Though everyone starts out with thoughtful gift ideas for our friends and loved ones, a lot of the times our plans don't work out and we end up picking up last-minute finds, like gift cards from the rack near the cashier at the grocery store. This guide is for those who find themselves often in San Jose, wanting to make the most of their budget and time while also getting unique holiday gifts worthy of the people receiving them. The added benefit is that you’ll also get to know some of San Jose's best independent retailers -- those welcoming spaces that we incorporate into a network that fosters individuality and help us South Bay residents love living here a little more than we already do.
The shops highlighted below have been chosen for their unique offerings, affordability and value for the products or services they sell, as well as their proximity to other cool destinations -- most are within walking distance of each other -- because what money spent in San Jose stays here (mostly) and supports our hyper-local creative community. (Studies have consistently shown that independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales than big box/chain stores; current results show $45 vs. $14 per $100 spent.)
Downtown San Jose
It may not be the bustling retail center you’d expect to find in most major cities, but that can be an advantage when it comes to the challenges of holiday shopping. Parking isn’t so bad, the shops are calm and the staff (often the owners themselves) are attentive and helpful. After your shopping is done, you can visit Christmas in the Park for some replenishing of holiday cheer.
88 So. 4th St.
KALEID Gallery is a good place to start for one of a kind gifts created by incredibly talented artists. In addition to 90 resident artists peppered throughout the large space, the gallery is currently hosting its annual “HARK!" holiday show & sale, which consists of hundreds of affordable art works. Paintings dominate the walls from every genre imaginable but there’s also eye-catching jewelry, ceramics and glass, as well as small, functional items like ornaments and buttons.
Circle A Skate has everything needed for a new skateboard as well as clothing & shoes to go with it. TechShop SJ offers memberships and gift cards for the chronic do-it-yourselfer. And classes at The Studio Rock Climbing Gym or Downtown Yoga Shala will be meaningful to those that are health and fitness conscious. Finally, if you plan to visit on a weekend, stop by San Pedro Square Market for the SJMade holiday pop-up event featuring a dozen local vendors tabling their wares.
Not that long ago The Alameda was a quiet stretch of retailers and restaurants mainly serving the neighborhoods to its north and south. With the arrival of Whole Foods Market last year, it’s become a busy destination driving more attention and foot traffic to the area which is a great boost to some very deserving spots in the area.
Art Boutiki & Gallery
44 Race St.
Art Boutiki is an unusual hybrid space with a comic book store in the front and live music venue in the back. Although it’s not a huge inventory of comics, it is a rigorously curated selection and easy to wade through (must haves like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez & Sandman by Neil Gaiman are featured prominently.) The big gift idea here though is their digital direct-to-garment printing: imagine your face or latest drawing on t-shirts specially made just for your family or your closest friends. And these t-shirts, though affordable, aren't chintzy -- the full-color print will last the life of the tee.
The Arsenal Art Store carries all the essential drawing, painting and spray painting materials needed for the budding or serious artist. Recycle Books is here with their headquarters location and has all their rare and hard to find inventory at this location. Black & Brown Clothing should be your last quick stop before leaving the area. A used clothing store, Black & Brown carries both vintage and contemporary wear for all genders, all in gently-worn condition, while also providing a great selection of shoes, belts and handbags.
Japantown is the destination for authentic Japanese culture past and present. Shops providing kimonos, bonsai and ukuleles exist in perfect harmony with edgy art galleries, tattoo parlors and streetwear clothing stores.
621 N. 6th St.
Zonkey is a small storefront jam packed with limited edition collectibles. They pride themselves on their inventory and knowledge of “sofubi” toys (short for the Japanese “sofuto bineeru” meaning soft vinyl). These are labor intensive works of art and this shop aims to make sure its customers will be ahead of the next wave of the vinyl toy movement, which has gone underground (again).
Just around the corner from Zonkey is Kogura Company purveyors of specialty gift and household items directly from Japan, including tea pots, ceramic dishes, mugs and rice cookers. Next door is Cukui, a gallery/clothing store sporting custom graphics inspired by a mashup of Chicano and South Pacific Islander cultures, as well as graffiti influences. And a few paces down is Petite Galleria with hundreds of beautiful artisanal products, from clever earrings to elaborate, limited-edition art pieces.
Sundays are a great day to grab a cappuccino at the Italian coffee shop Dolcetto Café and whittle down your Christmas list on Lincoln Ave. popping in and out of a great deal of vintage, clothing and creative novelty shops.
Whatnots & Dodads
1330 Lincoln Ave.
Whatnots & Dodads will instantly put you in the Christmas spirit with their elaborate holiday trees decked out in antique ornaments and lights. They have 23 vendor niches focusing on well-vetted items including, but not limited to: figurines, classic cameras, western memorabilia, beautiful scarves and jewelry.
Other vintage stores include the quirky Park Place Vintage and the quaint Three Sisters, which also carries excellent local honey. And you’ll find great bargains at the Thrift Box which benefits the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital. Stop into Underground Clothing for chic clothing for men & women. It’s also worth mentioning that Good Karma Bikes has moved into the area -- just a few blocks north on Lincoln Ave. They sell hundreds of “rehabilitated” bicycles, and all proceeds from sales go towards programs for foster kids and disadvantaged youth. They also grant bikes to low income residents.
For a bit of “Hometown, USA” nostalgia, main street Campbell is just the place to stroll if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for but hope you’ll find that perfect something.
On the Corner Music
530 E. Campbell Ave.
At On the Corner Music, they know that great music stands the test of time, and that there’s nothing better than listening to it on vinyl. They have thousands of albums packed into well-organized bins, ranging from classic rock, alternative, and jazz, and their prices start at a mere $1. There are also two turntables so you can listen to your selections before purchasing them, to make sure your gift is as awesome as you remembered it in high school.
Make your way north down the main strip and stop into Moon Fyre Metaphysical store for divine smelling oils to wear and incense to burn. Kaleido Lamps is the place for far out lamps and fun night lights. And Recycle Bookstore West has a huge variety of used books; this location is especially good for cookbooks and children’s books.
My last suggestion for a great gift idea is the gift of a performance. It could be a professional touring musical, an avant garde dance company or an unusual performance art happening. It’s the kind of gift that many people won’t typically purchase for themselves, but will be immensely enjoyed once they get there. This works well too for recipients that live out of town (just search online for “live performance” & their location). They’ll be impressed that you took the time to find something great at their local venue that they probably didn’t even know about. Shipping is easy too since most tickets can easily be printed out at home and put into a holiday card.
I hope you discover some new favorite shops, are reminded of some old friends, and find that perfect gift for those you care about. Have a wonderful holiday season!