Malls are jammed. Parking is a game of chicken for precious spaces. Parttime employees give a blank stare when asked about specific items. There are so many blinking lights they trigger nausea.
It must be the holidays. Happy and/or merry whatever!
But, it doesn't have to be like that. There are a myriad individual stores and shops that not only offer special, individualized gifts but also do so with knowledge of their products and a sincere holiday attitude. So for anyone hunting for that one-of-a-kind gift that brings forth that truly appreciative question "Where did you find this?" on Christmas morning, here are some suggestions for the last 11 days of 2006 Christmas shopping.
Although the city has decided not to offer free parking throughout Old Town during the holiday shopping season, coming into the core of Alexandria to find that special something is well worth the pay-to-park. Rather than playing cat and mouse with Parking Enforcement use one of the many parking garages and lots, such as the most centrally located one under Market Square that is accessed off North Fairfax Street.
When it comes to Christmas decorating, a classic Christmas accessory, or a gift that exudes Christmas there is no place like either The Christmas Attic, 125 S. Union St., or its sister shop, House in the Country, 107 N. Fairfax St. With everything from Department 56 villages to Radko ornaments these shops are Christmas.
One of their new items is the "Switchable Nite Light" that sells for $12 to $22. It is a stained glass ornament which hangs from a brass hook that can be used either in front of a night light or on the tree. After the holidays is can serve as a window sun catcher.
For those who want to spread holiday cheer through art of Alexandria there is Gallery G, upstairs at 215 King St. Artist Len Garon has produced a wide selection of Alexandria scenes available in both prints and mixed media original oils.
One of the most spectacular is that of Alexandria City Hall and Market Square priced at $500 and up. It is also reproduced as a set of 5X7 note cards. A pack of seven with envelopes sells for $10. His prints of various city streets scenes are listed at $135 framed.
Have a transplant from Haight Ashbury on the list? The perfect shop is Artcraft, 132 King St. There is enough of the eclectic there to warm the winter soul of any latter day hippie.
Big sellers this year are the glass evergreen trees in a variety of decorative sizes priced from $46 to $65. For animal/wine lovers don't miss the creature bottle topers at $14 each. And, that's not even the tip of the eclecticberg in this menagerie of the imaginative.
FOR THE MORE PRACTICAL intellectual recipient there is the Discovery Channel Store at 118 King St. Here there is everything from a massage chair to videos to toys and games for nearly every taste.
Two items of great interest this year are the Robo Reptile at $79.95 and Vectron Ultimate at $39.95. The latter is a remote controlled flying saucer that can climb up to 10 feet.
Offering more traditional gifts are Wilfred-Rodgers, 320 King St.; The Irish Walk, 415 King St., at Tavern Square; and Elder Crafters, 405 Cameron St. The latter is a non-profit consignment shop featuring "unique handcrafted items" from individual artisans.
Elder Crafters items range from children's clothing items to tree ornaments and children's quilts. The ornaments, made out of paper and ribbon, are priced at $5 each. The quilts start at $50 depending on the artisan.
Other items in the shop, located on the corner across from Gadsby's Tavern, include pottery, jewelry, art work, baskets, toys and dolls, sweaters and scarves, and needlework. All are made by artisans over 55 years of age.
For authenticity, The Irish Walk is the place to shop. Nearly every item comes from Ireland and many are hand made. Offerings include children's kilts at $45; Irish china ornaments ranging from $9 to $12; Beeleek china and Waterford crystal; Irish breakfast and dinner meats from $7.99 to $8.99; and tins of sweets for afternoon tea at $30.
There is a wide assortment of Irish clothing ranging from heavy knit sweaters to jackets, hats, scarves, toddler items, and much more. Only by visiting The Irish Walk can one attain a full appreciation of the possibilities.
EACH YEAR one of the most comprehensive gift stores offering some of the most unusual selections in Old Town is Wilfred-Rodgers. This year is no exception.
In that category are their Russian lacquer boxes from $45 to $900 and the handcarved Russian Santa from $55 to $500 plus. At the other end of the spectrum is the "Twinkler Ornament" at $12.98 that can be used either on the tree or in an number of other locations.
Each year one of their most exquisite offerings is the selection of reverse, handpainted, glass balls. From Ne'Owa Art, they range in price from $25 to $40 each and are well worth the investment as a lifetime keepsake.
These are only a few of the many specialty shops within Old Town that offer potential gifts only to be found in such stores. Others include Ten Thousand Villages, 824 King St.; Why Not children's shop at 200 King St.; Whistle Stop Hobbies, 130 S. Royal St., for model trains and other hobby possibilities; as well as an array of antique and art shops, clothing stores, and others offering something for every taste and shopper.
