Ah, the holidays. 'Tis the season for driving, buying, wrapping, packaging, mailing, shelving and trashing.
We're all worrying about what's in our wallets this year—for good reason—but as we selflessly hit the streets to buy gifts for our friends and family, we should also think about what the money that comes out of our wallets can do to harm Mother Earth when we purchase the wrong kinds of items at the wrong kinds of stores.
Luckily, Tucson has a heartening number of the right kinds of stores with the right kinds of items to ensure a great gift-buying experience. And, surprise, surprise—most of those stores are local and independently owned. As if we needed another reason to eschew the mall.
408 E. Seventh St.
The fair-trade movement is hailed for empowering marginalized producers and giving consumers a welcome alternative to the mass-manufactured crap sold at Walmart.
Of course, a huge part of fair trade is environmental sustainability. Miriam Saleh, the owner of Caravanserai—a tiny but inviting new all-fair-trade shop just off Fourth Avenue—knows that well: Everything she sells not only promotes the social rights of artisans around the world, but does so in the best possible way for the Earth. Her store is lined with treasures from every corner of the globe, and each treasure has a story; Saleh will eagerly tell you all she knows if you show the slightest interest.
Some of our favorite items in Caravanserai are made of what was once exotic trash: a colorful picture frame made out of broken bangle bracelets from India ($33), purses from Egypt adorned with scraps from textile factories ($25 to $38) and an African bumble-bee Christmas ornament made out of post-consumer wire with soda-can wings ($13). All the store's wooden crafts are made of sustainably harvested wood—either soft wood from small trees or hard wood from fast-growing trees—and include a solitaire game from India made from sheesham wood ($25) and a nativity scene carved from olive wood made right outside of Nazareth ($30).
One of Saleh's favorite gift items is the Silence Meditation Gift Set, complete with aromatherapy candles, soap and a loofah, all made out of biodegradable materials by a co-op of deaf and/or mute artisans ($30).
Got All Your Marbles?
220 E. Congress St.
Does a loved one enjoy jewelry to the point of fanaticism, with earrings to match every outfit, and a different necklace for every day of the week? We'll spare you the details on the environmental ills of mining, but you probably know it usually takes plenty of resources, energy and ecosystem destruction to get a ring on a finger or a bracelet on a wrist.
However, at Got All Your Marbles?, one jewelry item can actually have 30 or more different looks. Each ring, pair of earrings and pendant is made of sculpted metal that holds a cool-looking marble that can be interchanged with any number of other marbles to match one's purse, shoes, contact lenses, whatever. Pendants with silver chains are about $100, while those strung on leather go for about $30. Silver and gold rings and earring pairs range from $59 to $109—and every piece of jewelry in the store comes with its own bag of interchangeable marbles, in sizes ranging from "itty bitty" to "whopper." You can also buy marbles made out of gemstones like amethyst, lapis and jade. Non-gemstone marbles are made of recycled glass, and the metal parts of the jewelry—hand-cast right here in Tucson by the store's artist owners—are made from recycled minted coins.
Visit this store in its little storefront downtown, or keep an eye out for the Got All Your Marbles? booth at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair.
Mildred and Dildred Toy Store
2905 E. Skyline Drive, Suite 186
Long gone are those Little House on the Prairie days when children were ecstatic to get an orange, a homemade doll and a little family love for the holidays. Today, thanks to Saturday-morning TV commercials and big-box-store buying, most kids are focused on stuff—the more, the better—and that equals waste. Mildred and Dildred Toy Store takes a different approach that views toys as mere tools (albeit fun ones) to help the imagination along.
Besides a nonmaterialistic outlook, Mildred and Dildred boasts a host of environmentally friendly toys, from sandbox toys and tea sets made out of recycled milk jugs (a toy recycling truck goes for $29) to baby playthings from PlanToys, a company whose products are all composed with recycled materials and wood from sustainable forests. (PlanToys toddler pull toys are top sellers at $25 each.) For children who love nature's creatures, there are Folkmanis animal puppets (including a llama), as well as Sophie the Giraffe ($24), a fancy teether from France made from natural rubber. (We're told it's all the rage with celebrity parents.)
