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From one Santa to another: Shopping downtown Santa Ana--especially 4th Street--offers a vibrant urban alternative to toy-making in the North Pole or mall-trolling anywhere.

Elves, crowds--and attitudes--tend to stay away, leaving room for urban spirits to explore a reemerging commercial area that is safer and cleaner than a lot of mini-malls or reindeer stalls I could name--and those aren't even its best points.

Other pluses of the Fiesta Marketplace, a six-block stretch of 4th Street straddling Broadway and Main Street: eclectic merchandise, reasonable prices (maybe even some bargaining) and tasty treats for refueling.

What's missing? Piped-in, tinny carols; recirculated air, and chain-filled fast-food courts. (For snacks, there may be food-cart vendors around during the holiday shopping season, but on Jan. 1, a city ordinance banning the carts takes effect.

The new face is thanks, in part, to the city's ongoing $12-million redevelopment of the area. More change has come from the fledgling Artists' Village nearby at 2nd and Broadway--itself a great place to shop for unique artworks from (mostly) emerging artists.

The secret of this place is going to get out soon, probably when the nearly finished Ronald Reagan Courthouse at 4th and Birch Street finally opens.

Not that it's dead now. (Weekends draw more than double the business--and foot traffic--so Mondays through Thursdays are even less stressful.)

On weekends, a carousel (50 cents a ride) helps draw families to a bricked pedestrian-only area that was Spurgeon Street.

Fourth Street itself is anchored by pastel-painted retail shops selling shoes, clothing and fashion accessories, jewelry, furniture, music and instruments--as well as the greatest concentration of bridal shops I know of in Orange County.

These seamstresses are, as a rule, good and fast: Getting measured for a custom something (a little self-gift for getting shopping out of the way early this year?) might be in order. (Again, much of the business comes on weekends, so a weekday trip earns more personalized service.)

Near the carousel is St. Theresa's shop of religious icons at 300 E. 4th St. (frustrated shoppers take note: St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes). Across the way is Moya's Bakery (220 E. 4th St.). Well, maybe just a little something . . . a reward for that first purchase, or perhaps comfort if nothing's been crossed off the list.

Got a yen for the artistic? Take a turn down Broadway toward the city's emerging Artists' Village, the center of which is the Santora Building at 2nd Street, although hours of the galleries are spotty as yet. Glance, too, at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, just across the way at 208 N. Broadway.

When the perfect gift is cash, a telephone card, jewelry or an airline ticket to Mexico or Paris, this is a great place to start. Money-wiring businesses and travel agents abound; many are tucked into pockets of retail stores, so poke around when looking for something special.

This advice also applies to those with smaller budgets and more time. Bargains can be found virtually anywhere. And don't worry: Many of the merchants are bilingual Latinos, so communication isn't a problem on Calle Cuatro, as it is known in Spanish.

Perhaps the largest store here is the Family Bargain Center (219 E. 4th St.), a densely packed, one-story department store featuring clothes, shoes, small electronics, perfumes, cosmetics and more, plus a snack bar and a manicurist in the rear. It also has a gift-basket center, where just about anything you could imagine can be artfully arranged and wrapped in cellophane. A barware package containing a French decanter and stopper with six old-fashioned glasses is $19.99. Hey, it's one less gift to wrap yourself!

In fact, gift baskets are available at several stores along 4th. A store with baby supplies (211 W. 4th, not all the stores have names visible) features a gift display of baby tubs stocked with sponge, bottle, sleeper, hat and blanket for $13.99.

The street has three La Moda menswear stores (120 East, 112 West and 215 West), and each has ties, silk or polyester, for $12.99. If a loud tie is too quiet, try the eight-piece drum kit (reduced to $649) in the window of Pedrini's House of Music.

A palm- or card-reading ($5 or $10, respectively), or a growling stomach, can predict the future. In the latter case, the answer is lunch. To refresh and regroup, the self-indulgent can dine at Mariscos Tampico (220 E. 4th), a seafood restaurant, or nearby Shelly's (400 W. 4th), which features continental food. For the quickest bite, every item at King Egg Roll (305 E. 4th) is $1; combo plates are under $4.

* Shop hours vary. Covered parking is available in two structures off 4th Street: coming from the north, you can enter off 5th Street at Spurgeon. From the south, the blocklong parking structure has entrances off 3rd and 2nd streets. Fee: 50 cents an hour for the first hour, $1 an hour thereafter, to $7 maximum. Metered street parking is 50 cents for 2 hours.

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