Okay, it's down to the wire, and still no brightly wrapped packages waiting. You could go the bah-hum-bug-Christmas-is-too-commercialized route and tell folks to forget it this year. But you really can't face that. Yet you can't face the endless aisles or merchandise, madness and canned music, either. So it's panictime for procrastinators. Take a deep breath. Stop sinking . Let your fancy be tickled rather than tackled.
Avoid The Big Stores - rediscover real shops, with real shopkeepers and real finds: items in places where every item counts. Here's a sampling of shops that are not only inspired but inspiring, where if you don't find the present, you almost surely will find ideas, including some that may send you even farther afield:
THE BEEHIVE - 4818 MacArthur Boulevard NW. 333-2388. A recent hour's browse in this comfortably crammed consignment shop netted a genuine (according to the tag) pre-Columbian tiny clay head poised on a one-inch Lucite cube ( $30) and a genuine Coca-Coal bottle opener, the shiny metal kind with the emblematic red relief scipt that used to be screwed on motel doorframes (75 cents). That's what makes the Beehive a procrastinator's panacea: When Anne Graham, Judy Evans and Marnie Nicholson opened the shop in July they were afraid they wouldn't have enough stuff; nothing was turned away. Now there's barely room to walk, but the overall selection has the moneyed air of unmistakable class, and the consigned castoffs are clearly those of an affluent society. Like the 10 slender silver-plated fruit knives ( $20) that sit in an $8 blue-and-white salt-glazed mug. Here one can find the cheap antique, notably the $40 carved oak headboard, frame and footboard set; the hand-crafted, like the 16-inch-high table lamps with galss oil-lamp bases and hand-cut paper shades ( $18 to $22) and the offbeat; a fout-foot wood-handled multitinedfish spear ideal for a nascent Neptune ( $6). Monday through Saturday, 10 to 4:30.
THE BODY SCENTER - 1618 Wisconsin Avenue NW. 965-3404. Just above Georgetown's mainstream but in striking distance, the Body Scenter is the answer to a man's prayers when it comes to shopping for a woman. No matter what he wants to spend, ethereal finely boned females with yards of hair will make up festive baskets or red mesh bags (at no charge) filled with sweet-smelling and interesting things. Interesting things is the Body Scenter's middle name and the recurring motifs are hearts, stars, clowns and crescent moons. The appear in the form of lamps satin soft sculpture and ahstryas, on hand-painted dyed pastel thermal underwear, tiny ceramic jewelry, angelic pink-and-blue mobiles and esoteric stickers that glow in the dark. These last, called Glowsters, come in sets of four sheets of phosphorescent moons, stars and comets for $4 and are reputed to do wonders on a bathroom ceiling. Anything that catches your eye is fair game for a gift package, from a 35-cent painted-tin angelfish pin to a $6 pair of barettes affixed with 1892 souvneirs. A typical $10 gift basket might include a satin red sachet, jasmine soap, apricot bath salts blueberry oil, a scented candle in a heart-shaped tin and swirls of ribbon. Hours are 11 to 6 Monday through Friday, 1 to 5 Sunday, but if you call and tell them you're coming, someone will wait for you.
LITTLE TAVERN HG - 1007 Ripley Street, Silver Spring. 585-6600. Hury and catch this one. For reasons of its own, Little Tavern headquarters is located smacked-dab in central Silver Spring, right behind the Georgia Avenue LT. Here is the only place on earth one can legally purchase a Little Tavern mug. Made of heavy-duty institutional china, the mugs are ingenuous artifacts decorated with two the thin green bands and the green Little Tavern logo in an arc of '40s typography. College students used to steal them as badges of gastronomic courage for Little Tavern patronage. But even if you're not above giving a purloined present, you couldn't: The classic mug is being phased out in favor of a plain solid-green specimen. The remaining few dozen of the old style are for sale here for $2 a mug, and assistant manager Wade Glover will even wrap it up for you in LT's standard white hamburger bug. Get'em while they last, but give someone only one, two at most - more than that would be de trop . While there, note the oil portrait of Little Tavern founder Terry F. Duncan, pictured leaning on a tabletop Little Tavern replica. Note the very replica, a few yards to the left of the portrait. Monday to Thursday 8 to 4, Friday to 1.