For older kids who like to enjoy nature firsthand, Mildred and Dildred offers colorful kids' camping tents from Hubba. And the store's coolest item of all? We think it's the PlasmaCar ($72), a ride-on toy that needs neither pedals nor batteries but moves thanks to centrifugal force, or inertia, or something like that. (We don't pretend to understand it, but your kid might learn something.) Even Mildred and Dildred's gift-wrapping service uses all recycled materials, resulting in attractive brown-paper packages tied up with string.
Le Cave's Bakery
1219 S. Sixth Ave.
Baked goods make great holiday gifts, for so many reasons—including the fact that making them isn't too hard on the environment and requires minimum packaging. Of course, baking is not something that everyone has time for ... and some of us just suck at it.
Enter Le Cave's, a southside bakery popular citywide for its delicious doughnuts and custom-made cakes. So popular is Le Cave's, in fact, that we had a hard time retaining its workers' attention when we wanted an interview; they were too busy catering to all their customers. But it's more than worth a little waiting to get pastries here; if you don't believe us, Google the shop, and you'll find hundreds of glowing reviews.
We personally think a dozen donuts ($6.99) would make a wonderful, if strange, holiday gift for anyone. We've also heard that Le Cave's empanadas are great. But if you want to go a more conventional route, you can buy as many Christmas cookies as you can carry, in any combination of shapes and flavors, for $3.99 a dozen. All the traditional holiday pies are available, too, from pumpkin to apple, for $6.99 each. And if you're planning a homemade holiday feast but don't want to bake the bread yourself, try Le Cave's French rolls ($1.99 a bag) or fancier kinds of rolls ($3.29 a dozen).
Most of Le Cave's goods are vegan—even the doughnuts are lard free.
272 E. Congress St.
Being environmentally conscious is fashionable now, which is great—but it's not exactly cutting-edge anymore. The same goes with recycled clothing: What Tom, Dick or Harriet doesn't love to shop at used-clothing stores nowadays? It takes a really radical thrift shop to stand out.
Shopping at Preen, a cozy vintage boutique on Congress Street, is radical thrifting. You might say that Preen is to Savers as lying down in front of a bulldozer is to making eco-crafts with Martha Stewart. At Preen, you won't find any high-waisted, fake-jewel-bedazzled jeans from the '90s—instead, how about some authentic vintage Levi's ($35) to go with an Ely Cattleman Western shirt ($25), some green rattlesnake-hide cowboy boots ($65) and a huge gold belt buckle shaped like a cattle skull with rhinestone eyes ($60)?
Instead of racks of faded, 5-year-old baseball caps and bins full of tacky necklaces and mismatched earrings, at Preen, you'll find true antique headwear, like a straw flapper hat straight out of the '20s ($24) and cases displaying beautiful old brooches (mostly around $40) and other jewelry. The store also sells handmade items by local artists, like Pulp Tart "moto eclipse" earrings made out of motorcycle parts ($36) and "fleur fatale" hair jewelry made out of real preserved orchids and freshwater pearls. Preen's co-owners (Emilie Marchand and Erin Bradley) painted and designed the shop themselves, and they take pride in offering items not only for women, but also kids and men—they have one of the best selections of vintage men's clothing, especially Western shirts, in town. And if you're worried that the awesome clothes you're about to buy your friend won't fit just right, don't: Preen will alter any attire.
422 N. Fourth Ave.
Pop-Cycle (pop-sahy-kuhl), noun: (1) to produce goods from recycled pop art and other aesthetically pleasing materials; (2) to manufacture gifts, apparel and furniture popular with a wide variety of consumers; (3) a combination of definitions 1 and 2.
Fourth Avenue's Pop-Cycle gift shop meets definition 3. This fun, colorful store carries items made from all sustainable, organic and "upcycled" materials; many items feature some really cool, old pop art; and each of the items is certain to make a delightful gift for a loved one—be it a grandma, a co-worker or a significant other.
