster highway of Melrose is home to Jonathan Adler, a New York potter with a decidedly Palm Springs point of view. For the last two years, the store (one of only three in the country) has been a pit stop for Angelenos determined to achieve better living through handcrafted tchotchkes. The Web site (www.jonathanadler.com) makes it possible to browse the pottery, funky menorahs, multi-spouted couture "aorta" vases, needlepoint pillows and piggy banks without braving the hipster overflow from Fred Segal across the street.
For the serious knitting nut in your life, there's Suss Design (www.sussdesign.com), a Beverly Boulevard shop with Hollywood connections (designer Suss Cousins' knits crop up in movies such as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," shows such as "Malcolm in the Middle" and on A-listers such as Laurence Fishburne and Julia Roberts). In addition to exquisite sweaters, ponchos and children's clothes, the online store offers yarn, knitting kits and supplies and autographed copies of Cousins' book "Hollywood Knits."
You can buy more of the clothes off Hollywood's back at Reel Clothes & Props on Cahuenga Boulevard (www.reelclothes.com). While most of the collectible clothing items and props from movie and television wardrobes now end up on eBay, Reel Clothes has worked directly with the studios since 1981 to sell off pieces of Hollywood infrastructure. Use the searchable database to find an Old Navy shirt that Joe Rogan wore on an episode of "News Radio," Will Smith's orange jumpsuit from "Men in Black" or a navy blue Rubin Chapelle dress (cotton, size 2) worn by Reese Witherspoon in the movie "Cruel Intentions."
If you prefer Hollywood history that's frameable instead of wearable, check out the Hollywood Book and Poster Company (www.hollywoodbookandposter.com) on Hollywood Boulevard. Although its collection of television, movie and wrestling stills (more than 500,000) is too unwieldy for complete online cataloging, the site offers a heady selection of movie poster reprints. A few of the gems include a German-language version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's ("Fruhstuck bei Tiffany"), an Italian version of "The Wild Bunch"("Il Mucchio Selvaggio") and a poster for the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."
Charles See was L.A.'s version of Willy Wonka, and he started the See's Candies empire with a single store on Western Avenue in 1921. Judging by the fact that 11 different places at LAX alone sell the company's chocolates, it's a commonly craved souvenir. By ordering your gift chocolates, brittles and nuts online (www.sees.com), you can free up carry-on space as well as have the opportunity to custom-mix boxes of chocolates for the picky sweet tooth on your list.
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (www.coffeebean.com) is another company that was launched locally (the first one opened in Brentwood in 1963), and its beans are still roasted in nearby Camarillo. The only other CB & T outlets in the U.S. are in Arizona and Nevada, which makes their coffee, tea and drink mixes the perfect gift choices for all those friends who've relocated to the East Coast but still crave the occasional Ice Blended.
If your idea of holiday cheer requires a corkscrew, head for the hills of Malibu. George Rosenthal's Malibu Estate vineyards (grown in an officially recognized viticultural region called "Malibu Newton Canyon") produced its first vintages in 1991 and has been supplying local wine shops and restaurants ever since. Instead of tracking down Rosenthal's Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Chardonnays store by store, save yourself some legwork and buy them online at www.rosenthalestatewines.com.
Finally, for that perennial Scrooge (or Goth teen) on your list, finish up at the mother of all last stops--the L.A. County Coroner's Office. Its popular gift shop, Skeletons in the Closet (lacstores.co.la.ca.us/coroner), caters to the death-amused with everything from welcome mats with chalk body outlines to an illustrated history of the L.A. County Coroner's Office titled "Death in Paradise" to authentic toe-tag key chains. The blue plastic cards, which can be customized, are inscribed with the words "This could be you . . . Please don't drink and drive."
With some of Los Angeles' best shopping a mouse click away, this holiday season you won't need to shop and drive either.