436 Cortland (at Andover), 648-1380
This aptly named variety store nestled in a quaint stretch of Bernal Heights has something of a split personality. Many of its imported toys and cheapie knickknacks (including miniature Harleys, squeaking rubber ducks, and the suction cup-covered "Suckerman") would make offbeat stocking stuffers for people of every age. But the place has its serious side, too. Owner Darcy Lee's selection of more upscale gifts, like wooden bowl sets and hand-painted lanterns, are there to satisfy gifters with more reserved tastes. Well worth the trip up the hill, Heartfelt remains a hidden gem with enough variety to get you out of a last-minute shopping pinch.
It's that time of the year again, that long slow march from the last out of the World Series to the first day of Spring Training. Fortunately, there's always next year, and in the meantime you can celebrate the home team's rich history with an orange-and-black stocking stuffer or two. In addition to the usual jerseys, caps, jackets, and sweat shirts, the Dugout stocks more unusual items like Alou Brothers stackable dolls, a Giants Monopoly game, a foot-tall Giants Pez dispenser that plays "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," videos of the 1951, '54, '62, and '89 World Series, a Polo Grounds street sign for the über-nostalgic, a Giants/Dodgers chess set, and -- ideal for the season -- snow globes, Christmas tree ornaments, and a Santa figurine in full Giants regalia. Play ball already!
The Wok Shop
718 Grant (at Sacramento), 888-780-7171
Be prepared for the ride when Tane Chan gives you the quick tour of her cozy (albeit cluttered) kitchen supply shop near the heart of Chinatown. In under a minute she pilots through the narrow passages of her place, between islands of Asian cooking tools of every imaginable shape and size. There are stacks of bamboo steamers, sake and tea sets of every variety, and a daunting arsenal of Chinese knives and cleavers. And of course there are woks -- big and small, carbon and stainless -- and Chan is on hand to help you find just the right one. We recommend the hand-hammered iron woks from China, based on a centuries-old design, all available for under $20.
Get Lost Travel Books1825 Market (between Pearl and Guerrero), 437-0529If all you're looking for is a guidebook or a map to ease your passage into a strange land, any old corporate chain bookstore will do. Get Lost is instead a haven for the passionate traveler, with enough gear and reading matter to outfit and inspire even the most devoted gadabout. Travel books for odd locations like Yemen or Surinam? Check. Money-concealing belts and packs? Check. Little things you don't realize you need until you see them, like anti-jet-lag pills and a money-exchange calculator? It's this last that separates Get Lost from the pack. Going somewhere new? Ask store clerks for advice; chances are they've been there.
Cannery Wine Cellars
2801 Leavenworth (at Beach, in the Cannery), 673-0400
When you need just the right wine, beer, aperitif, or liqueur to complement a holiday soiree or gift basket, check out this impressively stocked emporium of high spirits. Besides an acre or two of well-organized vino (the store specializes in boutique West Coast and Italian wineries), there's Croatian pelinkovac, Peruvian pisco, Turkish raki, and many another option for the adventurous imbiber. One wall displays beers from Switzerland, Brazil, and everywhere in between, but the store's centerpiece is a towering cabinet packed with some 400 single malts. (Two dozen Irish whiskeys, five dozen bourbons, 30 varieties of gin, 50 cognacs, 75 vodkas, and 21 breeds of anise liqueur are among the other high-octane possibilities.) There's also a wide variety of stocking-friendly 50 ml-sized bottles, from Goldschläger to Godiva. Sköal!
Lark in the Morning
2801 Leavenworth (at Beach, in the Cannery), 922-4277
Looking for a tongue drum, thumb piano, nose flute, or mouth organ? How about a djembe or an ashiko or a kalimba? You'll find everything for the multicultural musician on your list at this globally inclusive instrument shop. French Canadian spoons, Cajun triangles, Maui pocket saxes, Zampogna panpipes, Slovakian fujaras, Finnish pine zithers, and Koa soprano ukes are just a few of the worldly delights sharing shelf space with chromatic ocarinas, pentatonic lyres, ram's-horn shofars, and hardwood bongos. Instructional books and videos are available when you need a little help mastering that Aeolian wind harp, and the knowledgeable staff is happy to offer gift-giving suggestions. Good CD selection, too.
1458 Haight (between Masonic and Ashbury), 552-5095
This flatteringly lit, appealingly appointed women's clothing and accessories store is sorta like Urban Outfitters' dressed-up cousin. Ambiance's main purview is out-on-the-town clothing, revealing evening- and club-wear for the young and slim-hipped. But it's the store's accessories section that makes it worth a gifting stop. The selection of scarves, handbags, and sweaters is small but exquisite, each item a tiny treasure. And the jewelry and hair clips scattered on and under the cash register are of the delicate, intricate variety that provides so much style at bargain-basement prices from $5 to just over $100.
214 Pierce (between Haight and Page), 864-0693
Have you ever gotten incredibly lucky and run across the garage sale of a confirmed eccentric? If so, you've experienced the thrill of sifting through wonderful junk: matchbooks from defunct nightspots, odd ashtrays, hideously delightful lamps, costume jewelry, pieces of furniture that demand entire rooms be decorated around their majestic weirdness. A visit to Mickey's Monkey is like going to this garage sale any day of the year. Run by a confirmed salvage junkie, the store's ever-changing stock of secondhand gear runs the gamut from retro tableware to unusual knickknacks to large bookshelves and tables, all of it crammed into a tiny place and overflowing out onto its Lower Haight sidewalk.
1512 Haight (at Ashbury), 487-9000
Action figures aren't just for kids and Japanese people anymore. Kidrobot West has the finest collection of urban action figures, collectible toys, bizarre handmade plush dolls, and remote-control cars in America. For the child-at-heart on your gift list, you can buy figures of Bruce Lee and Run-DMC or original creatures created by graffiti artists and talented toy designers. Meet the Bloody Gloomy Bear -- a clawed teddy bear who kills people. Or Dada, Monkey Playground's B-girl who busts a move and comes complete with her own boombox. Kidrobot also has its own line of toys and T-shirts. Both novices and expert collectors will find something fun here.
681 Haight (at Steiner), 252-5766
Amoeba might be bigger, but most vinyl aficionados can find everything they're looking for at Groove Merchant, San Francisco's finest selection of original breaks and beats. Super-knowledgeable proprietor Cool Chris can help you find that elusive Eddie Bo 45 you've been pining for, or the live Eddie Palmieri double LP you want to check out. In addition to jazz, Latin, soul, hip hop, and electronica rarities, Groove Merchant carries the latest CDs from local deejays like O-Dub, Tom Thump, and Vinnie Esparza, and indie record labels like DFA and Future Primitive Sound. Make sure to also check out the homemade T-shirts featuring logos from classic record labels like Strata East, Cold Chillin', and Prestige.