Apparel is all vintage or handmade; accessories include felt-scrap headbands and wrist cuffs sporting cute if unidentifiable creatures (the store's own Monster Booty line, $12 and up), a belt buckle made out of a 1979 Michigan license plate, purses made out of real record albums (from Boston to Billy Joel, $36.95), recycled-paper origami earrings ($15) and jewelry made out of pieces of broken car headlights and taillights ($16).
Need stuff to put on the wall? Pop-Cycle has it in abundance, including a huge saguaro-cactus collage made out of Heineken bottle caps ($90), art by local artist Wil Taylor and one-dimensional pop-art pieces that can either be hung or act as coasters (four for $28).
For furniture, you can find recycled-wood CD shelves, footstools and side tables decorated with Bettie Page images, Mexican art and Alice in Wonderland prints. If anything in the store isn't made in the back by one of its three female co-owners, it's probably bought from a local artisan. This store gets so many eco-points, you don't have to feel too bad about driving a big car there to haul all your purchases home.
Arizona Bicycle Experts
2520 E. Sixth St.
Unlike gas-guzzling cars, bikes are good for the environment—duh. But just like cars, they have to be properly maintained. The bicycle experts at Arizona Bicycle Experts (affectionately called ABE) will not only sell you a bike (plus bike accessories, bike parts and bike clothing); they'll also maintain that bike—or any other bike—throughout its life. Almost no bike repair is too difficult for ABE mechanics, who focus on individual bicyclists' needs and are used to doing very technical repairs. So if anyone on your shopping list is crazy about bikes, but not quite a pro at maintaining them, an ABE gift certificate would be the perfect present.
Though at least half of ABE's space is taken up by its repair shop, the store itself has a great selection of top-notch bicycles. The owner, Michael Stimpson, highly recommends Electra commuter bikes as holiday gifts—they range from $275 to about $800 and are some of the best-quality bikes to get you where you need to go day after day. The store's best-selling road bikes are Orbeas, which range from $790 to $3,000, and Stimpson's current favorite mountain bike is a Santa Cruz model that just came out—it has 29-inch wheels and a carbon-fiber frame; it has been "super popular," he explains. (It costs $1,500, but it's worth it, we're assured.)
Besides helmets, lights, gloves, glasses, locks, shoes and parts, ABE carries another kind of accessory any bicyclist would love: jewelry. For women, you can buy delicate silver bike-shaped necklace pendants and earrings ($25 to $30), but the store also carries men's rings and bracelets made from bike chains.
3459 E. Speedway Blvd.
One of the most overlooked but obvious ways to help the natural world is to appreciate it. If, for example, people had valued snakes, lizards and turtles a little more throughout our history, maybe 28 percent of the world's reptile species wouldn't now be threatened with extinction.
Another reason to appreciate reptiles? They make great pets. Not only are they some of the easiest and cheapest animals to care for (in general, anyway); they're also some of the most interesting—and anyone who owns one instantly becomes more interesting themselves. Have you ever met a boring dude with a boa constrictor?
If anyone in Tucson appreciates cold-blooded creatures, the people at Reptile Specialists do. Though it's not a huge store, it holds almost 100 enclosures that house hundreds of reptiles—from tiny leopard geckos ($45) to big pastel ball pythons—plus amphibians and invertebrates. Tortoises, which love Tucson backyards, are on sale this season for $79; bearded dragons are $49. Corn snakes go for $45; these are perfect pets for young people: They only eat (and poop) once a week. Reptile Specialists stays away from imported animals—it's an ecological no-no. And the store's cute water turtles ($15) are never collected from the wild—they're actually bought from former customers who breed them in their backyards.
Reptile Specialists will make sure whoever ends up owning one of their animals has all the info they could possibly need to take care of it, as well as the supplies—you can even buy your reptile a "vivarium" (a big tank with live trees and a waterfall) starting at $100. The only thing this store doesn't offer is reptile gift-wrapping.
Wild Bird Store
3526 E. Grant Road
As Tucson grows, bird habitat disappears (unless you're talking about pigeon territory—and we're not). That's a darn shame, because the Sonoran Desert has some of the most beautiful and unique birds in the country.
