Every year, I watch the Oprah show when she reveals her “favorite things” for the holiday season. This year’s treasure trove comprised 23 items valued at more than $4,700, including a $999.99 Sony video cam and a $400 faux-diamond necklace. Now I’ve been an Oprah fan even when it wasn’t cool but let’s get real. Who’s going to pluck down that kind of money except for a significant other, a very special friend or maybe mom? So in the true spirit of the holiday, I picked out a handful of gifts, mostly stuffers that cost less than $25.
Handy gadgetsA lot of useful and/or fun gadgets don’t have big price tags. Stores like restoration- and brookstone.com stock a host of reasonably priced gizmos, which range from practical handheld devices to entertaining desktop toys.
In the practical realm, there’s the talking tire gauge at restorationhardware.com. The handheld device not only shows the tire pressure on an extra-large LCD screen but an electronic voice announces the reading out loud. So even in the darkest locations or in the stormiest weather, motorists will know the tire pressure. There’s even a replay button to repeat the pressure, measured in psi, as many times as needed. The talking tire gauge, priced at $18.95, also comes packaged in a nifty, reusable vintage-style box.
Almost half the price of the tire gauge is the sno-baller at restorationhardware.com, and it’s debatable which would be considered more useful. The handheld snowball maker, priced at $9.50, “packs the snow into perfect orbs that fly far and explode spectacularly (and safely) on contact,” says the product description. The first winter storm, which arrived on the East Coast this past weekend, let me test out the sno-baller in my neighborhood park. (By the way, that’s not just any old park. It’s Prospect Park, a 526-acre “urban oasis,” which features a spectacular 90-acre meadow and Brooklyn’s only forest.)But be careful because other park goers may be envious of the 14-inch dark red plastic tool. “That’s cheating,” screamed a passerby as I packed my first orb out of the soft snow. The harder, crunchy snow created more of a challenge but eventually packed down into one of those perfect orbs. Restorationhardware.com also has a special holiday section for less than $25 stocked with about 46 items. Order the products online or use the online store locator to find one of the 130 stores nationwide near you.
New practical devices at brookstone.com include the micro-beam keychain flashlight, $20-$25, rated the best overall keychain flashlight by The Wall Street Journal.
Brookstone.com also stocks a series of wind-up metal devices or “desk critters,” priced at $15 each. Guaranteed to keep you entertain during those boring teleconference calls, each critter is made of a “collection of cogs, counterweights and coils.” The little critters look cool as is, or wind them up and watch them plod along a desk or counter surface. The Katita desk critter mimics the itsy-bitsy spider. The eight-legged Bongo resembles a caterpillar. Another shop with cool wind-up toys — with nostalgic charm — is 9thexhibition.com, a Manhattan-based cyber-only shop that just opened this spring. The retro-motorcycle racer sells for $12.50; a turquoise racing car runs $14.50; and the 9-inch “old-fashioned”-type robot, sells for $24. This season’s best buy has to be the bungee card holder by umbra.com, the Toronto, Canada-based shop known for its sleek designs. At five bucks a pop, the plastic-and-aluminum card holder works well for the corporate climber — constantly changing titles and in need of new cards — as well as the job seekers, who can easily design and print cards on the Web. What makes the card case so cool is that it doesn’t look like a card case. To open the card case, you have to pull on a plastic end piece, which is attached to the main section with a miniature bungee cord. The card holder, which comes in translucent white or polar blue, is sold online at umbra.com and brick-and-mortar Bed, Bath and Beyond stores. Sweet-smelling stuffersOn the softer side of stuffers, lip balms and scented soaps always make perfect presents. There are tons of balms and soaps on the market but I found two natural products that I liked for slightly unconventional reasons.
When it comes down to it, most natural lip balms, sold in tins, are not that different, according to my very unscientific test of three commercial brands: Burt’s Bees, Davies Gate and Madgabs. This season, however, I plan to stash a tin of Madgabs in all my coat pockets — a tip I learned in one of those women’s magazines — mostly because of the size of the tin.
The ¼-ounce steel-plated tins just happen to be slightly smaller than the tins that house Burt’s Beeswax or Davies Gate. The beauty of the tiny tin, even if it contains less balm, is it will fit in almost every pocket or pocketbook, from tight jeans to the clutch that accompanies the black little dress. Yes some good things — which are not diamonds — come in small packages.
And since diversity is still the spice of life, I especially appreciate the sweet-smelling “flavors” of Madgabs over the medicinal smell of the other lip balms. Madgads.com’s first balm on the market, lip lube, is available in cinnamon, natural, spearmint, lavender and orange. The newer Moose Smooch, a nut-free mixture just introduced this spring, comes in three berry scents.
A $15 minimum is required for all orders placed at the company’s Web site and shipping can be slow. But the balms are also sold at beauty shops online such as Chicago, Ill.-based whosthefairest.com, metrobeauty.com of Miami, Fla. and sugardaisy.com.The other natural product I discovered this season is soap rolls. The scented glycerin soap, shaped like a cylinder, is a product of what-fun.com, a small bath product company in Annapolis, Md. The 4-½ inch soap rolls come in a delightful range of scents for the holidays.
The “Bucket o’ Suds,” $13, comes with five scented rolls in these winter scents: cinnamon, apple, vanilla, forest and peppermint. The combination of the five scents smells wonderful as is. The bucket is a convenient way to store the soap rolls, which might otherwise roll off the counter. The 3-inch bucket, available in red or green, also makes a nice tree ornament.
Soap rolls are sold online and at more than 250 gift shops, museums and spas nationwide, including The Daily Planet in Hollywood, Calif., Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Timbuktu Station in Des Moines, Iowa and Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Something for the tootsiesAnd I saved my favorite for last — socks. Socks are natural stuffers — you just can’t have too many of them. I also love the idea of putting socks in a sock, which is essentially what a stocking is. This year’s pick is the product of the socklady.com in South Strafford, Vt. The socks look like they are hand knit but they are machine-made and finished by hand. The left and right sock of each pair has the same five colors and design but the colors are knit in a different order.
The adult wool socks, $20, are available in nine styles. Adult cotton socks, $15, come in four styles with pleasing names such as bluebell, carnation, sunflower and pansy socks. The cotton kids’ socks cost $16 but come with a spare — that’s three socks in a pair!
“I thought they were beautiful, but when I thought about the possibility of a kid losing one, it made me sad. So I decided to put an extra sock in each pair in case that happened,” says Marianna Walkerlin, a.k.a the sock lady. She also plans to add a spare to the adult pairs some time soon.
If you order from the site, have patience. Some of the socks are sold out but Walkerlin expects another shipment this week.
“It’s just a lot of fun to have colorful socks to choose from and not feel they have to match,” adds Walkerlin, whose motto is “Life is too short for matching socks.”
It’s also too short to sweat the small stuff. So stop sweating and start stuffing. Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at