The Last-Minute Mall

Sift through the chain-store offerings for some obscure but amazing loot.

Like everything else, Christmas shopping is changing as Internet e-tailing enters the mainstream. All of the usual suspects will happily accept orders through the Internet, but truly inspired shoppers won't limit their choices to the Amazons, Nordstroms, and Land's Ends of the dot-com world—the Web is full of far more unusual stuff. Armed with a Web browser and a credit card, dedicated mouse potatoes can order an entire world of uncommon gifts without leaving their chairs.

(All of these suppliers accept orders through the Web, and all accept payment via Visa or MasterCard. Unless otherwise noted, the prices quoted do not include shipping.)

The Spanish toy maker Paya has been producing wonderful tin automobiles, boats, and whimsical automated clockwork animals and human figures since 1906. Their new toys are made from the original tooling in limited editions. The Tin Toys Gallery's Web site (www.ctv.es/artes/jugue4.html) offers a nifty foot-long zeppelin ($125 including shipping), an elephant on a tricycle juggling plates with its trunk ($70 including shipping), and a few dozen other delights. As gifts, they'd be appreciated as much (or more) by adults as by the children for whom the originals were designed 60 or 70 years ago.

Lovers of modern American design on your list probably know the work of Charles and Ray Eames. They're best remembered today for the molded plywood Eames Chair that became an icon of 1950s good taste, but the Eameses were also committed to finding and exposing beauty in ordinary objects. The Eames Office (www.eamesoffice.com) offers a collection of books, posters, videotapes, clothing, and toys based on Eames designs that hold up as well today as they did when they were introduced. Their 1952 House of Cards is a deck of cards with abstract patterns and colorful pictures of "good stuff" ($20 for playing-card size; $28.95 for larger cards). Each card has six slots that allow a player to create unusual structures by interlocking the cards. The famous Eames film Powers of Ten is available on videotape ($39.95), as an interactive CD-ROM ($79.95), and as a flip book ($11).

The Sovietski Collection (www.sovietski.com) sells Czarist Russian antiques and Soviet-era surplus goods that could answer several of your gift-giving questions. Along with an assortment of Soviet flags, medals, and military uniforms (an "Excellent Propagandist" medal goes for $17), you can find Czech crystal decanters ($49) and antique brass samovars in a choice of shapes ($650).

Edible gifts are always welcome, especially when they're exotic specialties that the recipient can't find locally. Celtic Fair Foods (www.celtic-fair.com/fs-food-shop.html) can send you some Scottish farmhouse cheeses from Highland Fine Cheese that aren't otherwise available in this country. Caboc is a fresh, double-cream cheese rolled in oatmeal; Galic and Hramsa are medium-fat cheeses mixed with wild garlic leaves (about $5.25 each). Celtic Fair also offers a basket of five different Scottish cheeses with traditional herb biscuits for about $25. Shipping fresh cheese is expensive (about $30 for up to three pounds, or $40 for five pounds), so it's a good idea to combine several gifts in a single order.

The Grateful Palate (www.gratefulpalate.com) sells jams, honey, smoked meats, and other foodstuffs from small producers around the world. Their Bacon Sampler ($19.95) contains a pound each of bacon from four different states. Or for a gift that continues throughout the year, you could give your loved one a membership in the bacon-of-the-month club. The Grateful Palate can also send you goodies from several Southern California producers—granola from the LaBrea Bakery ($9.95 per pound), cookies from Santa Barbara's Ocean View Sweets ($17.50 for ten cookies), and "Mud Slide Truffles" made with coffee, chocolate, and vodka ($17.95 for a half-pound box).

Chile heads on your list would welcome a package of peppers and ground chile powder from The Hatch Chile Express in New Mexico (www.imall.com/stores/hatch_chile). Festive ristras and wreaths of edible peppers range in price from $5 to $30, depending on size. Ground chile powder (mild, medium, hot or extra hot) costs $2.99 for four ounces or $6.99 a pound. Four different flavors of frozen green chiles come in boxes of 10 one-pound packages for $96.

In the era of e-mail, an elegant fountain pen may be the ultimate writer's luxury. The Dayspring Pen Shop (www.dayspringpens.com) makes 1920s-style pens with barrels in a choice of exotic woods or deer antler ($59-$79). For more ornate pens, try Platinum (www.platinumpen-jp.com/platinumpen), whose Japanese Maki-e pens are coated with exotic varnish and hand-decorated with gold, silver, and other precious metals ($149 to $6,499 and up).

Finally, the hard-core computer user on your list will bless you daily if you give her the Rolls-Royce of keyboards, the Avant Prime, from Creative Vision Technologies (www.cvtinc.com/kybdfeatures.htm). Based on the old Northgate OmniKey, the Avant has all the features missing from the cheap keyboards that come with most computers—it's heavy, solid, and responsive. It's also expensive ($149), but people who use them every day believe they're worth every penny. And isn't Christmas the time to give great presents that the recipients would never buy for themselves?

John Ross is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

 
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