Every year in this Gift Guide, we profile independent, locally owned stores that carry great gifts for the holiday season. We've found all sorts of original stores owned by hard-working, creative locals, selling all sorts of unique items.
This year, as I drove around town looking for a fresh batch of stores, I noticed something troubling: Many of the stores I've profiled in years past have closed. Some of them have been replaced by new and equally exciting locally owned stores, but many of them are just gone, leaving a definite void in Tucson's local economy.
On the plus side, I still found plenty of new and creative shops around town—places where local business owners are doing their small part to keep Tucson's fiercely independent and locally focused spirit alive.
All of the shops mentioned here have something special about them, whether it's what they carry, how they approach their business or the niche they fill. Money may be tight this year—so it's extra important to spend it wisely.
Savaya Coffee Market
5350 E. Broadway Blvd., No. 174
Walk past Savaya Coffee Market, and you can't miss the coffee roaster in the front window; depending on the time of day, you may even be able to smell the beans roasting. Every day, owner/coffee guru Burc Maruflu roasts small batches of his organic beans from South America, Mexico, Africa and Indonesia—and the result is incredibly fresh and delicious coffee.
"Most people, when they start drinking coffee from us, they don't go back to what they were drinking before," said Maruflu. This is understandable: Once you've had a taste of Savaya's freshly roasted organic coffee, it's hard to imagine why you've ever subjected yourself to anything else.
Savaya, which, Maruflu explained, doesn't really mean anything ("so that the meaning is formed here, with what we are doing"), has only been open since April, but has already nurtured many followers. The market hosts coffee classes every other Saturday, and everyday customers who are willing to relax and spend some time in the market can often benefit from lessons as well. Although Savaya is not a café, Maruflu and company do make incredible lattes (with a wide variety of milk to choose from—even organic) and coffee, which you can enjoy as you're waiting for Maruflu or one of his staffers to measure out beans.
Savaya sells everything related to the full coffee experience, from beans to water filters to grinders, French presses (about $20) and even a small home roaster ($300). Savaya offers special cuts of tea as well; for the holiday season, Maruflu, who is Turkish, will be selling baklava imported from Turkey, as well as gift jars containing roasted beans. Costs vary depending on market prices.
45 S. Sixth Ave.
Rockin' Queen is not an ordinary women's clothing shop. Inside, you'll find a variety of unique garments, free guitar-pick earrings and a vintage glam-rock David Bowie aesthetic adorning the walls. Owner Lizette Trujillo opened the downtown boutique about a year and a half ago, and she stocks her store with things that she finds interesting, "things that I think speak to me," she explained. "It's kind of narcissistic."
The items that speak to Trujillo are indeed noteworthy—when I was there in mid-October, she was already offering a selection of holiday dresses that were simple, elegant and yet unlike anything one would find in more traditional stores. One black dress had a series of square gold grommets along the back, reminiscent of a punk Cleopatra ($147); another featured Victorian-style black lace ($111).
What makes the Rockin' Queen even more unique is Trujillo's focus on eco-friendly items. She strives to ensure that at least 40 percent of the merchandise is eco-friendly, with items by Nuvula, which are made with recycled materials, as well as items by Peel, made from sustainable fabrics. Trujillo explained that the eco-friendly goal is getting easier and easier to meet.
"A lot of companies are going more in that direction," Trujillo said. "There's more of a demand for recycled pieces, and different fabrics."
The items that are not eco-friendly, though, have to be super-special to make it into the shop, so no matter what, you'll be able to find something for your loved one that will be thoughtful on multiple levels.
June's Corner Store
10 E. Broadway Blvd., No. 108
June's Corner Store is actually on a corner—the corner of Broadway and Stone Avenue, to be exact. Although, upon first glance, it may seem like an average hotel gift shop or office-building drugstore, June's Corner Store is stocked floor to ceiling with, as owner June Hale put it, "Something for everyone."