1415 Haight (at Masonic), 626-2882
Those interested in hip hop's dominant fashion lines as well as independent ones should make this store their primary stop. Clever T-shirts (which tend to be big and baggy for men, tight and tailored for women) are a top commodity here but are by no means the only stock in trade. Look for great, edgy dresses, stylish running suits, and sturdy yet fly jeans. True also carries cool messenger bags and backpacks, many with innovative features like foldout chairs or space for personal sound systems. These alone are worth checking out, even if one doesn't aspire to the hip hop lifestyle.
1855 Haight (at Stanyan), 831-1200
Gift certificates are a basic no-brainer at Amoeba Music (and a darned good gift besides), but that's not as much fun for the buyer as digging for something more personal. Pick up something new, or take advantage of great used prices to get more music. Vinyl lovers in particular can get hour upon hour of great sounds for pocket change (from the boxes and boxes of 45s priced at $1 apiece). And while music is the store's specialty, the video and DVD areas are steadily growing.
2 Sanchez (at Duboce), 934-9463
An elegant little wine, cheese, and gourmet food shop at the base of Duboce Park, Cooper's is a convenient quick-stop for dinner parties or intimate trysts for those residing in the Lower Haight and Castro. But for a more personal touch -- one worth the trip from other neighborhoods -- book a favored someone into one of Cooper's cheese-tasting classes, which vary in theme each month. January is likely to be a tutorial on sheep's cheeses, for example. Classes are capped at 12 people for maximum interaction and educational potential.
604 Haight (at Steiner), 252-9312
Beautiful smells always beckon the passer-by into this little gift shop, a slice of serenity featuring lots of candles, incense, jewelry, and sweet handmade treasures like scented eye pillows and little stuffed creatures. The best present: Mix your intended a special essential-oil potion or customize a body lotion, shower gel, or bubble bath with their favorite scent. Or bring them into the store for a mehndi application, in which ornate designs are temporarily "tattooed" onto hands.
262 Sutter (at Grant), 374-2758
Paul Frank's recognizable mascot, a smiling monkey named Julius, has helped the SoCal designer become the fashion world's king of cute. His designs are usually emblazoned with simple cartoon animals or whimsical slogans and slowly but surely have become treasured by alternateens, celebrity hipsters, and the young at heart. More recently, his stores have become a mecca for cool, relatively inexpensive accessories, as he's complemented his line of playful leisure threads with brightly colored watches, wallets, key chains, and all kinds of kitschy plunder. His Sutter Street outlet is one of seven in the United States and offers customers their own unique slice of pop culture.
182 Gough (at Oak), 861-8162
Most antique furniture stores in San Francisco are essentially in the business of ripping you off. Vintage Modern, though, is one of those rare finds where the hardcore collector or connoisseur can find loads of 20th-century collectibles at 19th-century prices. Here you'll rediscover old plastic, geometrical lamps, shag rugs, luggage sets, and those heavy but colorful dial phones that make great one-of-a-kind gifts. Down in the basement, you can spend hours admiring '50s-, '60s-, and '70s-era couches, end tables, and other hidden treasures just begging you to take them home.
539 Hayes (at Laguna), 864-8180
What woman wouldn't want a $100 bra and matching panties for Chanukah? Buy your lady the finest lingerie from La Perla, Cosabella, and other designers at this lovely, upscale boutique in the heart of Hayes Valley. You can peruse the wide selection of lace, cashmere, cotton, and silk undergarments. From negligees and nighties to garter belts and G-strings, Alla Prima has didies both naughty and nice. Shoppers on a tighter budget should check out the sale items upstairs for some sweet deals.
2086 Chestnut (between Pierce and Scott), 921-7188
Forget the smorgasbord of cheapo shoes and sweat pants at discount sporting goods stores; discerning runners will find consumerist bliss at Fleet Feet, a boutique shop that offers apparel, accessories, and local running-oriented reading material. The store doesn't have tons of selection, but what's there has been carefully picked by a knowledgeable staff of runners and fitness buffs. If you're on a quest for the right shoe, they'll take all afternoon if necessary to fit you into a perfect pair. And as a bonus to patrons, the store's newsletter will keep you posted on running events and training activities all around the bay.
824 Valencia (at 19th St.), 824-1872
For that macabre friend, lover, or family member, stop by Paxton Gate for the perfectly ghoulish gift. In addition to an array of lush plant life and an extraordinary selection of orchids, they carry attention-getting carnivorous plants. The Venus Flytrap, pitcher plant, and sundew -- which trap and eat insects -- all make great presents for those with green thumbs and black hearts. And if that's not enough, Paxton Gate sells mounted bugs and stuffed mice, and offers classes in taxidermy to satisfy the wicked science buff in us all.
1767 Church (between Day and 30th St.), 643-0500
There is a certain used kitchenware store in San Francisco whose owner is a notorious harpy. If she doesn't like your looks or browsing style she's likely to yell you right out of her store before you even pay her criminal $50 price tag for a scratched jadeite egg cup. After such treatment, the honeyed tones and gentle manner of Niftique Vintique owner Holly Schneider soothe vintage-loving houseware shoppers like a medicated balm. What began as a private collection too large to store has turned into a tiny-but-mighty outlet for antique goodies like aluminum cake transporters, enameled serving trays, cookie cutters, cutesy salt-and-pepper shakers, and lovely old embroidered kitchen linens. Stepping inside is like taking a tour of Donna Reed's kitchen -- and unlike the jacked-up prices you'll find at other stores or on auction sites, Schneider's fees are sweetly reasonable.
3893 24th St. (between Sanchez and Church), 821-6658
Nothing complements a winter array of apples, pears, walnuts, and tangerines like a roaring hearth, a snifter of brandy, and an excellent cheese -- a pungent Colston Basset stilton, perhaps, with a razor-sharp Grafton cheddar and a nutty sheep's milk Petit Basque for variety. A tasty place to find them is the 24th Street Cheese Co. A huge, ever-evolving blackboard dominates a shop comparatively modest in size considering the abundance it shelters: well over 200 cheeses from around the world. You're bound to come away with the perfect cracker-capper; the staff is knowledgeable, blessedly opinionated, and quick to offer samples. Also available are olives, wines, sausages, truffles, and everything else you'd need for a memorable gift basket.
Broadway Cigars & Liquors
550 Broadway (between Grant and Kearny), 397-1310
Now, we're not saying that Broadway Cigars & Liquors has a bad location, exactly -- it's certainly wise to sell liquor in a neighborhood rife with strip joints, as sheepish gentleman customers may wish to arm themselves with a bit of dutch courage pre-patronage. But it is rather strange that this particular corner, which seems more suited to a sex shop emporium or a convenience store with an unusually large supply of condoms, would be home to one of the finest selections of cigars in town. Ask an employee for his or her advice and they'll help you with your choices -- is that $10 Montecristo Churchill really worth the couple of bucks over the price of the Macanudo Gold Label Lord Nelson? The reasoned, seasoned advice you'll receive is almost as sound as taking an exploratory puff, and that makes fighting your way past the goggling crowds of strip club spectators worth the trip.