THOSE INTO MUSIC BOXES will be mesmerized by the selection at The Gift Store, 7910 Fort Hunt Road, in the Hollin Hall Shopping Center. In addition to a broad selection of elegant boxes there are the eye catching amusement and circus ones.
This year's new addition is of one of a boardwalk favorite ride The Tilt-A-Whirl, they call it the Round-About. It sells for $110.
Others include the Roller Coaster at $121; the Ferris Wheel at $119.95; and The Big Top at $149.95. There are also exquisite musical jewelry boxes with lacquered photos on the lid. Prices range from $44 to $57.50.
Selections are not limited to music boxes. There are other possibilities such as the Heartwood Creek figures from $8.95 to $44.95 and a wide array of potential stocking stuffers.
RIGHT NEXT DOOR, 7906 Fort Hunt Road, is the Blossom Shop which is far more than a floral shop. In addition to some of the best flowers and live decorations in the area, they offer everything from holiday dinner ware to Pepper Patch "Tippy Cake," made with Jack Daniels bourbon. There is also Jam Cake and Orange Wine Cake. Each sells for $18.75.
Among the dinnerware offerings are Peggy Karr Christmas platters ranging in price from $45 to $85. There is also a complete table setting depicting "The Night Before Christmas." Individual pieces are priced from $20 to $55.
Not really into doing all that decorating at home or need the office done? Blossom Shop owner Dorothy Trimber can do that also. Prices are dependent on what is required in labor and whether the decorations are provided or purchased from the shop. Their selections include handmade boxwood wreaths, elegantly trimmed trees, and a wide selection of other decorative possibilities.
FOR THOSE that do their own decorating there is no place like the Hollin Hall Variety Store, 7902 Fort Hunt Road. As the third shop in that section of the Hollin Hall Shopping Center it is the promised land to any do-it-yourselfer and more than worth the pilgrimage.
No matter if its wiring, lights, unbreakable balls for outdoor trees, ornaments that speak to all elements of this nation's diversity, faux wreaths and garland, ready made bows or the ribbon to make them, toys, cook ware, its all inside Charles "Ben" Vennell's Variety Store.
A new addition this year are the individual "Everlasting Tealights." At $1.49 each they are the perfect battery-operated substitute to the spode candle.
Probably the most sought after item this time of year are the store's selection of decorated boxes. Done in all shapes and sizes they carry scenes of Christmas and winter both inside and out and require absolutely no wrapping. In fact, to do so would defeat the whole purpose.
Ranging in price from 79 cents to $8.49 they must be seen to be believed. "We've had people come in before we even put them out and ask where our boxes are. One lady said she had eight but needed at least five more. She put them under her tree empty as decorations before she put out the actual presents," said Vennell.
2006 has proven to be one of the best for Vennell. "I had to reorder more sets of tree lights for the first time ever," he said.
NOT TO BE OUTDONE, several shops in Belle View Shopping Center, off Belle View Boulevard, offer holiday shoppers the potential to bring home that very special something that can not be duplicated. Topping that list would be a framed collection of political campaign buttons covering presidential campaigns from 1896 to 2004.
Offering buttons from both parties, the gold framed collections, priced at $1,000 each, can be found at the Virginia Florist, 1632 Belle View Boulevard. "With everything that's going on in the political world and Washington, this is a great gift for the political junkie," said shop owner Kevin Green.
He also is featuring a map of the Mount Vernon area showing the Yankee picket lines during the Civil War. Being a Yankee sketcher and mapper, Robert K. Sneden misplaced several landmarks on his map such as locating Gunston Hall in the Gum Springs area. Unframed, the map sells for $50.
At 1520 Belle View Boulevard is Hodges Galleries with everything from art selections and framing to $10 nautical ornaments and $3 old fashion ornaments. However, the framing service for a Christmas art gift cuts off at December 21.
Anyone searching for a gift to present to that hard-to-shop-for individual should be able to find it at Hodges Galleries. How about a wide selection of whimsical porcelain cats including one decorated with a chinese motif including a lighted lantern hanging from its tail. They range from $10 to $25.
FOR CHILDREN'S CLOTHING and accessories there is Keedo at 1600-A Belle View Boulevard. With items for newborns through teenage in both clothing and toys, Keedo's primary lines come from Capetown, South Africa. This season they are also offering items made by local entrepreneurs.
A wide range of not only electronics but also power driven toys can be found at Radio Shack, 1612 Belle View Boulevard. There is everything from flat screen televisions, to DVD recorder/players, to cell phones, to race cars, and even a Barbie corvette. Prices depend on the item and accessories.
A new addition to the center this year is The Alexandria Music Company at 1502 Belle View Boulevard. This is a must for those that give music as a special Christmas gift.
Check out the guitar Christmas packs starting at $149. They include the not only the guitar and tuner but also gig bag, strings, and DVD. Stock is not limited to guitars. It encompasses a wide range of instruments as well as certificates for lessons.