U.N.A. GIFT SHOP - 3143-3141 N Street NW. 337-5553. It's a small world after all inside this tiny shop brimming with the cream of the world's crafts - so small, in fact, that the volunteer staff runs out of room to display things. So on the way out you always spot something marvelous you almost missed. If it weren't for the mannequin out front you might miss the Latin American woolens tucked away in the back room. The would be a shame, because they're bandmade in undyed and naturally dyed earth tones and wondrously thick. The soft alpaca poncho and skirt modeled by the mannequin run about $40, as do the bulky wool sweaters. Knit Bolivian caps ($4.50) include the kind with ear flaps and tassels usually seen on llama-herding natives in National Geographic. Be sure not to miss the African baskets stacked in the front-room fireplace. In Africa baskets carry anything and everything, so the tightly woven forms are as varied as their functions. One from cameroon had an interesting shap: conical yet squared at the bottom. About 10 inches deep and 6 inches in diameter, the multi-colored basket hangs from thin rope shoulder straps attached to tiny handles; price $5. Next to the baskets is an umbrella stand full of hand-carved walking sticks from India - $6.50 apiece. Covered with a cross-hatch design, the stout stikcs end in an ample bird's-head handle, some with open beaks. While you're here, you might as well pick up a box of UNICEF cards for next year. 11 to 5 daily (to 7 Thursdays). Personal checks, but no credit cards.
WANG'S - 800 7th Street NW. 347-2447. Infused with just with the right elements of chaos and mystery. Wan's provides the adventure of an Oriental marketplace in the comfort of your hometown. Since most of Dwayne and Alice Wang's customers are neighbohood Chinese who don't observe American Christmas, Wang's will be open not only Christmas Eve but Christmas Day as well - so you can push it to the limit and still zip home with an armful of exotic treasures. You might be better off, too: An oiled-rice-paper-and-bamboo parasol, surprisingly sturdy raingear, that's $8.50 in Georgetown is $3.99; rubber-soled black canvas slippers listed in a fashion magazine for $14 are $4.59; bars of intricately wrapped sandalwood soap ($1.50 in a Georgetown shop) are 50 cents here. Another bit of chinoiserie chic (TABLE)(SECTION)ale for $18.95, half the price at a local department store. Made of shiny rayon and snugly lined with quilted cotton, the jackets come in solid magenta, jade, blue and black as well as a print in sizes small, medium and large. There's also a matching vest for $15. But the true wonder of Wang's is the food section. Pretty tins of teas like jasmine, lapsang souchong, orange and mint are undre a dollar (so are delicacies like duck eggs, preserved plums and black moss soup). For $2.37 you can present your hostess with a one-pound tin of Hop Too cakes (sweet nutty cookies). The packaging alone is a joy to behold. Teas, cookies and crackers all come in reusable tins brightly decorated with pagodas, blossoms, people in kimonos and enigmatic ideographs. A great gift for office inmates: china mugs with matching lids to keep drafts, dust and foreign objects out of coffee, tea or whatever. A two-cup size, with dragons, butterflies etc., is $7.99, a plain 1 1/2 cup version in pale green is $2.99. There's also enough Chinese kitchen ware, including a three-foot wok, to stock a small restaurant. 