358 Columbus (between Vallejo and Grant), 362-1342
This venerable landmark packs every variety of blade you can imagine into a tiny space dripping with Old Country charm. Top-quality scissors, cleavers, shears, boning knives, paring knives, hunting knives, and other sharp-edged instruments from around the world are available at reasonable prices for the gardener, chef, or homemaker on your shopping list. (This is also the place to come for one of those 007 Swiss Army knives with the corkscrew, magnifying glass, scissors, and toothpick built in.) The highly professional in-house sharpeners will make your knives better than new. Repairs offered as well.
Chan's Trains & Hobbies
2450 Van Ness (between Union and Green), 885-2899
There's nothing like the rattle and whistle of a model train wending its way round the tree on Christmas morning to beckon the child within, and Chan's is the place to start laying the track. The store's narrow confines are packed top to bottom with all manner of railway paraphernalia: cars of great individuality; gorgeous old streamlined engines, some in the $1,000 range; a wide selection of Lionels, American Flyers, Bachmanns, and Marklins; tracks in eight gauges; turf, tunnels, trees, bridges, and buildings for landscape verisimilitude; tools, replacement parts, and balsa wood for home repair work; and books, magazines, and catalogs to keep you up on the latest toy-train developments. And if you don't want to invest in all of that track and Astroturf, there are several lovely chrome-plated wind-up trains ideal for stuffing a stocking.
2360 Fillmore (at Washington), 359-9260
There are women (and men) who salivate at the very mention of this luxurious line of soaps, lotions, shampoos, and ointments. Kiehl's cultists swear by this 152-year-old company that began as a small pharmacy in New York City. Now you can pamper your loved ones with lovely-smelling body washes, moisturizing lip balms, and light creamy conditioners. Helpful employees will assist you in putting together a great gift package larded with free samples -- whether you're spending $15 or $150.
1436 Polk (at Pine), 563-1736
Acorn's large windows are full of tempting out-of-print rarities suggesting the richness within: art books, modern firsts, popular culture. One of the best used-and-rare bookstores on the West Coast, with 125,000 hardbacks in stock, Acorn specializes in books about San Francisco and California history, literature, art and architecture, performing arts, transportation (especially railroading), and military history. You can check out their stock online (65,000 titles), but browsing the beautifully kept shelves will turn up serendipitous finds, such as vintage children's books, luridly covered paperbacks, and other interesting ephemera. Prices range from a couple of bucks for a used paperback to $2,250 for a rare 1881 volume of Oliver Wendell Holmes owned by Charles Wheeler (for whom UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall was named) to $7,000 for a 1931 edition of The Wind in the Willows signed by both author and illustrator.
1542 Polk (between Sacramento and California), 771-4649
Bargains abound at this cramped, cheerful cookware venue. Would you believe a cast-iron Lodge skillet for $9.50? How about a DeBuyer steel crepe pan for $13.50, or a Schott Zwiesel crystal martini glass for $5.65? Tucked here and there are beechwood rolling pins for $9.50, space age DeLonghi toasters for $58, 3-quart tins of Sagra extra-virgin olive oil for $19.50, and other happy consequences of the restaurant-surplus biz. You're bound to find a kettle, platter, apron, scale, mitt, whisk, colander, or egg timer for somebody on your list just by roaming around this treasure trove of an outlet.
Russian Hill Bookstore
2234 Polk (between Green and Vallejo), 929-0997
In addition to an eclectic, floor-to-ceiling selection of paperbacks, vintage volumes, and used coffee-table books in good condition, this friendly little shop stocks an amazing abundance of offbeat, handcrafted, and down-to-earth greeting cards for every occasion (castles, lighthouses, and sports cars are among the themed displays). A visit to the store's back nook is essential at this time of the year, when it's rechristened The Holiday Room and its walls are lined with goofy, gorgeous, hip, saucy, traditional, and ecclesiastical Christmas cards for every Yuletide temperament. Dazzling gift bags, wrapping paper and ribbon, and lots of good stocking stuffers too, including miniature books, desk calendars, and tiny make-your-own-sushi kits.
2 South Park (between Second and Third streets), 882-4929
Even with markdowns of up to 70 percent, the top-end men's and women's clothing at low-profile bargain basement Jeremy's is still pretty pricey. But for those used to paying designer prices, the place is pure heaven. Jeremy's eschews the off-price approach of stores like Marshalls and Ross, which typically buy whole lots of clothing that fails to move at department stores. Instead, Jeremy's is a repository for that one gorgeous cashmere coat with a missing button, or the silk Donna Karan dress with a rip at the waist. Not all clothing is damaged, but shoppers should look carefully before snapping up bargains from designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, and Armani. Jeremy's is an ideal place to purchase high-quality ties, sweaters, gloves, and handbags.
230 Townsend (between Third and Fourth streets), 896-1122
You'll find everything for the wannabe Djangos, Guthries, and Segovias on your shopping list at this all-encompassing gitbox shop. There are new and used guitars of every size and make -- Martins, Fontanillas, Raimundos, Plazuelos -- in a wide range of prices, from $125 for a half-size model to a gorgeous 1923 Esteso of Brazilian rosewood for $8,000. Amps, picks, metronomes, strings, cases, instructional videos, CDs by Baden Powell, Peppino de Agostino, and other icons, and 56 cartons of sheet music in several genres make fine stocking-stuffer options. The performers, composers, and educators who make up the staff know their stuff, and a variety of repairs is offered on the premises.
601 Irving (between Seventh and Eighth avenues), 242-5540When heading into Wishbone it's wise to wear earplugs -- there are an awful lot of high-pitched girlish squeals in here. This is the place to pick up gifts for the so-hip-it-hurts type who has everything, particularly if said hipster is fond of Paul Frank T-shirts and handbags, whimsically screen-printed pajamas, and ultra-adorable candles, magnets, greeting cards, jewelry, kitchenware, and stationery. Browse the toy area for retro favorites like potato guns, Etch-a-Sketch keychains, and Magic 8-Balls; head to the housewares section for charming lamps bedecked with fur, feathers, and glitter, along with vintage reproduction glassware and tableware. But be careful on your way out the door: Wishbone's cash register is a dangerous place for impulse shoppers. Who could resist tiny rubber robots with eyes and ears that pop out when you squeeze them, rhinestone-studded wrist cuffs, and old-school candy like Willy Wonka chocolate bars and Sen Sen?
