South of Market surprises

Discover distinctive stores around SFMOMA and Hawthorne Street
Chiori Santiago

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.

Shoppers' guide
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.