During this holly jolly season, ask yourself a soul-searching question: Are you proud of the gifts you place under the tree and beside the menorah? Or do you often throw them down and run, hoping that no one will dust the wrapping paper for fingerprints?
In an effort to elevate the art of gift-giving, I propose a new tradition: Eschew the generic department stores and impersonal online sites for the singular finds at Manhattan’s holiday markets. Every year, typically from early November to circa-Christmas, a constellation of markets materializes around the city. Hundreds of vendors sell unique, often handmade objects that encapsulate the holidays’ from-me-to-you-with-love spirit.
Simply put: No child should have her mother gallivanting around town in the same Macy’s scarf as every other mom in town. Mom deserves a gem-colored neckwarmer knitted by a tribe of artisans in northern Thailand. Make it two.
Here’s a sampling of four markets (of seven), and the goodies ready to be loaded onto Santa’s sleigh.
Tucked inside a narrow midtown lot, the shopping arcade resembles a co-op for gingerbread people. The vendors sell their wares from chocolate-brown structures lightly dusted with candy canes, icicles, snowflakes and other festive decorations.
The bulk of the shops stock discounted items ideal for your office Yankee swap or mantelpiece lineup of stockings: cashmere scarves from Scotland (by way of China, perhaps); Murano glass pendants in such fanciful designs as a soccer ball, a purse and a mischievous monkey; and winter hats and earmuffs donning faces that roar, ribbit and oink. At another hut, vintage-style timepieces strung on necklace chains inhabit such unlikely settings as bike wheels, owl bellies, tennis racquet heads and heavy metal guitars. One row over, whirligigs laser-cut in nature’s eye — butterflies and suns — spin like colorful tornadoes. Marc Dimov, as cheery as an elf, showed me how to pack the garden ornaments flat — hint, hint. For smaller sentiments, he pointed out lampwork glass earrings in the shapes of peppers, cherries and garlic, perfect for the cook who likes to wear what she eats.
“This is New York at its best,” said Dimov, whose California friend makes the stainless-steel mobiles. “You’re outside and in a more personal and friendly environment.”
Sharon Shoshan, an Israeli designer, took friendly to familial level. He hugged me like a sister after showing me around his open treasure chest of Swarovski crystal-and-braided-leather necklaces and bracelets. The jewelry-maker, who cites such celebrity clients as Julia Roberts and Serena Williams, does not have a storefront. The market is his first semi-permanent space; his second is at the Holiday Gift Shops at St. Bartholomew’s, on Park Avenue at 50th Street. His third could be Bloomingdale’s, if negotiations go well.
At the back of the market, a Cypriot was cooking up gyros and shish kebabs. “You get double the amount of meat compared to a pushcart,” he told me in a very persuasive sales pitch. Next door, sweet corn roasted on a grill and mozzarella melted between thick corn cakes like a snow patty pressed between mittens. The scent of a multicultural New York Christmas wafted up and away.
New to the Lower Manhattan scene, this inaugural market is set amid the 18th- and 19th-century buildings, tall ship masts and uneven brick lanes of South Street Seaport. A 40-foot tree stands guard over roving choral groups who belt out seasonal songs. Add a sprinkling of snow, and you have entered a living holiday card.
Lincoln Palsgrove IV, a senior marketing manager for the area’s development company, said that in future years, he hopes to infuse the attraction with unique culinary offerings and a classic German holiday spirit. In market present, two of the 25 vendors are already warming cold fingers and toes with such Deutschland specialties as (virgin) gluhpunsch, spekulatius (spice cookies) and butter stollen. “We have history with this,” said Jens Wohld, a German festival pro who runs the booths. “We want to add the German flavor.”
At the other hobbit huts, the wares resemble those displayed at Times Square West (no surprise, since the same company runs both venues, plus St. Bart’s). A few, however, shone like bright stars, such as Reju Gurung, which imports items from Nepal such as crayola-colored beaded necklaces, wooden mobiles of fanciful creatures and figurines of Ganesha and Buddha, whose sublime smile drains all the holiday stress away.
The midtown market a block from Times Square had the biggest head start on the season, opening before Halloween. It also outlasts the bunch, closing down Jan. 8. The extra time is much appreciated, considering the vast number of merchants (125), plus the free ice skating rink, the multiple food vendors and the Southwest Porch, an outdoor gathering place illuminated by a firepit and rosy cheeks.