2700 Sloat (near Great Highway), 566-4415
Browsing the outdoor aisles can give you serious garden envy. Long the green-thumbed's best friend in San Francisco, Sloat Garden Center hosts a spectacular array of exotic and everyday flowers and plants for indoor and outdoor cultivation. Whether one's garden is lush and voluminous or limited to a small box under the kitchen window, there's something wonderful for your favorite gardener here. Get him a selection of new tools, accessories, or seeds (or a gift certificate if you can't decide), or just brighten up the abodes of the plantless with a gorgeously delicate orchid.
808 Sutter (at Hyde), 614-9414
Not satisfied with the pickings at Foot Locker? Bored with the selection at Champs? If you are shopping for a true sneaker addict, then the coolest limited-edition and hard-to-find sneakers in the city are found at Huf, skater Keith Hufnagel's Tenderloin store. With offerings from Adidas, New Balance, Nike and Puma, Huf doesn't carry a ton of styles, but what they have is hip to the max. Also check out the new Huf clothing shop next store, featuring local labels' silk-screened T-shirts, Stussy goods, and fancy design books.
Sur La Table
77 Maiden Lane (between Grant and Kearny; also at the Ferry Building), 732-7900
Among the unique and possibly indispensable cooking tools offered for purchase at Sur La Table are turkey lifters, zabaglione pans, brulée torches, rosette irons, shallot cellars, fishbone tweezers, sesame seed grinders, aebleskiver pans, frosting combs, raclette grills, pineapple slicers, pizzelle rollers, toast tongs, crepe spreaders, lava-rock molcajetes, and chocolate-tempering machines for making your own bonbons -- everything you need, in short, for preparing and serving any type of cuisine on the face of Earth. This split-level temple to the culinary arts also offers a panoramic selection of everyday items -- skillets, knives, linens, barware, dishes, bowls, and place settings of a uniform high quality -- as well as candies, preserves, mustards and marinades, and an extensive library of cookbooks.
Kabuki Hot Springs
1750 Geary (at Webster), 922-6000
A day at Kabuki is ideal for those who need a large amount of de-stressing; anxieties seem to melt away while you're in the sauna or baths or sipping delicate Japanese tea. Beginning at $50 to $75, respectively, the massages and facials are among the best values in town. But those with a bigger budget may opt to give one of Kabuki's signature packages, like the Japanese Lulur treatment ($110), which includes jasmine oil massage, rice exfoliation, a soothing yogurt wrap, and a fragrant rose bath.
Palm Pictures pays tribute to these true music-video pioneers with three Directors Series DVDs featuring the work of cutting-edge directors Jonze, Cunningham, and Gondry. Best known for his films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Jonze got his start making music videos such as The Pharcyde's "Drop," Weezer's "Buddy Holly," and Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," which features a dancing Christopher Walken. All of these are included on his DVD, along with unreleased short films and interviews. French experimental music video director Gondry's DVD shows many of his collaborations with Björk, such as "Human Behavior," plus his amazing videos for White Stripes and Daft Punk. Cunningham is best known for his borderline disturbing work with electronic artist Aphex Twin ("Come to Daddy") and Björk ("All Is Full of Love"); his DVD also features unreleased versions of his art films.
The Sopranos: The Complete Fourth Season
All is not well in gangland during the fourth season of this award-winning drama. Between trouble with the Jersey Esplanade project, a possible war with Carmine's New York crew, and the problems with Carmela at home, Tony Soprano has enough stress to bring on another panic attack. And he's not the only one. Drugs, death, and deception plague the Soprano crew in this season. Will Adriana realize her new best friend is an FBI agent? Will Junior beat his case? Will Paulie get out of jail? Will Janice cease to be a total bitch? Find out in the thrilling latest installment of the Soprano family saga.
Mr. Show: The Complete Third Seasonand David Cross: Let America Laugh
Collected from the 1997 season of the cult TV series, Mr. Show delivers two discs of sketch comedy at its finest. Join Bob and David as they visit "Druggachusetts" or go on strike for sex in "Hunger Strike." You will be totally terrified by "Return of the Curse of the Creature's Ghost" and undoubtedly offended by the "Hail Satan Network." The DVDs also feature audio commentary, Bob and David at the 1997 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and The Best of Mr. Show: "Fantastic Newness." Also out is David Cross' DVD, a collection of documentary footage from last year's U.S. tour that gives the viewer a behind-the-scenes look at America's favorite alt-comic.
The Adventures of Indiana Jones box set
Available for the first time on DVD and digitally remastered with excellent sound and picture quality are the world's rockin'-est archaeologists and their three big adventures: The Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg, these three films secured Harrison Ford's place in action-movie history. With references to classic adventure films, we find the handsome professor battling Nazis, cult members, and snakes as he searches for archaeological treasures around the globe. With excellent supporting cast performances from Sean Connery, Kate Capshaw, River Phoenix, and Jonathan Rhys-Davies, these hit movies from the '80's more than stand the test of time.
The Office: The First Season
Subscribers to BBC America are already familiar with this unbearably funny look at workplace desperation and cubicle angst, but there's a vast majority of basic cablers out there who have yet to meet the sorry denizens of TV's most wretched and true-to-life office. Writer-director Ricky Gervais stars as David Brent, the manager from hell, a narcissistic, thin-skinned oaf who truly believes that his work in an industrial-suburb paper-sales firm has some sort of meaning. Gervais embodies Brent brilliantly, but his supporting cast (especially Mackenzie Crook as Gareth the psychotic team leader) is so good, you feel like you're watching a particularly insightful and horrific documentary. The two-disc DVD includes the first season's six episodes, plus previously deleted scenes.
Everyone knows about the Beatles' rambunctious American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show 40 years ago; not as widely known is that the group made three subsequent appearances on the program through 1965. Now all four shows (two of them unseen since they were originally aired) have been digitally restored and packaged in this terrific two-disc DVD. Here's Ringo and his talented sidemen performing 20 hits from their greatest era -- "I Saw Her Standing There," "Ticket to Ride," "Help!" and "I Feel Fine," to name a few -- in the matchless excitement of live performance. A bonus is that the shows are presented in their entirety, complete with vintage commercials, vaudevillian entr'actes, and the lumbering presence of TV's oddest host.
Southlander: Diary of a Desperate Musician
Everybody needs to insert some indie cred into their DVD player every once in a while, and Steve Hanft and Ross Harris' Southlander: Diary of a Desperate Musician will do just the trick for any hipster on your shopping list wondering where the indie rock film scene has gone to since the days of R. Kern and Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. The plot focuses on keyboard player Chance (Rory Cochrane), who rummages through the junkyards of Los Angeles to find his stolen analog synth, the 1969 Moletron, before his band takes off on tour without him. But the interest focuses on the soundtrack and featured appearances by Beck, Beth Orton (who plays Chance's love interest), Hank Williams III, Union 13, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs (Washington from Welcome Back, Kotter), and the late Elliott Smith. A deep-fried chunk of lowbrow California kitsch, high in cholesterol and dopey charm.
