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Santa in the Slow Lane

Away from Union Square, unusual shops make holiday shoppers merry


SAN FRANCISCO — The place was Fillmore Street. The day, Christmas Eve 1999. About 4:45 p.m., a desperate hour. I still had one person to shop for. Frantic, I dashed into the only place that looked open, a Smith & Hawken garden shop. Many shelves were bare.

On one table, like the last grade-schooler waiting to be picked for kickball, sat a sorry basket of nameless flower bulbs. Its moss covering was mangled, the green ribbon was untied. I grabbed it.

Behind me, there was a crash and a muffled shriek. A woman shopper had spotted the bulb basket too. Trying to beat me to the prize, she tripped and fell. For a split second I smiled unintentionally. What a sorry sight. The woman didn't look good either.

This year, things would be different. No mad Christmas Eve rush. No fruitless circling in packed parking lots. No Scrooge-like fits of ugliness.

That's how I found myself back in San Francisco earlier this month. To me, the city is a classic holiday place, and not just because I grew up in the Bay Area. It's the crisp air. The surge of winter-wrapped pedestrians crossing windy streets. The twinkling lights. The musical chestnuts on store loudspeakers making spirits bright.

Most shoppers in the city head straight for Union Square, which has the same stores I could find in L.A. With time to look for the unique, I browsed the eclectic Noe Valley; the unexpected galleries and gift shops in Hayes Valley; and the artful, unusual shops along Fillmore and Union streets in highbrow Pacific Heights.

The weekend began with a Friday night flight from LAX to Oakland. I rented a car and 20 minutes later was crossing the Bay Bridge.

My destination was the Hotel Diva, a block from Union Square. Its rates usually top $200 a night, but some Internet searching landed me a price of $115 (plus tax and parking) through a consolidator, Central Reservation Service (

The Diva's decor is contemporary funk, with a $2-million renovation completed last year. My comfy king bed had a duvet of gray satiny moire and a steel headboard soaring to the ceiling. A table, desk, chairs and other furnishings were sleek black and shiny silver; an electric blue carpet and a tangerine shower curtain provided hip splashes of color. I awoke Saturday morning amazed at how a hotel in such a bustling part of town could be this quiet.

My friend Heather, who lives in the city, had agreed to help me sniff out some good gifts. Our noses led us to 24th Street, the heart of Noe Valley, about four miles southwest of Union Square. This unassuming residential neighborhood is quintessential San Francisco: cool, laid-back, full of character.

The main browsing strip, which starts at 24th and Castro streets and heads west, is chockablock with little shops and cafes. Given that San Francisco is the capital of political correctness, it was only fitting that our first stop was Global Exchange (4018 24th St.; It's crammed with trinkets and crafts from Third World nations; proceeds go to the human rights organization of the same name.

Beautiful Zimbabwean Shona sculptures--human figures in a circle carved from a single stone--shared shelf space with Peruvian munaiwarmi, ceramic heart-shaped pendants. A note explained that the word translates to "women's love stone" in the Quechua language, and that a woman gives the heart to a man to assure his fidelity and help him resist temptation.

In late afternoon we moved on to Hayes Valley, a once-scruffy neighborhood near City Hall. Around Hayes and Laguna streets is a five-block stretch of galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

The art stops include the San Francisco Women Artists Gallery (370 Hayes St.), a co-op founded in 1925, and the F. Dorian gallery (388 Hayes St.), where I found a unique Christmas ornament: A tiny corked glass orb holds a swirling sea; an old-fashioned tall ship plies the waters inside, its sails stiffened by the wind ($12).

Octavia's Haze (498 Hayes St., proved to be a browser's treat. When the sun shines through the windows, the magnificent vases and bowls in this art glass store seem to dance in a spectrum of lively colors.

At Worldware (336 Hayes St.;, a miniature schnauzer named Rison and a toy fox terrier called Carmel welcomed us into a maze of elegant housewares and gifts. I bought a handcrafted music box ($40) that could have come straight from Santa's workshop. It was a long rectangle covered with mossy green and cranberry red silky fabric, crowned by a lion's head wearing a ruff and jingling bells.

Dinner time found us a few doors down at Absinthe (398 Hayes St.;, a warm, cozy brasserie. Heather ordered a mesclun salad ($6) and fettuccine ($14). My French onion soup ($6) was the best I've had, and the coq au vin ($18), served in a tureen and rich with field mushrooms, pearl onions and bacon, was perfect for a chilly night.

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