Artful Gifting, At a Discount

6 mins read
A vase sitting on top of a wooden table
Handmade amphora vase by local artist Evan Chambers. Meet Evan and other local artists and community partners on Sunday, November 26 at The Gamble House for the Museum’s 3rd annual Handmade Holiday event.

Along about now, gifting fever and holiday panic have set in. Your mind is racing in search of alternatives. What to cook? And is there any way out of cooking? And holy cow, what about the gifts for that moody teen, that new in-law you barely know, or that MacGyver on your list who already seems to have everything?

Spoiler alert: Watch this space for a savory solution to kitchen fatigue in the form of sini-monta, exquisite, dainty but hearty beef dumplings made from scratch by hand by the Yegiazaryan family, owners of the Monta Factory in Pasadena and Glendale. One bite, and you’ll gladly hang up your whisk until January. Or maybe forever.

But back to gifts. Yes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. And still, many of us shut down at the mere thought of finding the right present for family, loved ones, colleagues, co-workers, and neighbors. We may complain about the high cost of everything, or we may resort to virtue-signaling and protest that Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukkah aren’t really about material “things.” Oh, puh-leeze. Of course, the kindling of lights on the darkest evenings of the year is about hope, love, gratitude, joy, spirit, and faith. But the power of gifting is not merely physical or material—it’s highly symbolic and a time-honored form of social bonding. Some of us even consider gifting essential to civilization.

The “too-muchness” of the season can be suffocating, overwhelming, and mostly because it all quickly becomes the Same-Old, Same-Old.

Ancient Greece honored nine Muses, whose domains range from astronomy (Uranus) to tragedy (Melpomene). This season, we’re introducing a tenth Muse, Xenia, named for the art of gifting generously and joyously. This introduction focuses on your local museum, where the Muses frolic freely, especially on November 26, when participating museums across the country offer special holiday pricing on eclectic, unique items.

Because here’s the thing: the reason so many of us are gripped by gift-o-phobia is what author Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice in his best-selling book of the same name. The “too-muchness” of the season can be suffocating, overwhelming, and mostly because it all quickly becomes the Same-Old, Same-Old. Mass-produced commodities are all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same (with props to Malvina Reynolds). This is why we, in desperation, may resort to giving gift cards and cash, which are always useful but more than a little impersonal and barely memorable.

A museum gift shop offers something completely different. Michelle Bourdon, current Western Chapter President for the Museum Store Association, also serves as Visitor Services, Store and Revenue Manager for USC Museums, including Pasadena’s USC Pacific Asia Museum, which was remodeled in 2017, one of the more than 2,000 museums which will participate in the special holiday pricing. Participating stores across all 50 states, 25 countries and five continents will offer shoppers a wide range of discounts, special events, gifts with purchase, and unusual, hand-crafted and eco-friendly items absent from big-box retailers.

She says, “Museum Store Sunday began seven years ago when our association noticed a vacant space between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. As a shop buyer, my approach is shared by my colleagues. I work with Fair-Trade associations and seek out socially conscious, sustainable goods that our customers won’t find at a typical retailer.” Bourdon also explains that a gift from a museum shop may spark an interest in museum membership, a key consideration at a time when arts organizations worldwide are experiencing a downturn in revenues. The annual event has boosted museum stores’ sales efforts nationwide: museum stores saw a 39 percent average increase in in-store net sales in 2022 compared to 2021.

“Purchasing at a museum shop is a great way to inspire creativity and curiosity and also to make your favorite art part of everyday life, whether it’s a book, a mug, a magnet, or art supplies,” she says. “We look for items made by local artists and also theme our items to current exhibits, so Lunar New Year in February will, of course, be a very special time here at our museum.”

Each participating museum, including the Pasadena Museum of History, Kidspace Children’s Museum, The Gamble House Bookstore, and the Southern California Children’s Museum, will choose its own promotions on November 26. For that Sunday, the USC Pacific Asia Museum urges gift-seekers to bring their own shopping bag—or perhaps purchase an upcycled tote bag at the museum shop. These bags are made by Malia Designs, a woman-owned Fair-Trade organization in Cambodia that repurposes durable industrial food packaging into fun and fashionable totes. It’s the perfect size for grocery shopping, carrying library books, or packing a picnic in the park. Price: $25. Further inspo: All USC Pacific Asia Museum purchases will be accompanied by a special free gift of a stainless-steel jewelry piece by local artist Melinda Lew.