If you're looking for one-stop shopping, this is the place to go. Within the small store, you'll find gifts for your niece, grandmother, creepy uncle, work friends, outside-of-work friends, mother-in-law, father-in-law, neighbor, mailman and even, possibly, yourself.
For the children on your list, June's has a whole rack of small stuffed animals. Who wouldn't like a stuffed Snuffleupagus ($6.99) or a bear in a bunny suit ($7.99)? For the grandmothers: angels, in all sizes, shapes and colors, or an expandable plastic insta-flower vase from Vazu ($9.99). Perhaps your out-of- state in-laws would like a Tucson Painted Pony ($52), or a Diana Madaras print. For your co-workers: cards full of seeds that you can actually plant ($4.95). June's has University of Arizona merchandise, CDs (everything from Maroon 5 to Ziggy Marley), ornaments, jewelry and even snacks and lottery tickets.
Embellish Home Etc.
6761 E. Tanque Verde Road
Walking into Embellish, created by interior designers Kim Samuels and Dawn Scully, is like walking into an English castle: Crowns and fleurs de lis are everywhere, as are beautiful items that express an Old World style. Silver candle snuffers ($22) were on a small table near the cash register, and apothecary jars of all sizes ($42 for a tall one) were arranged nearby. Scattered around the store were incredible lamps—one with a lampshade made of velvet was $306, and another for $280 was decorated with what looked like etches of bugs.
But the accessorizing doesn't end there, and even gets more affordable. Embellish also has a large selection of flip-flops decorated with rhinestone peace signs, crowns, crosses and paws, to name a few designs ($42)—as well as jewelry and tank tops studded with rhinestones ($32 for one with a fleur de lis). Small items like napkins with embroidered bees ($10) and old-looking liquor tags ($12) would add a touch of finery to anyone's home. We even saw some wild-game marinades in jars with names like "Wild Boar No More" ($10) for the royal hunter on your list.
For the holiday season, Embellish plans on stocking a wide variety of classic Christmas items that fit the Old World and royal flavor of the rest of the store. You could even arrange for an in-home design consultation for the less-aesthetically inclined person on your list.
The Tucson Audubon Society Nature Shop
300 E. University Blvd., No. 120
You would expect to find all things bird-related at the Tucson Audubon Society's Nature Shop, and you would not be disappointed: You'll find a carefully selected assortment of binoculars, guides and hats, as well as bird feeders, bird food, bird jewelry, birdsong CDs and even bird pop-up books. Store manager Sara Pike showed me a pop-up book that was enormous and gorgeous, with intricate dioramas of bird habitats complete with accurate sounds ($60). She said she keeps her copy of the book by her front door, and it's a steady conversation piece.
As for actual birding gear, Pike recommended the society's own guidebook, Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona ($24.95), and a pair of Vortex Diamondback binoculars ($240), which she said are great for beginning birders. There's really no better place in town to find a good pair of bird-watching optics; as Pike explained, their selection is geared specifically toward bird-watching, and, naturally, Audubon Society staff members have ample field experience.
For the less-active nature-lover on your list, the store stocks CDs of birdsongs (Know Your Bird Sounds Vols. 1 and 2 are $19.95 each), bird-watching DVDs (try Hooked on Hummingbirds for $29.95) and the Friends of the San Pedro River DVD series, which spotlights select native desert animals such as the coatimundi and the javelina ($4 each). Pair the javelina DVD with a stuffed javelina ($12), and you have quite the unique Sonoran Desert gift.
All proceeds from the shop go toward conservation, and the store will be holding its only sale the day after Thanksgiving, when customers can get 20 percent off their entire purchase (15 percent off optics). And if you'd like to do your gift-shopping in a more scenic location than University and Fifth Avenue, you can check out the smaller Agua Caliente Park location.