Growin' a Beard
"May the best beard win -- because I'm fixin' to turn mine loose," says the determined former champion Richard Smith at the beginning of Mike Woolf's wacky documentary Growin' a Beard. The movie follows a handful of Shamrock, Texas, residents (and one full-follicled Austinite) as they grizzle up for the town's annual Donegal beard-growing contest. Think Abe Lincoln: The Donegal stretches from ear to ear, minus the mustache and the neck hair. The movie spans the 76 days between January 1 -- Day One of the contest -- and the hour of judgment on St. Patrick's Day. Hilariously entertaining, this short picture makes the commonplace heroic, without a trace of condescension. Playfully soundtracked by Texas bluegrass band the Gourds, Growin' captures prickly rivalries and itchy trash-talking throughout the furriest of competitions. Facial hair philosophy and method meet, uniting a town for 45 minutes of charming absurdity. Available at http://www.asypr.com.
We have yet to meet a man who's breathing who wouldn't squeal like a girl upon receiving the Godfather trilogy in a nice DVD set. Don Corleone and the gang scheming and plotting and killing everyone in their path to wealth and power -- what could be cheerier for the holidays? This classic is the most sophisticated look we'll ever get at the world of La Cosa Nostra.
Björk's British record label One Little Indian has recently released no fewer than eight different DVDs marking the tenth year of her innovative solo career. These range from various live performances to collections of her music videos. But this documentary is perhaps the most special of the bunch, offering real insight into the artist as she is interviewed amidst the natural wonders of her Icelandic homeland. Seeing her float on a boat past icebergs, her quirky context begins to make sense, perhaps for the first time to some. Though not essential to the tale, celebrity "testimonials" from folks ranging from Missy Elliott and Radiohead's Thom Yorke to, curiously, Sean Penn, help demonstrate her insanely wide reach in an entertaining way.
Real Wild Child: Video Anthology
This collection of 35 videos and performances charts a course from Jett's sexy longhaired days to her current maneuvers as a platinum blond vixen. And though it's a 20-year-plus journey, you wouldn't know it, since her energy remains essentially unchanged. It's all a revelation for those who may have only seen the "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" video (included here in its until-now-unseen color version); also fascinating is the interview with Jett and manager Kenny Laguna. This is definitely the ultimate in Joan Jett worship items (except, perhaps, for the "What Would Joan Jett Do?" T-shirts sold on bust.com).
Live and Swingin': The Ultimate Rat Pack Collection
When the footage of this long-ago charity event was found in a dusty vault a few years back, it was heralded as the Rat Pack Hope Diamond. As it well should be, since the once-lost footage of Frank, Dino, and Sammy on that fateful Father's Day in 1965 is the only remaining visual relic of their live, onstage camaraderie. Emceed by a young Johnny Carson (who'd been hosting The Tonight Show for only two years), the highlights of the disc include Dean Martin's slurred performance of "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On" and Sinatra making jabs at the "no good" band, which happened to be the Count Basie orchestra led by Quincy Jones. The package is accompanied by a CD of excerpts from a one-week stand at Chicago's Villa Venice in 1962. In a word: Delovely.
This chronological compilation of Michael Jackson's top hits is a fascinating document for two reasons. First, it clearly demonstrates how the King of Pop single-handedly established the music video as a cultural phenomenon -- transforming it from the dingy LiteBrite sidewalk on "Billy Jean" to the digital wizardry of "Black or White." And by closing Number Ones with such disappointing recent efforts as "Blood on the Dancefloor" and "Earth Song," the DVD also shows the grievous decline of Jackson's career (not to mention the downright chilling transformation of the man himself). All told, the gems on the first half of the comp make it well worth the sticker price, even if the lemons at the end leave a sour taste.
Riding in Vans With Boys
Using as its models Zeppelin's Song Remains the Same and Dylan's Don't Look Back, the usual tour documentary paints an indulgent portrait of a guitar hero pitted against the world. Riding in Vans With Boys lightens this tradition by documenting the antics of Kut U Up, a third-tier SoCal pop punk act who spent two months opening blink-182's Pop Disaster Tour. The film's low-rent guffaws offer a choice of a) drunk guys hurting themselves; b) drunk guys hurting each other; or c) drunk guys smashing stuff. And, hold on to your hats, sometimes there are even drunk guys pooping where they aren't supposed to! These zany bits are set to a score of Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, and blink-182.
Queen: Video Hits Vol. 1
After years of being available only on VHS, the squeaky clean DVD remaster of Video Hits Vol. 1 is a glittery visual token of the band's peak. The perks of the 2-disc set include ample "behind the scenes" footage, a handful of extra tracks, and impressive surround sound. Made long before the advent of high-budget MTV videos, the campy magic of Queen's frosted lenses and psychedelic camera effects have aged beautifully, not to mention the previously unseen footage of "Bicycle Race" with its troupe of nude ladies on bikes. Although every one of the 22 tracks was a hit for the band, the visual standouts are "Killer Queen" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."
Frank Sinatra: Classic Duets
Not to be confused with the below-par (and wildly popular) sides the Chairman cut with Bono, Streisand, and other mismatched colleagues a decade ago, this Capitol CD gathers together 21 late-'50s collaborations -- some of them good, most of them terrific -- between Sinatra and a swingin' lineup of contemporaries. Louis Armstrong's trumpet playing on "Birth of the Blues" is itself worth the price of admission. But Ella and Frank lazily harmonizing on "Moonlight in Vermont" ain't exactly chopped liver, and a bantering medley/duel with Dino is a delight. Taken from a short-lived TV variety show and never previously released, the selections capture Sinatra, orchestrator Nelson Riddle, and singing partners Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and Elvis Presley (!), among others, at the top of their game.
Clubbers celebrate the holidays along with everyone else, though you can hardly work Bing Crosby or Duke Ellington into a DJ set without causing quizzical looks from the dance floor. So here comes local electronica label Six Degrees right down Santa Claus Lane with their answer -- a passel of Yuletide favorites remixed by clever elves in house, hip hop, and downtempo music. Since the holidays bring out the cheesy sentimentalist in everyone, these renditions by Dan the Automator, Robbie Hardkiss, and Mocean Worker of faves like Dean Martin's "Jingle Bells" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" will do the trick at your holiday party for both the parents and the disaffected rebel nephews.