Heather J. Marquez, Director of Retail Operations for The Gamble House Conservancy, offers inspiring options for Gamble House gifts, ranging from stocking stuffers to unforgettable statement pieces.

Marquez says, “Craftsman Soap Co. is a local business that produces quality bars of soap, along with other personal care products. We love their BEER soaps. Their packaging is made using recycled materials, and they don’t use palm oil. Their products range between $5 and $24.” (From the editors: In case you missed it, palm oil is a no-no. Massive swathes of rainforest are routinely cleared and burned to make way for these fast-growing, oil-producing trees, with equally massive and devastating impact on indigenous ecosystems.)

“The Pasadena Audubon Society has created a guidebook for locals who are interested in the birds you can find in Pasadena and surrounding areas. Their birding guide is available in both English and Spanish, and each book sold supports both their organization and ours. In addition to their guidebook, we’re offering other supplementary products that benefit the Pasadena Audubon Society – stickers, tea towels, water bottles and more. Prices range from $5-$50.”

Pasadena Audubon Society birding guides in English and Spanish and a bird-influenced tea towel.

“We offer handmade products made by a variety of artists, but this art glass vase was made by Evan Chambers. He works with glass and metal in his local studio, creating unique gifts like this vase (top photo, $280). We carry a number of his vases and lamps in our shop.”

“On Sunday, November 26, Evan and a number of other local artists, authors, and community partners will be on hand for our 3rd annual ‘Handmade Holiday’ event. For a complete list of participants, visit”

The Pasadena Museum of History will participate in Museum Store Sunday, offering members with cards free admission and a 20 percent discount in the Museum store on November 26.

Dee Nishimoto, Museum Store Manager for the Pasadena Museum of History, comments, “Just as our exhibitions are thoughtfully curated, the Museum Store selects merchandise to provide shoppers items of quality, relevance, artistry, beauty, and local interest. Pasadena Museum of History’s Museum Store is proud to feature a wide variety of artworks by local artists working in various media, books for both adults and children related to the architecture, art, and histories of Pasadena and environs, and delicious, locally made gourmet jams, jellies, and candies.”

And if you’re too swamped for retail therapy on Museum Store Sunday proper, don’t fret. And do not take the path of least resistance with Besides, not all museums can participate on November 26, either. But the museum gift shop is still a great source for original gifting. The Norton Simon isn’t participating in Museum Store Sunday, but so what? Kandinsky’s Open Green Pencil Set ($16) or the Buddha Sketch Pad ($12.95) are just two irresistible examples of the whimsical and elegant fare you’ll find in this great shop.

Laura Soto, Museum Store Manager for the Norton Simon Museum, comments, “While the Norton Simon isn’t participating in Museum Store Sunday, we are having our own sale this weekend, Friday (11/17 through Monday 11/20), where members will receive 30 percent off on books, and all other visitors will receive 10 percent off.”

And if you haven’t ever visited the gift shop at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, well, all we can say is eat your Wheaties and buckle up, bucko. The Huntington is not participating in Museum Store Sunday, but the venue is worth a visit anyway. This enormous, fantastically curated store qualifies as an “emporium,” not a mere shop, with sections devoted to gardening, Asian arts, children’s gifts, vintage-themed, California-kitsch souvenirs, Arts and Crafts Movement artisanal items, jars of The Huntington’s own gourmet marmalade, scarves, tee-shirts, fabulous jewelry of many genres, and of course a staggering array of seasonal specialties.

The good news: You don’t need to purchase an admission ticket to shop here, the museum store is strategically situated outside the paywall for optimal access. And there’s coffee and ice cream next door. There are picnic tables with parasols around a burbling fountain where you can hunker down with a hot lavender latte or a scoop of salted caramel and review your haul. And, the ultimate rarity in our region: free parking and lots of it. Whee!

Our latest bright idea: Use a postcard or calendar from your favorite museum as the stocking-stuffer, followed by a museum membership as the main gift for that special someone!

NOTE: Check with your local museum for the most recent updates, as some listings may have recently changed.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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