A Children's House of Books
2624 N. First Ave.
A Children's House of Books is aptly named: This is a bookstore with kids in mind. The shelves are kid-height; the walls are decorated with kid-created art; and the books are classified in kid-friendly ways: by subject, and in boxes, so kids can easily pull out every book about, say, dinosaurs. There are chairs and tables and couches, plenty of space for kids to sprawl and spread out and relax and read. Plus, the store specializes in buying and trading used books, so parents don't have to worry if little Johnny drools a little on the copy of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile he pulled off the shelf and is busily reading on the couch.
Owner Pat James started the store to promote literacy; she is a longtime storyteller who offers book readings at various events around town—and she knows what to do to get kids excited about books. She explained that oftentimes, parents walk into the store with their kids and don't know what to look for, and before they know it, their kids have found all kinds of books they want to read. The store feels more like a school library or a classroom than a store, which invites more exploration, and this is by design: James even sells thematic lesson-plan kits for $15 that include books, activities, worksheets and displays. The store stocks toys, videos, games and new books as well, but James joked that if she has too many toys out, the kids go for those first. "I had to hide my toys!" she explained.
All used books are half of their original price, and they range from 50 cents up to about $8. Customers can also trade up to $10 worth of merchandise. The store has a busy schedule of readings and events, which you can read about on the store's Web site.
Salvation Army Boutique
6715 E. Tanque Verde Road
Maybe you've driven down Tanque Verde and seen all of the furniture placed in front of the tiny Salvation Army Boutique—or maybe you haven't; the place is so small that it's easy to miss. But in actuality, the small store is packed with big finds, and even extends from the curbside display into an outdoor furniture area under a tent in back.
From curb to tent, you'll find items among the best donations received by the Salvation Army—designer-label clothes, extra-special antiques, upscale furniture and bags that look brand-new. On a recent visit, I saw several BCBG garments for less than $10 each, $10 Tommy Hilfiger boots, an antique brass menorah for $35 (that is the spitting image of my great-grandmother's menorah), several small Ansel Adams prints for $5 each, a full set of dishes that looked like they hadn't been used since 1940, and some truly incredible pieces of 1950s-era furniture. On top of that, everything was half-off the day I visited. This collectibles store may take some of the fun out of thrift-store shopping, but rest assured, you'll find some serious deals and high-quality gifts.
Sticks N Strings
8796 E. Broadway Blvd.
Musical instruments are gifts that keep on giving, and at Sticks N Strings, you'll find good deals and a knowledgeable staff to assist you. If you're looking for something for the budding guitarist on your list, the store has acoustic guitars starting at $99, and Fender Strat packs—which include an amp, a guitar, a gig bag and a strap—for $199.
For the budding percussionist, a Mapex backpack percussion kit includes a xylophone, a stand, mallets and sticks for $249—or you could get him/her an electronic drum set complete with headphones (so no one else has to listen to the same beat played incessantly for three hours). You could stuff stockings with cowbells ($22-$54) and harmonicas ($10 and up), or a colorful frog ukulele ($29.99). Sticks N Strings stocks a large selection of Line 6 gear and used band instruments, too. Depending on the day, who knows what kind of crazy deal on a used guitar or amp you'll find?
J. Renee Fine Linens and Indulgences
7121 N. Oracle Road
J. Renee Sleepwear and Temptations
7111 N. Oracle Road
Both of J. Renee's Casas Adobes retail shops specialize in comfort: In the linen store, it's luxurious sheets and towels, and in the sleepwear store, it's pajamas and robes. As co-owner Renee Wolin explained about the linen store, "We focus on the luxury end of the linen spectrum, on traditional Italian linens, versus what's trendy or what you can find in a department store."
She showed me some sheets made out of beechwood, as in the tree, which run $1,000 for a king-size set; on the slightly more affordable side, the store stocks bamboo sheets, which are $400 for a king-size set.