Ghosts of the Great Highway
Mark Kozelek's new band, Sun Kil Moon, sounds like, well, Mark Kozelek. But the exquisite Ghosts of the Great Highway teems with the ravaged spirit and expansive feeling sometimes hidden deep inside songs by Kozelek's former band, Red House Painters. He still relies on the same hushed formula: soft melodies, gentle orchestration, and creepy guitars. Even the crunchy, cranked-up songs like "Salvador Sanchez" and "Lily and Parrots" are seductively slow and sedate -- the very soundtrack of desperation. The literary Kozelek makes brooding beautiful, with lyrical turns, dampened solos, and his hypnotic, charged vocals -- singing so fluid and even, it becomes dominant and tortured. The San Francisco songwriter understands the dramatic, as six of the 10 songs drone on for more than five minutes. Ghostsis something to be cherished, an exhausting, cathartic affair that blurs the boundaries of quiet, begging the question: Who actually kills whom?
Marshmallow Coast -- aka Andy Gonzales -- has created easily the year's oddest, catchiest, and most irreverent folk set in Antistar. The former Of Montreal member strums acoustic guitars beneath omnipresent flutes, sprightly bongos, and strange underwater noises -- a fantasy mix that is as dry and simple as it is outrageous and ironic. Telling tales of snooty women, underappreciated men, and elusive roadkill, Gonzales speaks for the juvenile, unglamorous Everyman. His unaffected, strained vocals set up his silly-smart lyrics; "I'm gonna find my lover though, it may be hard/ I've looked high and low/ Where'd that Chinese lady go?" sings Gonzales on the soulful barbershop closer "Chinese Lady." And it's precisely these basic but sing-along melodies that ground the songs' crisp, slapstick arrangements. The 11 tunes bubble with pop-subversion and deadpan humor, from the Zanzibar boogies to the acid harmonies to Gonzales' grumpy wit: An anti-star is born.
Heaven/Earth and Kites Are Fun
The Free Design
In the fabulously fecund period known as the 1960s, there was so much going on musically that people are still trying to catch up with stuff that fell through the proverbial cracks. One such group was The Free Design, who released five albums between 1967 and 1972. Comprised of siblings Chris, Bruce, Sandy, and Ellen Dedrick, The Free Design specialized in deceptively cheery, intricately arranged vocal-group pop-rock with subtle jazz undertones -- imagine the Mamas & the Papas or the Fifth Dimension with arrangements by Neal Hefti or Gil Evans, or Stereolab (who are FD fans) during the Summer of Love. But along with the sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows came unexpected dissonances and eerily pensive passages of melancholia, as if they knew how fragile the carefree soap bubbles were. www.lightintheattic.net
Ray Davies said he liked perusing people's record collections as he felt he could gain insight into the character of the owner. Now, the Columbia/Legacy Artist's Choice series -- Starbucks-distributed compilations in which established performers choose their favorite and/or most influential songs by others -- gives us a unique perspective on the late Man in Black. Some selections are hardly surprises -- Hank Williams Sr.'s proto-honky-tonk, the big-as-the-sky gospel of Mahalia Jackson. But there's also the slick L.A. country-rock of Linda Ronstadt's "Desperado," the immaculately orchestrated angst of "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell, and Eddy Arnold's "I'll Hold You in My Heart," the latter exemplifying the Nashville Sound Cash disdained throughout his career. Also: Kris Kristofferson, Dylan, Roberta Flack. Through these, we can hear the America Johnny Cash heard.
No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion
One of the most famous Bogart lines in Casablanca is "Round up the usual suspects," which is what Rhino did, gathering the best-known tunes by the legends -- Ramones, Clash, Jam, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag -- and collecting them into a thoroughly annotated four-CD package. Also swell is attention paid the lesser-knowns, bands who had one amazing single (or maybe one OK album), then disappeared: Penetration, Adverts, Only Ones, Ruts. There's those that transitioned into the mainstream, more or less -- Elvis Costello, Blondie, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Pretenders -- and the stalwarts, still retaining some of that wild creative spark of yore: Pere Ubu, Wire, Suicide, Buzzcocks, Patti Smith. Indispensable as this collection is, one track is worth the purchase: the Pop Group's awesome, never-before never-again "She Is Beyond Good and Evil."
Sonata and Dances
Best known primarily for his piece "Sabre Dance" (beloved by movie and cartoon directors for chase scenes), Russian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) had a lot more goin' on. Despite its historical context, his music had more in common with the Romantic era -- but that didn't stop Soviet government officials from giving him grief for being so un-PC "modern." (His music influenced Miles Davis during his Kind of Blue period, too.) This Koch disc of Sonata and Dances, which spans the years 1925-54 and includes some world-premiere recordings, is a real treasure: It's full of heart-swelling (but never obvious) lyrical beauty infused with delicate dissonances, flawlessly performed by Hideko Udagawa (violin) and Boris Berezovsky (piano).
Jeez, with all the comfort and joy flying around this season, you might require some sounds with teeth as a tonic. To that end, meet Vijay Iyer. Like other local jazz talents (Kenny Wollessen, Rob Burger), pianist Iyer followed the yellow brick road from the Bay Area to the Big Apple, from whence springs Blood Sutra, a set of thorny, economical compositions for piano, tenor sax, acoustic bass, and drums. Iyer's style is a fine balance between brainy abstraction, quirky lyricism, and percussive vigor -- think of the late Don Pullen's Quartet with George Adams or a full-of-piss-and-vinegar Andrew Hill. www.artistshousemusic.com
Under the Moon
Do you want to like contemporary jazz singers, but find many of them either employing too much "technique" or getting stuck in a 1930s-1950s my-man-treats-me-like-crap-but-he's-my-man/standards time warp? Then do we have a singer for you: NYC's Barbara Sfraga. She wraps her voice around and inside a song, interpreting it like an instrumentalist, soaring, but never treating it like a mere "vehicle," never losing respect for the song. About Sfraga's repertoire: She holds songwriters Duke Ellington (an affecting "Mood Indigo," best version you'll hear this year) and Bob Dylan (a luminous "Every Grain of Sand," with just voice and acoustic bass) in equal esteem. If a mad gene-splicer could cross kd lang with Sheila Jordan, the result might be Barbara Sfraga. (And she's nobody's doormat, pal.) www.A440MusicGroup.com
When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 7: Rock Me Mamma
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Bluebird's series of blues collections is subtitled The Secret History of Rock & Roll, a savvy marketing ploy to hook the history-nerd set of the "rock" audience -- works for us. One of the latest volumes presents a little-known figure outside the realm of most blues historians: Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, whose rhythmic, loose-limbed, proto-rockin' uptempo blues lit a fire under an American icon-to-be. Crudup was a source of considerable inspiration for the young Elvis Presley in Tupelo (along with Dean Martin -- that's another story), who went on to cover several Crudup songs. Elvis' version of his "That's All Right Mama" (from the Sun Records years) is a luminous rock 'n' roll touchstone -- Elvis taught the world, but Arthur taught Elvis.
