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Holiday Gift Giving 

Embracing Simple Joys

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It's a rare soul—at least on this continent—who never even sets foot inside a corporate retail outlet of the big-box variety. You may disapprove in principle, but at some point or other the need of some particular thingamajig draws you in. Big-box stores, noxious politics notwithstanding, do a fine job of providing 87 different colors of spray paint in three textures, basic kitchen appliances, and the like.

But despite the zillion point seven dollars invested by the multinationals in convincing us—beginning while the leaves are still half-green—that they hold the key to Joyful Holiday Giving, they truly just can't offer much here unless your loved ones would be most joyful to receive sweat socks, motor oil, and large trash bags. In that case, have at it.

It's certainly not that the idea of presenting loved ones with treats is in any way unpleasant. What could be more fun? But the Black Friday Frenzy, assaultive toy mobs, and endless ads suggesting that only a next year's car or living room suite can really make the grade can cast a bit of a pall. Finding some token that you know will be cherished is meant to be huge fun, not the royal road to megastress.

And herein lies the key to why shopping local and indie is not just a social good, not just a good thing to do for your loved ones, but the best thing you can do for yourself. As the days shorten, we are drawn instinctively toward the ancient ways of obtaining essential spiritual nutrients—coming together in community. This is why the shopping-under-fluorescent-lights plan is like choosing only the Brand X potato chips and dipping them in Brand X mayonnaise when you could be feasting fresh and rich with loved ones.

Happily, the genuine goodness is not hard to find. The art of retail is practiced with as much genius and love around the Hudson's lovely valley and environs as the fine and performing and culinary arts. The holidays offer a fantastic excuse to venture forth and soak it all in.

You'll be treated like gold. "Last year we had a very good customer actually make a late-night appointment to shop at her convenience," says Barbara Schreiber of the Rhinebeck Department Store. "We normally close at 8pm but she used us as her one-stop shopping and was here with us until 10pm. We wrapped many of her gifts and sent her a cyclamen the next day to thank her for her loyalty. She was very pleased at the customized service we gave her and touched by the gift we sent to her the next day."

Even if you're just browsing, you're bound to notice a difference in the hospitality skills on display at a place wreathed in family traditions and lifelong dreams and a cookie-cutter chain where the elves are starving in the toy workshop.

When you shop locally, around three times as much of the money remains local, where it will bounce around among friends and neighbors and is highway unlikely to wing itself off to the Grand Caymans, never to be seen again. Not only that, the choices you'll have will amaze and delight you. No online megaboutique of gracious living accoutrements can come close to the level of creative inventory you will find at, say, Colors Home in Warwick. "My business partner Christina [Topaloglou] holds a degree in engineering and this has proved immensely valuable when designing custom projects—how everything comes together structurally and logistically as well as aesthetically," says co-owner Susan Lovegreen. "She also has a great deal of experience in furniture design—comfort meets function with a unique and modern twist."

The result is a curated array that, even if it turns out not to contain exactly "the" item, will bring aesthetic pleasure and amazement just by visiting it—a sort of gallery of the useful. "We are always on the search for new products to introduce to our customers.  We look for companies that are forging new design pathways versus companies that prefer to copy and imitate what is already available. We travel to a variety of international shows and exhibits to preview style trends.  At the shows, we have access to new companies that are just getting their first exposure to a large audience. And we also keep tabs on design trends through a variety of internet sites that offer a large amount of designing ideas, creative new uses for a stand-by product or suggestions for solving a tricky design problem. These sites can sometimes give a little spark to a new design concept we create. It is a bit like treasure hunting."

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Julie Safran of Cocoon in New Paltz agrees—the creation of a store that strokes every sense is best undertaken by the spiritual descendants of gypsy adventurers . "In January, half my month is spent on the road. That's what it takes to find interesting merchandise that others don't have."

The caliber of her results can perhaps be measured by a five-star rave-up from one Alexandra P., who admits that it "sounds weird" to talk about traveling 90 miles from Manhattan for cool shopping. But Cocoon has won her heart: 

"I saw so much stuff that I had really never seen before but that I instantly wanted. They had legitimately good lunch and kitchen supplies, pretty home decor stuff, interesting books, baby gear, and so forth. Even their 'witty T-shirt' section was legitimately funny—a rare coup, for sure!" she says, adding that New Paltz "is a fun enough town that I can get away with pretending I'm not mostly going just to shop."

What Alexandra may not know, but you, dear reader, should, is that we've got a lot of retail zones that make that grade and then some. From Saugerties and the Stockade down to Warwick, on both sides of the river, whichever locale is your personal "local" you'll find it decorated and delightful, with good eats and drinks nearby. Downtowns—even tiny ones—pack mojo the mall can't mimic.

Even if time or circumstances or inclination require you to do some or all of your shopping in virtual reality, there are wonderful web aggregations out there that make it easy to shop local without leaving the house. On the homey Accord-kerhonkson.com, you'll find a "local artists" portal that brings together more than 40 sources of absolutely one-of-a-kind creations of stunning beauty. Hudson Valley Makes, a relatively new entry, is constantly adding new local sources and inspirations.

Of course, many communities are doing some aggregation in what we call real life at this time of year. Gift and craft fairs abound. Then there are the permanent installations. Art Riot in Kingston's Stockade, for example, brings together more than 50 indie makers under the banner, "Local. Alternative. DIY."

But what, you say, if my sweetheart really does need something practical? Am I not forced to dive into the soul-deadening fender-bender-generating creative desert that is Concrete Acres? Not hardly. Places like Kenco, up on a hill at the Kingston end of Hurley Mountain Road, and the aforementioned Rhinebeck Department Store carry a full and wonderful line of footwear, apparel and useful basics. You can get and give true quality, while saving more in time and aggravation than you could possibly spend in extra dollars.

Shopping local is a gift you give yourself, restoring the level of blessedness to the whole gifting interaction that it's intended to have. The sun will be back soon. Meanwhile, in its stead, we find ways to spread the light and keep each other warm. "Ninety percent is locally crafted and all of it is chosen to bring joy," says Peri Rainbow-Sloan of Family Traditions in Stone Ridge, where a former video store has been transformed into a yummy gallery-emporium. Joy, dear readers, doesn't come from a sweatshop.

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  • Why and where you should shop local this holiday season.

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