The fun thing about getting older (besides knowing where all the candy is hidden) is that you start to enjoy giving gifts more than receiving them. There’s a midlife shift toward benevolence, whether brought on by parenthood, maturity, or working with a therapist to develop a more sensible attitude toward hoarding Legos. Turns out, ‘tis actually better to give than to receive.
And when the holiday season rears its $960 billion head in mid-October, we all start to get the Gift Sweats. Not that we won’t find anything; that’s impossible when consumer culture confronts each of us with 4,000 to 10,000 advertising messages per day. But we fear that it won’t be the right thing. Gift-giving is a tiny bit competitive, in that everyone wants to Absolutely Nail It™ and avoid the cursory, slightly bewildered “thanks” that mark a poorly chosen present. Regardless of your starting budget, you want your gifts to convey your thoughtfulness and profound knowledge of your recipient, not “this was near the cash register at the car wash.”
In this demonstrably first-world struggle, your secret weapon is your locale. New Canaan is home to dozens of business owners, curators, buyers, and makers who spend all year scanning the horizon for perfect gifts, all for you to Absolutely Nail It in a single afternoon.
Amazon is a part of our lives, for better or worse. We can no more undo our reliance on the convenience of online shopping than we can unsee Jeff Bezos sauntering off to his space gherkin in a cowboy hat. But do your town a favor this holiday season: Don’t do Amazon. No algorithm on earth, no matter how creepily omniscient, can replicate the good taste and thoughtfulness of folks who do this every day for a living.
What follows is a guide to four seasonal standouts to add to your Holiday Stroll circuit and one super-special option to keep in mind for the king or queen of your Nice List.
At Elm Street’s Adirondack Store, you’ll find a visually dazzling ode to the Great Camps of the Gilded Age that feels urbane and sophisticated but whimsical enough to feature taxidermied raccoons playing a game of poker in the window. Owner Stepen Dori Shin’s immaculate eye puts the piney splendor of the classic Adirondack aesthetic within everyone’s reach, one vintage cocktail shaker or Pendleton blanket at a time.
Come here for: anyone who appreciates refined, outdoorsy design and anyone for whom not being born a Rockefeller and not being the summer of 1897 is a bothersome reality. I spent several rapturous minutes taking in the glory of Stephen’s antique barware story at the back of the store: dozens of vintage cocktail shakers, gavel-shaped booze measures for thirsty lawyers, sterling silver champagne coolers, and horn-handled everything. Yes, please.
Stay for the: Tall Pine coffee bar, dog-friendly vibe, and a well-curated downstairs textiles and decor section.
Go-to gift for Very Good Friends: Cire Trudon candles, handmade in Normandy since 1643, are the ne plus ultra of fancy home fragrance. Their scents (look for Ernesto, a leather tobacco blend, or Abd el Kader, their best-selling mint tea) are artful and otherworldly without being cloying. The hand-blown containers are too beautiful to throw away, and as Steven points out, you can reuse them for pencils, makeup brushes, or saving up your pennies to buy another.
What if my friend is Just Okay?: They also have an entire wall of Thymes Limited’s Frasier Fir candles and accessories, a.k.a. Probably the Official Scent of Christmas. It brings a smile to my face each time I smell it.
Adirondack Store is open from 10-5 daily at 29 Elm Street.
Elm Street Books
You can have your orange-and-brown boxes*; my Yuletide ideal is the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod: the Christmas flood of books. In this fantasy, our under-tree zone becomes a sea of Elm Street Books’ telltale green Florentine paper, and we get to spend the subsequent week tucking into our plunder with mugs of hot chocolate while it snows.
Luckily, New Canaan’s indie bookstore is the only resource we’ll need, with their thoughtful staff of booksellers stocking well-researched reads for folks of every age.
Come here for: Something for absolutely everyone on your list. Think graphic novels for tween readers, literary fiction for your book club buddies, and modern architecture art books for the Harvard Five fans. And if you don’t see the book you were thinking of, Elm Street Books manager Manda Riggs notes that, because they work with a highly competitive book warehouse, they can most often have it for you by tomorrow.
A gift for your favorite empire-watcher: Power Failure, William Cohan’s account of General Electric’s hubristic downfall that my (former NBC) husband already snapped up. It looks delightfully page-turny in a juicy, corporate mismanagement kind of way.
For your paradigm-smasher: Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry is “an uplifting manifesto about a woman working in science,” says Manda, who reads 300 books a year and clearly has the coolest job in New Canaan.
For the young reader: The “I Survived” series. Author Lauren Tarshis, who recently visited West School, penned the series to add a personal dimension to significant historical events for kids by giving them fictionalized, firsthand accounts.