Though the heat surrounding other members of the Elephant 6 musical collective/record label (comprised of members from lo-fi bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Apples in Stereo) has cooled off somewhat, the sextet of Bay Area gentlemen known as Beulah puts out one sublime disk after another. Beulah's fourth album, Yoko, the 2003 follow-up to 2001's The Coast Is Never Clear, abandons Coast's sun-drenched, Beach Boys-esque orchestral pop for lush songs from a darker region of the heart. Local scuttlebutt has it that four members of the band cut ties with wives and girlfriends during the album's creation; perhaps that's why the moody lyrics trace a path from heartbreak to loneliness to righteous anger and back again.
Room on Fire
Much to the surprise of fans who thought the Strokes' sly retakes on classic art rock riffs signaled the second coming of relatively obscure critics' darlings like Television and the New York Dolls, 2001's Is This It went gold within a year of its release. Was America experiencing some kind of garage rock revolution? asked a trend-hungry press. As it turned out, hell no; records from mainstream outfits like Nelly and 50 Cent sold exponentially more copies than any of the garage rockers, and the Strokes' big breakthrough was simply a fluke. A delicious, sing-along, fabulous fluke. The band delivers more of the same with Room on Fire, a record so similar to Is This It that it might as well have been part of a double album. No matter; it's still music to our ears.
It seemed a little callous of American to announce the release of a just-in-time-for-Christmas memorial package before the Man in Black was even cold in the ground. But according to label mastermind Rick Ruben, he and Cash started compiling the box set before Johnny kicked the bucket. Four of the five CDs are never-before-heard recordings, including an unreleased spiritual record, My Mother's Hymn Book, and heaps of covers from the late American Recordings era. The 104-page hardcover book (!) contains Cash's commentary on each song and rare photos from his estate. And even the set's low points (like the slightly comic rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" as a duet with Clash vocalist Joe Strummer) will surely be cherished by Cash's devoted minions.
Footsteps in the Fog
Alfred Hitchcock treasured Northern California enough to make his home in Santa Cruz and to shoot Vertigo (his most personal film) and bits and pieces of several other classics all around the Bay Area. ("It was fog and rain and then sunshine," said Hitch's production designer, Robert Boyle. "A moody, strange area ... it intrigued him.") This book, by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, employs the same Hitchcockian fascination and obsession in examining Sir Alfred's local ties. A wealth of stills and contemporary photographs details the exact Bay Area locations Hitchcock employed in his tales of suspense, from Grace Cathedral to a Fairmont Hotel parapet, and the text yields many a little-known nugget (Hitch ostensibly invented the mimosa over brunch at Jack's). Essential gifting for the local movie filbert.
Patricia Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Guide, Third Edition
There's more to the Culinary Capital of the West than cafes and restaurants, which is why the Food Lover's Guide is such an indispensable gift for any serious local nosher. Each chapter focuses on a different San Francisco neighborhood or Bay Area region, offering recommendations for the best local bars, bakeries, soda fountains, delicatessens, produce markets, butchers, fishmongers, and cookware stores -- as well as good places to go for a sit-down meal. The brand-new edition, published by Ten Speed Press, is thoroughly updated, reflecting the chronic vagaries of the food biz, and the neighborhood maps are easy to read. Bonus: the month-by-month table of seasonal produce at the front of the book, a handy reference when you're wending your way through the Alemany Farmers' Market.
New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Fourth Edition
Anyone coming upon this hefty slab of wood pulp might reasonably mistake it for a dense, dry reference work for the trivially inclined. But in his wide-ranging analyses of film figures past and present, San Francisco's David Thomson serves up the most challenging and elegantly parsed film writing since Pauline Kael. Each of the book's 1,300 entries is a polished and wonderfully opinionated gem, from Bette Davis ("a curdled cocktail, her lips ashine with greasepaint") to Paul Newman ("his smirking good looks always seemed more appropriate to glossy advertisements than to good movies") to Arnold Schwarzenegger ("how beautifully he coincides with, and climaxes, the movies' passion for mechanical men"). Three hundred new portraits have been written for this new edition, the first since 1994. A must for any movie lover.
From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters
Don Novello is like a 6-year-old genius. The San Francisco writer/comedian's new book is an uproarious smart-ass collection of letters he sent to people in power -- from Al Gore to Bob Dole, from Kim Jong Il to Queen Elizabeth -- under this pseudonym. Rotating between wicked wit, biting sarcasm, sophomoric silliness, and absolute absurdity, the letters offer outlandish suggestions and ask wry questions, preying upon Western society's frustrating bureaucracy. Toth proposes a new immigration policy to California Gov. Pete Wilson, asks Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard Meyers if it's safe to eat air-strike-slain Afghani goats, and seeks permission from the San Diego Zoo to bring his dogs. But the true coup here is the form letters Toth receives back, most of which don't respond to his concerns at all. The Lazlo Letters are laugh-out-loud funny: zany but brainy reality comedy.
If anything, the holiday season means guilty pleasures, and Danielle Steel's 57th novel is perhaps this season's guiltiest. The romance queen tackles the singles' scene, round two, as Paris, her 47-year-old protagonist, finds herself alone after her husband suddenly demands a divorce. Steel's up to her usual tricks: uncomplicated sentences, unforgiving repetition, and an uncreative story. But it's this very simplicity that renders her books such delicious mindless chowder. Her characters rarely demonstrate idiosyncratic depth or irony, which actually makes them widely accessible and easily identifiable. Steel even turns comic when Paris decides to relocate to San Francisco and encounters a string of dating disasters: a drunkard, a widower, and a much-too-young Frenchman. Although the stale metaphors ("She wasn't ready to cross that bridge yet") and trite dialogue ("I don't want to do this unless you do") jump like frogs from the pages, Dating Gameis an unapologetic, savory escape.
From Our House to Yours
Do you like mac 'n' cheese? Do you like helping others? If you answered "yes" to both, read on. Not only does this collection of delicious comfort-food recipes, put together by well-known chefs and cookbook authors, make a fabulous holiday gift, but the publisher, Chronicle Books, is donating half of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit that delivers hot meals to elderly San Franciscans. In the spirit of Meals on Wheels, many of the recipes include instructions for packaging and shipping your culinary creations to distant friends and family. $20; to order contact Jessica Sweedler at Meals on Wheels, 920-1111.
More Like Wrestling: A Novel
Former Vibe magazine editor-in-chief and frequent VH-1 hip hop pundit Danyel Smith delivers a touching first novel with this semi-autobiographical chronicle of the lives of two young African-American sisters growing up in Oakland during the 1980s. As they deal with an abusive step father, an absent mother, and a drug and gang culture beginning to take hold of their friends, Paige and Pinch find they often have only each other to turn to. A Bay Area native, Smith gives a true-to-life glimpse of being a teen in Oakland and struggling with the changing social landscape around her.
