The book is as small as a whispered secret, no bigger than your palm. Its text won't win a Pulitzer: "A is for Andrew who sold wormy apples," it begins. And as alphabet books go, Once Upon a Time is an outrageous $85―but how do you put a price on nostalgia?
This tiny tome, and all the others at Califia Books in San Francisco, is a memory of handset type―an antidote to the bombardment of look-alike gifts that make this season of ho-ho-ho tend toward ho-hum. It's just one of many interesting, artful, and unusual finds in a handful of small stores in San Francisco's SoMa district.
At the recently expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's gift shop, $25 buys you an entire art collection. Granted, the prints are 1/12-size reproductions, but they look dramatic in the living room of the Kaleidoscope House ($190), a modernist dollhouse. The museum store also carries sleek contemporary furniture―try a BABA Zebrano chair ($460) that coddles you like a soft-boiled egg―and creative housewares, like six pairs of wooden chopsticks in cool silk cases ($22).
At the nearby California Historical Society, you'll find small, thoughtful exhibits and an intriguing gift shop. For your favorite history buff, consider a striking black-and-white San Francisco cityscape ($75) comprising photos from the historical society's collection. Or spring for a batiklike poppy-print tablecloth ($30) and matching cloth napkins ($5 each).
Two blocks away on Hawthorne Street, an ivy-twined brick building holds an afternoon's worth of browsing. On the second floor is Crown Point Press, where prints by the likes of Robert Colescott and Richard Diebenkorn cost a fraction of what these artists' paintings command.
At Califia Books, in an alcove off Crown Point's lobby, artist-made books such as A Brief History of the Ukulele (handwritten, with watercolors and a cover fashioned from ukulele scraps) may run as low as $45. On the upper end of the price range is Gaza Bowen's Red Shoe Reader ($1,800), a rumination on foot-binding, with footwear lore―plus an image of Marilyn Monroe modeling stilettos―sandwiched between two halves of a red high-heeled shoe.
Take the weight off your own feet by heading downstairs to Hawthorne Lane Restaurant (lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily; 22 Hawthorne St.; 415/777-9779), known for its Asian-influenced menu and sweeping cherrywood bar. Try the Chinese-style roast duck or grilled yellowfin tuna, admire the art on the walls―it's from Crown Point Press―and enjoy slowing down enough to read the fine print.
Califia Books. 12-5 Tue and Fri-Sat, or by appointment. 20 Hawthorne St.; (415) 284-0314.
California Historical Society Museum Store. 11-5 Tue-Sat. 678 Mission St.; (415) 357-1860.
Crown Point Press. 10-6 Tue-Sat. 20 Hawthorne; (415) 974-6273.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Museum Store. 10-6:30 (until 9:30 Thu), closed Wed. 151 Third St.; (415) 357-4035.