For your favorite neighbor: Elm Street books collaborated with local artist Brian Kammerer to create a limited-edition, 1,000-piece puzzle of his painting of the May Fair. This is such a charming, unique gift, and a nice way to while away the coming infinity while we wait for little splashes of green to reappear in the trees.
* to be clear, I am also perfectly fine with orange-and-brown boxes
Elm Street Books can be found at 35 Elm Street, right next to Rosie, and they’re open every day.
If you have a daughter, a granddaughter, a goddaughter, a nephew, a niece, or a friend’s child of any age with whom you’ve ever walked down Elm Street, there is exactly zero chance that this exuberant emporium of basically everything tiny humans enjoy has escaped your notice. The maximalist aesthetic is giving Real-Life Unicorn with Access to the Top-Secret Iridescent Rainbow Amex vibes, and the cheerful crew can always help you find too-cool-to-fail gifts for kids of all ages.
It’s the opposite of the whole Werner Herzog’s Sad Beige Toys for Sad Beige Children aesthetic, and we can all be thankful for that.
For the cozy kid: fuzzy footie pajamas in every print you can imagine, from tie-dye to soccer to popsicles to, duh, unicorns.
For the l’il sledder: an Appaman metallic ombré snow jacket that I genuinely regret to report doesn’t come in grownup lady sizes.
To make bathing sound wayyy more interesting: “Llama Poo” cotton candy-scented bath bombs. Three cheers to the product development team (and shifting pop culture attitudes towards llamas and also poo?) that made this magic possible.
You’ll find Groove at 115 Elm Street, and they’re open seven days a week.
Perhaps recognizing a market opportunity in a place where folks generally prefer to have a visual reminder of where they went to college within their eyesight at all times, this clever shop specializes in vintage college pennants, flags, and all kinds of university-branded tchotchkes. Don’t sleep on the display of vintage buttons as stocking stuffers for your favorite Sinn Fein supporter or Pat Boone fan.
For the recent Colgate grad, and literally, who around here isn’t a Colgate grad, including me, Go ‘Gate!: a vintage Colgate felted wool pillow from the time before Colgate changed their logo and incurred my considerable scorn.
For the U of A student of legal drinking age: with a vintage, old-logo beer stein, anywhere can be Wildcat Country!
Located at 147 Elm Street, Americana Memories is open Tuesday through Saturday.
Black Bridge Motors
Black Bridge Motors inspires awe in grown adults the way Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory does for kids. It’s a world of pure imagination, but the dreams that come true are automotive, not sugarplum, in nature. Also, Johnny Depp has nothing to do with it, insofar as I know.
At their Norwalk shop, New Canaan’s Scott Gilbert leads a 35-person team to build custom cars that marry classic, coveted styling from the golden age of sheet metal (think: Defenders, Broncos, and first-generation Land Cruisers) with up-to-the-minute engines, systems, and technology. It all results in a one-of-a-kind, exactly-how-you-dreamed-it-would-be car.
“You could go to a dealership and have a car this afternoon,” Scott says. “But that’s not what we do here.” Say you’ve been eyeing a Defender from the late ‘80s, but you don’t want the persistent headaches that come with owning a decades-old British car. Also, you’ve come to rely on cupholders, a nav system, and modern brakes. Scott’s team works with you to execute this vision, helping to source the car if needed, disassembling it, and meticulously rebuilding it on a state-of-the-art chassis with a brand-new, model-appropriate engine (say, a Ford Racing 5.0L, V8 engine for a ‘68 Bronco.)
From there, more choices abound, and everything is built to your specifications, from the obvious, like paint and interiors, to some pretty specific features, like the floor finish, console, heated and cooled cupholders, sound systems, and lighting concepts. The number of choices one makes in a bespoke build is a bit dizzying. Still, Scott’s team guides clients towards a tasteful result, presenting a palette of interior finishes that work with the chosen color and overall idea for the car. It turns out that pure imagination may need to be saved from its own proclivity for purple iguana hide. It’s rewarding, too. Says Scott, “clients get their families involved with these decisions, which makes the process more fun for everyone.”
Because a Black Bridge build takes a year to finish, there’s very little chance you’ll have anything in a bow on the driveway for Christmas 2022 unless the golden ticket you unearth to pay for it also covers a time machine. But it’s worth considering for next year because, frankly, there’s no bigger bummer than trying to load your groceries into the wrong Audi SUV in the Walter Stewart’s lot.
Black Bridge Motors can be reached at 203-769-9654 and visited at Blackbridgemotors.com
Happy shopping, New Canaan. And even happier giving.