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Among the best of these shopping districts is the stretch of Harbor Boulevard in old Fullerton from Commonwealth Avenue to a hop beyond Chapman Avenue. Here and along finger streets and alleyways are dozens of gems inside buildings that date to the 1920s. That alone should put you in a different mind-set.

A requisite kids' stop is CM School Supply (210 N. Harbor Blvd.), filled with educational and art toys, books and yard equipment. There's even a section for infants.

No department store or Gap anchors the district, yet fashion fiends can find plenty to covet, new and vintage. Sparkling designer party dresses deck the windows at the Michael Nusskern boutique (225 N. Harbor). And a sofa inside provides weary friends an ideal stop. For cool baby duds head to the archaically named Grandma's Lil Darlins (106 Amerige St.).

Several shops specializing in vintage clothes and furnishings dot the area. Musts include Out of Vogue (109 E. Commonwealth), which also boasts a wall of retro guitars, and Stray Cat Vintage (108 N. Harbor), which shares space with Blackhole Records--making it a complete emporium for the alternative cousin in the family. Also check out Ipso Facto, a haven for county Goths, and Nothing Shocking, both beyond Chapman (517 N. Harbor).

The truly eclectic fare deliciously jams the various antique malls. Always enter with an open mind. Even if you or those on your list don't seem like the antique type, the perfect gift might be nestled among the oddities: porcelain teacups, a 1940s tin toy, a golf ball the size of a human head. The originals of those beaded bags every couture designer now touts are available at a fraction of the price.

Antique malls stock a few sports-related memorabilia, but a few stores cater only to ball fans, including Past Times, a corner shop tucked inside the Villa del Sol (305 N. Harbor).

The Villa itself can consume an afternoon. Threats to replace the former 1923 hotel with a carwash three decades ago sparked preservationists into saving the old downtown. Today, the old three-story, mission-style building with a courtyard and bubbling fountain houses several restaurants (including the acclaimed Cafe Hidalgo), boutiques and offices.

If weather permits, take lunch in the courtyard. If it's after 4 p.m., try Hidalgo's tapas and sangria.

At the Villa, pop into the British Grocer for Christmas crackers and start a wonderful tradition. These crackers aren't for soup, but are a cardboard and foil tube that when tugged on from both ends cracks open to reveal its novelty prizes, as well as a colored tissue crown wears everyone at the dinner table.

Pick up other great party favors--as in hand instruments--at the Fullerton Music Center (121 N. Harbor), a landmark store that occupies half a city block.

Before you dash over there, though, cross the street at Wilshire to visit Lorrson's Books & Prints (116 Wilshire). Besides books not available at the behemoths, there are fantastic nutcrackers.

* Hours vary, though most stores are open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Several restaurants remain open much later. Free parking available in designated lots behind shops.

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