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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Museum Shops a Discovery Zone for Array of Offbeat Gifts : Local artwork, handcrafted toys and historical books have special appeal. Some are adorned with Chumash pictographs and presidential seals.


If traipsing through the mall with the gift-hungry mob has all the appeal of a green-cherry-packed fruitcake, think institutional: Ventura County's museums and libraries offer wonderfully offbeat solutions to your annual holiday gift problems.

Consider this for the history buff on your list: The Ventura County Museum of History and Art sells a T-shirt displaying a Chumash Indian pictograph--four stick figures standing together on a board. Museum personnel call it "Chumash surfing."

You won't find it at the mall, which is why the museum's gift shop manager, Lisa Huff, thinks the museum is a boon for holiday shoppers.

"It's a little, secluded secret," she said. "You don't have the crowd scene. The atmosphere is pleasant; it's calm and soothing with background music." Docents who operate the shop have the time and knowledge to help shoppers, and there's no waiting, she said.

It's that way at several of these out-of-the-way spots. (Some museums that charge a fee allow free entrance for shopping.) Here's a listing of where you can go and what you'll find.

Ventura County Museum of History and Art

100 E. Main St., Ventura, 653-0323. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

For art lovers, a videotape titled "You Are the Miracle" ($24.95) features interviews with legendary Ojai artist Beatrice Wood and noted Ojai potters Vivika and Otto Heino, along with two other Southern California artists.

You'll find pots from the Heinos' collection ($60 and up), and prints ($25 to $40) by the late Jessie Arms Botke, the Santa Paula painter whose work the museum recently exhibited. Her autobiography ($27.95) includes many of her bird and flower prints.

Other nifty ideas: wooden whirligig-style birds ($16.95) by Ojai artists Jim and Shar Webb, books on the Channel Islands and Ventura County's history including a popular new one, "The St. Francis Dam Disaster Revisited" ($15).

Stocking stuffers: refrigerator magnets with Chumash pictographs, beaded jewelry.

Kid stuff: finger puppets, coloring books featuring marine wildlife, tiny cornhusk dolls, "Island of the Blue Dolphin" by Scott O'Dell.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley, 522-8444. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

For the truly dedicated Reagan fan, you can pick up an autographed copy of the newly published "The Wisdom and Humor of the Great Communicator," edited by Frederick J. Ryan Jr. It will run you $150 for a copy with Ron's signature, $40 for Nancy's, $250 for both, or $17.95 for the unadorned version.

Coinciding with the current exhibit of Prince Charles' watercolors, the gift shop is selling a coffee table book, "HRH Prince of Wales--Watercolours," for $40 unsigned.

Other nifty ideas: a piece of the Berlin Wall ($4.95); kits for needlepoint pillows that spell out "Rawhide" and "Rainbow," the Secret Service code names for the Reagans ($14.95); a three-dimensional puzzle of the White House ($24.50); golf balls with the presidential seal ($10 for three). Also, porcelain elephants, jewelry, mugs, glasses, dishes, visors and T-shirts, all emblazoned with the official seal.

Stocking stuffers: key rings, pencils, pens, letter openers.

Kid stuff: yo-yos, sticker books, coloring books, a ruler listing all the presidents.

Olivas Adobe Museum

4200 Olivas Park Drive, Ventura, 644-4346. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Meredith Stevens, a docent at the century-old hacienda, spent five years researching her new book, "House of Olivas," which sells here for $14. It's all about the Olivas family, the clan of rancher Don Raymundo Olivas, his wife Dona Teodora and their 21 children. But the best bargain is "Mexican Cookery," a casual collection of Mexican recipes from the kitchens of the museum's docents ($1.50).

Other nifty ideas: a print of the Olivas Adobe (25 cents), city of Ventura calendars ($9.95), books by historian Richard Senate about local ghosts ($2 to $7), necklaces made from bread dough ($15).

Stocking stuffers: For the person who truly has everything, there's a tiny wrapped package with a poem advising the recipient never to tear off the wrapping, but simply to know it is a gift from the heart.

Kid stuff: handmade string doll, ponytail bands.

Stagecoach Inn Museum

51 S. Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park, 498-9441. Open 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

This place is a gold mine if the person on your list is a nut about old things, especially gadgets and gizmos in use when this old inn was in its heyday. Some items are genuinely old while others are reproductions.

You'll find such things as old porcelain dolls ($52 to $66), hand-sewn bonnets for women and children ($8) and a miniature bowling game with 10 clothespins and a little ball ($6.25).

Other nifty ideas: old-fashioned scented soaps ($1.50), elaborate handmade tree ornaments (under $6), seasonal place mats made from greeting cards ($2).

Stocking stuffers: a tiny pincushion with elastic to fit on a finger.

Kid stuff: kazoos, kits to make a stagecoach or train, and arrowheads.

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