The decade-old outdoor emporium resembles a Westernized souk, with glass-enclosed sheds that glow at night like giant lanterns. The vendors, who decorate their spaces, are all over the retail map. Some, such as Wonder Warmers (heat pads for various body parts) and Sabon (Israeli maker of lotions and potions), fit into the practical category. You’ll get a quick hug of thanks for these gifts, but no tears. For effusive weeps of joy, you need to circulate among the artisans.
“Everything is made with these old hands,” said Cathie Miranda, a potter from Luray, Va., who was showing at Bryant Park for the first time. “There’s an attachment to what I make.”
The so-called Potterylady creates stoneware and glazed pieces that work in every room of the house. Some of her more popular items — silverware holders with drainage, sponge receptacles — prefer to congregate in the kitchen. But you might be tempted to rotate them through the bathroom and the dining room hutch as well.
Nearby, Monique Naoum of Organic Wares fills her shelves with woven scarves from Chiang Mai, Thailand. She also sells strings of vibrant paper lamps from northern Thailand and copper wire-and-stone jewelry inspired by her frequent visits to the Land of Smiles. Most of her items cost less than $40. “I wanted to make it affordable to everyone,” she said. “It’s the holiday, you know.”
I crossed paths with Mladen Maricic, a Serbian jewelry-maker, at Daisy’s Grits. He was waiting for a refill of a hot beverage; I was marveling at the versatility of mush (you can New England-ify it with lobster, for example, or sweeten it with apples and cinnamon). I followed Maricic back to his stand, Kro-Gu, where he slipped a sterling-and-stone ring onto my finger; it came up to my knuckle. He gently squeezed the soft metal, which melted onto my skin like liquid silver.
“Every single ring is different,” he said. “If you hang out in Monte Carlo, there’s no chance you will see someone else wearing it.”
Just what every girl wants — to not look like every other girl.
Want overrules need at this 18-year-old holiday bazaar sheltered inside New York’s iconic train station.
For instance, I’m pretty sure that my sister does not need a Jackie O-goes-global purse made of Uzbek fabrics and lined with Vietnamese silks. Yet I so wanted her to have it, so I could borrow it.
Seventy-six vendors exhibit in the Vanderbilt Hall, which is decorated with a swoop of red faux ribbon over the peaked-roof stalls. At the entrance near the main terminal, I stepped into Zen Garage, entering a world of adventure and vivid soft goods.
Andrew Moulder and Marcelo Krushewsky are the Lewis and Clark of the Silk Road. The partners follow the Central Asian route to a magical land of tribal textiles, where they gather the rare materials that are later fashioned into bags, pillows, ottomans and other showpieces of exotica.
“These are one-offs,” said Moulder as he held up an ornately patterned cloth from Uzbekistan that cost four figures. “I have never seen a good palak in New York, and I don’t think many people are going to Uzbekistan.”
Other vendors are also banking on the fact that most shoppers won’t have time to visit the items’ country of origin before the holidays. Peter Braun’s beguiling glass ornaments from Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic are one example. Another: the M.C. Escher-esque bowls created by a multigenerational family of Nicaraguans and sold by Nica Ceramic Art.
“Once the customers get used to a certain quality, they will never regress to the old stuff,” said Sid Sharda, whose outpost was draped in (real) Indian pashminas and twinkling Kashmir purses.
Of course, not all the items at Grand Central belong in a maharaja’s palace; many are well-suited for a peon’s humble studio. For example, Chibekeni Global Treasure, a fair trade company, stocks animal-shaped door wedges that will have guests stopping in their tracks. New York Transit Museum offers a broken alphabet of model subway cars. At Sobral, you can dress up a friend’s hard-typing hands with resin rings set with computer keys (Page Up) and computer parts. Or update the standby gift, the tie.
Josh Bach, a New York designer, peppers his neckware with such whimsical images as the Bill of Rights, a tie-tying demo (so meta) and classic baseball stadiums. He also resolves an age-old gender dispute with his series of city maps, thereby creating a gift for both the giver and the receiver. The next time you’re lost in Chicago or Paris or London, simply grab your significant male by the neck and be on your merry way.