Luckily, we also have a store owned by two of the most devoted-bird lovers in the country. Jon and Shani, who opened the Wild Bird Store back in 1992, have been feeding birds in their backyard for almost 30 years, so they know almost everything about birds' habitats, diets and shelter preferences—and they could probably provide a million reasons why birding and bird-feeding accessories are ideal gifts for everyone on your gift list.
Walk into the store, and you're surrounded by birdhouses and feeders of all sizes and shapes, all hand-crafted, field-tested and reasonably priced; they even come with a money-back guarantee. For anyone who wants to attract a fruit-eating oriole, tanager, mockingbird or woodpecker, the store's uniquely designed Fruit 'N' Jelly Feeder ($39.99) is perfect. Does your grandma have a soft spot for cardinals? She'll swoon with joy if you get her a feeder designed for cardinals' exclusive use ($129.99). Hummingbird feeders run $18.99 to $24.99, and you can buy nectar to go with them—or food to go with any other kind of feeder in the store. Birdhouses ($40 to $80) are practical, functional, easy to install and species-specific.
And not to leave out the birds of the night, the store sells bat houses, too ($40).
4044 E. Speedway Blvd.
What do CDs, DVDs, video games, musical instruments and an eco-savvy outlook have in common? You can find them all at Metro Gnome, a store that apparently couldn't quite decide what to focus on merchandise-wise. But we don't mind.
If you're planning on buying a musical instrument as a gift, try this place out—it has a wide range of the basics, both new and used, in a wide range of prices, from drum sets ($149 to $649) to electric guitars (new Austins start at $75) to harmonicas ($5.95) and "veggie shakes" (rattles shaped like realistic-looking vegetables and legumes, $7.95). If you need a stocking stuffer for that drummer in your life, Metro Gnome has the cheapest drumsticks in town ($2.85 a pair for seconds; new $6.50 and up). And when we visited, the store's acoustic guitar package—a new Alvarez complete with hard-shell guitar case—was going for just $207.
The non-musical-instrument half of the store is devoted to shelves of gently used music CDs (most anything you can imagine, from Kenny G to P. Diddy, 10 CDs for $20), DVDs (a huge variety of movies, from comedy to horror to documentary, $5.99) and video games (from ancient but awesome Atari games, $2 to $20, to the latest Wii games, $5 and up). The store also carries the consoles themselves—all types.
Why is this store is eco-savvy—aside from the fact that much of its merchandise being recycled? Metro Gnome uses only biodegradable plastic bags; the interior is lit by Solatube sunlight-capturing skylights; and the store is insulated with recycled denim (which you'll realize is appropriate after you meet the store's staff).
Nimbus Brewing Company
3850 E. 44th St.
6464 E. Tanque Verde Road
What makes an alcoholic beverage "green"—besides putting it in a green bottle? Eco-friendly brewing and distilling methods, sure; sustainable packaging choices, yes. Perhaps you know a certain liquor-lover who'd say the harder the alcohol, the better for the environment—since you have to drink less of it to get drunk.
But it really comes down to location, location, location.
That's mostly why we're featuring our own local Nimbus Brewery as the best place to get your holiday booze this year: When you buy from Nimbus, you're saving tons of greenhouse gases from being spewed into the atmosphere during transportation. And though Nimbus doesn't use green bottles, they're all about responsible packaging; the brewery will soon be switching to recycled material for labels and six-pack cartons, says co-owner Jim Counts. He also says that during the brewing process, Nimbus probably uses less water than any other brewery. Early next year, Nimbus will even be installing a solar water heater.
Going to a holiday party? Pick up a couple of six-packs of any regular Nimbus beer for $8 each, or a sixer of premium (notably Nimbus' famous Old Monkey Shine) for $9. Hosting a party? Forget the eggnog, and go with a Nimbus keg (from $28.50 for a mini of regular to $140 for a full keg of premium). And did you know Nimbus has wine, too? It carries brands from Camelot to Solaia to Rombauer, and bottles start at just $15. Before you buy, don't forget to sample the products at Nimbus' brewery bar or its new bistro. More tasting equals less wasting.