GIFTS WITHOUT MALLS
"I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" tour
The $75-a-head price tag may seem excessive to those used to paying $5 for a lunch special with egg roll. But Shirley Fong-Torres' exhaustive, four-hour walk through Chinatown's best kitchens and markets is well worth the cost. The tour starts with a Chinese breakfast of rice porridge at legendary hole-in-the-wall Sam Wo's. Fong-Torres then leads tour groups through a sidewalk dim sum nosh, a Chinese kitchenware outlet, takeout restaurants, and a couple of produce and grocery stores, authoritatively explaining ingredients, preparation, and customs at each stop. The peregrination concludes with a sit-down lunch at an upscale Chinatown eatery, ending when, as Fong-Torres puts it, "somebody explodes." Every Saturday and some Sundays, $75 per person, 981-8989, www.wokwiz.com
Coast Starlight to Seattle or L.A.
Train travel is lazy and convivial and absolutely romantic -- the polar opposite, in other words, of air travel. And one of the best ways for a local to experience its tranquil pleasures is to hop Amtrak's northbound or southbound Coast Starlight out of Emeryville. Settle into the observation car, order a cocktail, and enjoy the scenery -- and such scenery! Heading north you'll see the snow-topped peaks and verdant forests of Oregon and Washington; the southbound route features long and lovely stretches of Pacific coastline. Stops include Olympia, Portland, Klamath Falls, and Santa Barbara, and among the onboard attractions are wine tastings, nature programs, feature films, and Happy Hour in the lounge car. The ideal gift for a terminally anxious friend. (800) 872-7245; www.amtrak.com/trains/coaststarlight
Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey
Rye whiskey used to be associated with private eyes, stewbums, and similar noir types, a skid row alternative to the scotch and bourbon of respectable folk. Then Anchor Brewing, the Potrero Hill purveyors of delectable steam beer, branched into the art and science of grain distillery and restored rye to its rightful pedestal. Rye, after all, was the first whiskey produced in the United States, and Anchor's Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey is crafted the old-fashioned way, in a small copper-pot still from a mash of 100 percent rye malt. Aged for three years in handmade, carefully charred oak barrels and bottled undiluted, it makes a rich, smooth (and, at $114 per bottle, expensive) gift for a libation-loving friend.
Dinner at Forbes Island
If you're seeking an exotic holiday foray but your credit card is a bit, um, maxed out, the solution may be this wallet-friendly alternative to the Caribbean just off the coast of Fisherman's Wharf. Island chieftain Forbes Kiddoo himself picks you up in his launch at Pier 41, and before you know it you're on his palm-strewn artificial isle, sipping a mai tai. Take in the fabulous views of the city, the bridge, and the bay from atop the lighthouse, then enjoy an elegant candlelit supper in the bamboo-lined dining room. There's even a Nemo-esque bar a league or two below sea level where you can toast your brief yet refreshing getaway. 951-4900 for details.
Mechanics' Institute membership
The Mechanics' Institute was established in 1855 as a center for adult education and cultural advancement at a time when the city had little of either. One of its founding principles was the formation of a library, and today 165,000 volumes on every conceivable subject take up two floors of the Mechanics' Institute Building at Post and Market. The members-only setting is hushed, pristine, and ambient with brass rails, burnished wood, comfortable armchairs and the pleasant smell of a used bookstore. The institute also hosts poetry readings, lectures, reading groups, writers' workshops, and salon-like movie nights, and its chess room offers grandmaster lectures and Tuesday night tournaments. Annual membership is $75 and includes free admission to many institute events. 393-0105 for details.
OMIZU Floatation and Massage
In order to escape the mundane stresses of everyday life, the modern San Franciscan has two places to go: in or out. For those looking to venture far, far away from quotidian reality without leaving the city limits, OMIZU proprietor Molly Hammer offers a variety of packages combining isolation tank sessions with massage. Inspired by a yearlong stay in Japan, Hammer has integrated Eastern-style décor alongside the metal capsules within which the user floats atop Epsom-salt-saturated waters and momentarily shuts herself off from all sense perception. "Frequent Floater" packages run from $135 to $275 (for up to ten 90-minute sessions), while a combination 60-minute float and massage combo runs $100. First-timers should allow some extra time for a shower and a brief orientation, and everyone gets to finish up with a cup of tea. By appointment only. For location and additional info, call 596-6517 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Hang gliding gift certificates
A short sprint, a big jump, and you're in the air, soaring on the wind, with eye-popping ocean views spreading out beneath you. That is, if you don't screw up and crash into a cliff. Maximize your chances of survival by consulting the experts at the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center, who promise they can teach you to fly in just one day. An afternoon's session includes instruction on the ins and outs of leaping off a mountain with fabric wings on your back, though first-timers will soar in tandem with an instructor. Flights land on Stinson Beach and packages include a video of the experience. They don't come cheap, though -- gift certificates run from $285 to $325, with extras like T-shirts and a champagne toast for the fearless flyer costing extra. Daily by appointment, (510) 528-2300, www.sfhanggliding.com
SPCA gift certificates
If you're going to put a puppy or kitten underneath somebody's Christmas tree, better shell out for what the new pet owner reallyneeds. Gift certificates from San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can be used for T-shirts and notecards, but most pet owners will want to turn them in for exams, neutering and spaying, microchip identifiers, and (for dogs) training and obedience classes. Since the SPCA's prices are already rock-bottom, that gift certificate goes a long way. And proceeds help fund the organization's numerous animal care programs, from the veterinary hospital to animal therapy and the no-kill Maddie's Pet Adoption Center. $25-150; 554-3024 or (800) 211-7722, www.sfspca.org
S.F. Museum of Modern Art membership
Here's one of those great gifts that lasts much longer than the holiday season. And admittedly, it isn't totally selfless, since membership entitles a cardholder to free museum admission for themselves and a guest (that means you) for a year. Stay in good with your buddy and be among the first to check out new exhibits (including previews) and attend members-only events. There are also discounts at the always-fab SFMOMA MuseumStore. Right now they're running a holiday special, too: Purchase a $65 membership and receive 20 percent off of additional memberships. 151 Third St. (at Mission), 357-4076
One-month Muni pass
Way cheaper than a plane ticket to Thailand, and much longer-lasting than a dinner at Delfina, a Muni pass offers unlimited access to our beautiful home by the bay. It can open up a new world of possibilities -- not to mention interesting smells. Foggy trips to the beach and adventures in detached overhead wires await you. An adult pass costs $45 for 33 days (the first three days of each month are a gift from the city). Visit www.sfmuni.com or call 415-673-MUNI for a complete list of purchasing locations, including downtown stations and corner stores in a neighborhood near you.