EVERY HOLIDAY SEASON, my hometown department store transformed a corner of unused floor space into a special place for children: a pint-sized gift shop where kids could shop on their own, just like grown-ups.

Youngsters like me eagerly awaited our annual chance to make purchases without parents watching over us. With help available from costumed "elves," we perused low shelves and counters that held groupings of items, $5 and under, appropriate for various family members. I still recall some of my purchases: a golden grape-embossed wastebasket for my uncle, flowered handkerchiefs for Grandma, an elf doll for my sister and -- my favorite -- twin iridescent pink dachshund brooches for Mom.

The prices have jumped a bit since my early shopping days 20-some years ago, but the merchandise at today's "kids-only" holiday shops is still the same: affordable gifts with child appeal.

"I've really tried to buy it specifically as if I were a 5-year-old," says Ann Welton of the assortment she selected for the Christmas Shop for Children in Warrenton, Va.

Walton's shop is one of several area holiday stores designed especially for youngsters ages 5 through 12.

Parents of these budding shoppers can expect to receive such items as candles, sachets, costume jewelry, potpourri baskets, bubble bath, flashlights, mugs, tool sets, Christmas ornaments, toiletries, jams and jellies, kitchen linens, handkerchiefs, stationery and desk accessories. The shops also stock appropriate presents for siblings and friends -- which grown-ups also sometimes receive -- such as buttons, stickers, decorated pencils, stuffed animals and small toys.

Gifts at the kids-only boutiques sell for no more than $10, and many items are available for under $1. Most shops also offer wrapping at no cost. Children should come prepared with gift lists and enough money to cover their purchases. Employees, usually clad in holiday attire, help the shoppers select appropriate gifts and stick to their budgets.

Although the stores are designed to enable youngsters to make purchases in secret, children shopping by themselves for the first time often cannot contain their excitement. Many parents hear about their presents "the minute the kids get out," says Debbie Miller, the fashion, special events and public relations director for Woodward and Lothrop, which has a Secret Shop at its downtown store.

While children shop anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, parents can wait in designated areas, some of which include coffee and other refreshments.

The holiday stores foster pride and independence in young shoppers, and give parents a little break and potentially memorable gifts. Mom still has her dachshund pins, and I look forward to the day my own daughter is old enough to visit a kids-only boutique.

Mary Jane Solomon last wrote for Weekend about Collingwood Library.