This holiday season I’m putting my foot down and outright refusing to enter a cinnamon-spice-scented department store. There is simply no need for that kind of toxic exposure. I would encourage anyone who feels like they might freak out or pass out in the Bloomingdale’s on Lexington, albeit an extreme example, to go easy on your nerves this December and check out local museum gift shops. You’re not only doing yourself a favor, you’re supporting small businesses and East End artisans, and you’re more likely to come across truly unique items, all without burning a hole in your wallet.
Tucked right behind Main Street in Southampton, in the Rogers Mansion, is the Southampton Historical Museum gift shop. Just approaching the porched entryway to the 1843 Greek-revival-style home to whaling captain Albert Rogers is a treat in itself. The bright and cheerful little gift shop is situated in what was once the parlor. You can catch a glimpse of the beautiful, historic interior right from the entryway. The gift shop has an extensive collection of books on local ancestry, history, sailing, and of course whaling. In the children’s corner, there are adorable vintage toys that might also delight an adult with a sense of humor or nostalgia. In a glass case there are sea-glass earrings and exquisite pieces made by local jewelers. Arranged throughout the shop there are handcrafted découpage paperweights, postcards by local photographers, artisan teas and tea paraphernalia, felted soap kits, and lusciously-scented lavender soaps and lotions. Seasonal items include exquisite feathered bird ornaments and vintage Christmas cards. The goal of the shop is to engage the community as a cultural center where they can come together, share knowledge, and find unusual products.
Another place with a similar mission is the Parrish Art Museum gift shop. What better excuse do you need to visit the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Water Mill location and soak up some Fairfield Porter and Dan Flavin? After all, this whole season is meant to be uplifting at a time when we are experiencing a shortage of sunshine. While you are inside the museum, you will not be deprived, as skylights and massive windows allow for plenty of natural illumination. The gift shop itself is warmly lit and inviting. Like an upscale Aspen lodge sans antlers, the light wood cabinets and bookshelves provide a perfect backdrop for their display. The first item to catch my eye and trigger a laugh was a small book, The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Bridgehampton‘s Taylor Plimpton. The selection is extensive, with a range of everything from coffee-table-size artist monographs to kids coloring books. Well-designed sketch journals and art supplies make great gifts for all ages. Fair-trade jewelry, with a variety of price points, and woven decorative baskets adorn the glass cabinets, while Indian silk scarves and yoga mats hang from the wall. For the real art lover, posters and prints from the permanent collection are also available.
Equally exciting was a trip inside SoFo, the South Fork Natural History Museum. Intent on educating and sparking life-long interest in nature, SoFo is devoted to wildlife that is specific to the area. Their gift shop is filled with curiosities that make perfect stocking stuffers and small gifts: ranging from milkweed seeds (which I learned are crucial to the proliferation of the monarch butterfly) to rock crystal trees. They make their own reading material and maps showing different species that you can find on their trails. They also have an extensive collection of books for naturalists of all levels: from Peterson’s Field Guide coloring books to John Turner’s Exploring the Other Island and Mike Bottini’s Trail Guide to the South Fork, which includes 40 different trails. The shop also has cute and furry stuffed animals, tote bags, tee shirts, mugs, soaps, hand-carved boxes, and handmade shell jewelry crafted by local bayman, Al “Big Time” Daniels.
At each of these shops, the people who worked there were friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to help. How often can you walk away from a shopping adventure having just learned about history, art, and science?