10 to 8 daily. American Express, Master Charge and Visa. YWCA CRAFT SHOP - 1649 K Street NW. 638-2100. Behind the poured-glass picture windows of the YW, where grandmotherly ladies serve up tea and chocolate-chip cookies to workaday Washington, is a wistful, whimsical shop with special appeal for the very young, very old and romantics of all ages. "We're a little old-fashioned," admits manager Eleanor Whitmore.Well, so are their prices. For children, there's a selection of imported toys like the German puzzle blocks whose facets form richly detailed fairy-tale scenes ( $3) and Molly Brett and Racey Helps picture books printed by London Medici Society ($1.95). Handmade terry-backed bibs in bandana and patchwork prints from Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, are $2.50 (eight by six inches) and $1.75 (six by five). Delight incurable romantics with **limoges china miniatures ($3.75 to $10). Italian music boxes ( $24 to $40) or a "bosom friend," lace-and-dotted-swiss bra purses just like Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough had in "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay" ($2.50). As might be expected, tea-time is big-time here, and there are teapots, teacups, tea cozies, tea trays, tea towels, tea aprons and a selection of Wagner's teas and jams. The most unbeatable buys are the weavings, which happily appeal to Gibson Girls and discerning young moderns alike. Handloomed mats by the Valhalla weavers in Tryon, North Carolina, come in four sizes raning from 18 by 30 incesh ( $8) to 30 by 54 ( $20), in blue, brown, yellow, red and natural. From the Churchill weavers of Berea, Kentucky, there are heathery men's ties, about $10; fringed muted-plaid lap throws that at 48 by 30 inches could double as shawls, $20.50; soft baby blankets in machine-washable acrylic, $12 and $14; and delicate stoles of soft Australian wool, 36 by 72 inches, that one woman found lovely enough to use as wedding veil. Personal checks, but no credit cards. Monday through Friday 10 to 6, Saturday to 3.(COLUMN)SIMEL HERB SHOP - 4908 Berwyn Road, College Park. 474-8791. A stone's throw from the squalor of U.S. 1 is quiet, quaint Berwyn, College Park's last bastion of countererculturedom. Tucked among the alternative entrepreneurs is the Smile Herb Shop, an olfactory odyssey of earthy delights. Penny-candy jars filled with cooking herbs, healing herbs, beauty herbs, roots, barks, seeds and berries line the bottom floor of the cheery yellow Virorian house (proprietors Tom and Linda Wolfe live upstairs). Passionflower, pennyroyal, peppermint, periwinkle, and primrose are just a few of the herbs available by the ounce or pound.Blended teas included Flower Power mixed from 17 different blossoms (85 cents an ounce, $11 a pound); Wayne's Blood Purifier of sarsaparilla, burdock, yellow dock and cinnamon (60 cents an ounce, $9 a pound) and all the Celestial Seasonings flavors. Bath soaks of camomile, rose, lavendar and mint; hair rinse, facial steams and sachets, ranging from deliceate floral to pungent spicy, cost 45 to 75 cents an ounce. Glycerin guest soaps come in a meadow of shades and scents, like brown patchouli, blueberry blue and golden honeysuckle.At two for a quarter you can fill a soapdish full. Then there are vials of perfume oils (60 in all) at $2 to $4 per half-ounce, massage oils and tantalizing lotions of peach, apricot, jasmine, vanilla and cucumber, $2.50 and $3 for 8-ounce bottles. Start someone on the road to happy herbdom with the Helix Herbal Album, eight herb seed packets with a book on growing, harvesting and drying your own for $7.95, or a clay pot of already-growing thyme, parsley, oregano of lavender ($4.99) from Kathy's Herb Garden in Monterey, Virginia, complete with hand-written instructions. Smile also puts together its own gift sets, like a basket filled with a one-pound sack of Mocha Java coffee, an earthy brown mug and a thick bar of Tobler Cappuccino chocolate all tied with a red ribbon ($9.95). For $4.95 present your favorite insomniac with a quartet of soporofic herbs and an accompanying booklet. A similar basket is geared to cold and flu sufferers. 10 to 6 Monday through Saturday. Visa, Mastercharge and personal checks. (END TABLE)