But the real stars of J. Renee's shop are the towels—towels made from bamboo, towels from Portugal that Wolin says are "soft from day one" ($60 for a bath towel), beautiful French hand towels from Le Jacquard Français ($24), thick Swedish hand towels from Ekelund that were first made in the 19th century for royalty ($25), and a wide selection of colorful and unique Missoni towels ($52 for a bath towel, $18-$20 for hand towels). There are even incredible shower curtains, rugs, pillows and placemats; for the holiday season, the shop also stocks smaller bed-and-bath gift items, like soaps and lotions.
Over in the sleepwear shop, it's all about eco-friendly pajamas; the front of the store is filled with all things bamboo, like bamboo nightshirts ($42), two-piece bamboo sleep sets ($95), bamboo menswear sleep clothes ($62 for pants, $47 for a short-sleeve shirt) and a bamboo dress that could pass as regular clothing ($52). Toward the back of the store are robes in all sizes, shapes, fabrics and colors (priced from $78 for a Sheepy Fleece all the way up to $340 for a Missoni), as well as underwear—the Argentinean offerings, made of wicking fabric, were especially interesting ($30)—and tons of sale items.
Toward the front is an adorable selection of baby and toddler clothing and accessories, including plenty of eco-friendly clothing. And just try to resist the charms of Ze Super Zeros, stuffed-animal superheroes from France wearing masks and capes ($30) that come with stories; consider the Mouse, who says, "I can crawl through super small spaces, but I am scared of ze dark."
TriSports.com Retail Store
4495 S. Coach Drive
Locally owned and operated TriSports.com is predominantly an online store for all your triathlete needs, but luckily for us Tucsonans, there's a sizable retail store off South Palo Verde Road. Inside is everything the runner, swimmer and/or cyclist would ever need. For cyclists: a huge selection of bikes, hydration gear, clothing—and shoes, of course. For runners: a selection of compression socks, shirts and pants to help you get through that marathon or recover from longer runs, as well as the usual shoes, hats, watches and hydration gear. For swimmers: goggles galore, paddles, suits and kickboards. There's even a whole wall of wetsuits next to the large pool you can hop into to try out your prospective purchase.
What makes TriSports.com's retail shop truly unique is the indoor pool that you can rent out. It's $20 for one 30-minute session, and the $90 endless pool punch pass gives you 15 30-minute sessions in the pool. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and to top it all off, there's even a play area for the kids.
The People's Studio Gallery
980 E. University Blvd.
943 E. University Blvd., No. 145
(602) 206-5644 (Courtney Kelly, Vila Art Foundation publicist), www.vilaart.org
The Vila Art Foundation—founded by Vila Jarrell, the owner of Vila Thai Restaurant—has turned University Boulevard into a series of art galleries. First, there are the ghost galleries that seem to float into whatever empty store front is available; then there is the art hanging on the walls of many of the stores and restaurants between Park and Euclid avenues. All you have to do is wander down University, and you're bound to find many affordable local art pieces.
"Our goal is to foster and nurture local artists," explained Jarrell.
In the People's Studio Gallery, upstairs from American Apparel and directly across from Vila Thai, there were incredible pencil drawings of Barack Obama by artist Robert Jackson ($39 for a print), and pieces ranging in price from $30 all the way up into the hundreds of dollars.
Downstairs, in the other location, are colorful pictures of curious creatures—what the artist, I. David Ernst, calls "Whimsical Animal Characters," like a "Snailosaurus," or another called "Dangerous at Both Ends," which is a cute little guy with jagged teeth and tail. The prints range from $30 for a 5-by-7 up to $65 for an 11-by-14. Large colorful tile mosaics by Diana Rix run about $180, and brightly colored cutouts of fruit by mural artist Gonzalo Espinoza are $15-$55 a piece. There's also jewelry, small stained-glass Stars of David and crosses, and new work by artists arriving constantly; every first Thursday of the month, there is an Art Walk along University, with a new featured artist in each participating location.