The holiday lanes are open in the business district. Tree vendors are camped on street corners and tinselly block-wide decorations hang over the boulevards. Despite the relentless insistence of large retailers that we behave otherwise, we stave off holiday shopping until December. This holiday weekend finds us in our shopping district in Astoria. Like all downtowns, this is an excellent area for patronizing small businesses. It is true all year long, but during the holiday shopping season, there is no better present for these foundations of the economy than to spend a few gift-giving dollars on their goods and services.
We need to walk off the calories from breakfast at our favorite bagel place, and what a pleasure a Saturday walk downtown is during this time of year. As expected, the card store is brimming with the good cheer of boxed cards and collectible ornaments, as staff circulate among the shoppers to perform the old-fashioned (and smart) service of holding their selections at the register. Fragrant wreaths in pine and juniper are crowned with velvet bows and stacked in front of the florist. Inside, everything from bayberry centerpieces to sprays of smoocher’s mistletoe reflects the season’s rich palate of evergreen and white. The bakeries are dispensing treats, each according to the owners’ own customs: crumbly almond cookies dusted with powdery sugar, fruit-studded bread from panettone to stollen, shortbread stars dipped in chocolate and cinnamon.
Home stores do a brisk business during the winter holidays, for aside from such niceties as holiday decorations they sell both small, pretty gifts and the necessities for welcoming guests into the home. One favorite spot offers stacks of joyously tacky guest towels and clusters of gleaming brass candlesticks. Another offers reindeer hand-hewn from Adirondacks lumber and a cacophony of twinkly lights in every color from sedate clear to the-hell-with-it rainbow. The antiques store has gladdened its windows with old-timey mercury glass and vintage holiday tableware. A particular favorite, Inside Astoria, numbers among its carefully curated selection of home gifts and goods a charming selection of imported, hand-painted holiday ornaments.
photo: Eric Diesel
Many of these places also sell gift books, and if you are lucky enough to live in an area with an independent bookstore, patronize it. There is no more thoughtful gift than a book, and most bookstores can order anything they don’t happen to have in stock. Whether your holiday is Hannukah, Christmas, a birthday or just because, a book is a joy to open not just as a gift but ever afterwards. Books will warm the cold nights of winter, be riffled by the first breezes of spring, accompany us to summer beaches, and be ready for back to school come autumn. Here is a list of gift books to inspire you both as a gift giver and a homekeeper – and if they inspire you to drop any hints to the holiday shoppers in your life, that’s okay too!
Cooking. For a year’s worth of stick-to-the-ribs Sunday suppers, consider pairing Betty Rosbottom’s Sunday Roasts with Marlena Spieler’s Yummy Potatoes. These small, simple cookbooks are beautifully executed with good, sumptuous recipes and photography to match. Foodies have been drooling for years for Todd English to release a new cookbook. His Cooking in Everyday English both exemplifies this chef’s slightly offbeat but inarguable kitchen philosophy and gives home cooks a sporting chance to achieve it. English has generously provided the recipes for some of his best dishes, including many that diners enjoy at Olives, Figs and Beso. The Murray’s Cheese Handbook is slim, portable, easy to use and authoritative, and would make an especially fine gift if paired with a small wedge of one of the recommendations therein. Similarly, you could pair Janet Fletcher’s beautiful and useful Cheese and Wine and The Cheese Course together, or with a cheese board or knives from your favorite local shop.
Entertaining. As one would expect, Martha’s Entertaining sets the standard for coffee table books about the aesthetic of living. This gorgeous, lavish volume of soirees from no less an icon of style than Martha Stewart would be a masterpiece simply for its design, but it is also useful. That marriage between practicality and artistry is fundamental to Stewart's impact, and with this book, she and her team settle any quibbles about the two once and for all. Let us hope that a decorating volume is in the works. Samantha Nestor's Living with Wine could just as easily be catalogued with the decorating books below, but this showstopper will cause any home entertainer who doesn't already have them to start sketching out their plans for a wine cellar and the tastings they'll host once it's completed. Also beautifully executed is Brad Thomas Parsons' Bitters, and almost no volume is more timely to the current old-world aesthetic swirling around cocktail culture. Present this handsome book alone or with a bottle of bitters you mixed from one of the recipes it includes -- in our urban home, the favorites are apple, orange and cedar.
Interiors. Devotees of mid-century modern will get a kick out of the 1961 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book, which might as well be called the Betty Draper Decorating Manual. An edition of this masterpiece original right down to the mylar flyleaves is spotlit on the shelves in my newly redecorated home office along with its cousin the Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book. You can frequently find vintage style manuals in various editions at used bookstores and their online counterparts. The true Draper of style as substance is Dorothy Draper, to whom it is not an exaggeration to refer as not just one of the founders of contemporary home design but one of its tastefully dramatic pillars. Her Decorating is Fun! is a treatise on design, a guidebook of information and insight, and a statement as a design object itself. Another pillar of dramatic design, William Haines, left fame as a silent era movie actor to achieve it as a movie colony interior designer under the auspices of none other than Joan Crawford. Class Act:William Haines Legendary Hollywood Decorator is a suitably lush tribute to this master of Hollywood Regency design. If perfectly wrought tinseltown vulgarity isn’t your style, perhaps the aesthetic, simultaneously rough-hewn and refined, of Pottery Barn Home is. And if not that, then the practical inspiration of The House Beautiful Home Book is inarguable.
Craft and Holiday. Holiday books are nice gifts for the holidays, assuming that you’re giving them to someone who celebrates. It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t find something fun and useful in Martha Stewart's Handmade Holiday Crafts, which takes us, our scissors, our glue sticks and our glitter tubes through a year of projects, instructions and inspiration. Both nostalgia and its cousin camp achieve sentimental traction and receive due respect in Susan Waggoner's Christmas Memories and David Seidman's Holiday Lights. Finally, for the hardcore nostalgist on your list, consider Jacqueline de Montravel's The Vintage Table and Ellyn Anne Geisel's The Kitchen Linens Book. Either or both of these darling volumes would be perfect for anyone who loves setting a pretty vintage table or puttering around an old-fashioned linen closet, or immersing themselves in the memories that inspire the settings and that become the legacy of holiday celebrations.