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Covered in catalogs

Eight days and 53 glossy wish books add up to a lot of gift ideas. Not all of them are good, mind you.

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2002


You think the holiday shopping season started the day after Thanksgiving? Slacker.

In mid November, I went on vacation. When my husband and I returned after a week away, it looked as if a mail truck had exploded in our dining room.

The stack of stuff covering the table was mostly catalogs. I started counting as I sorted through them. In six days, we'd gotten 42 glossy mail order books. Two days later, on a Saturday, we got 11 more.

Days before the turkey was on the table, I'd harvested the best -- and the weirdest -- ideas from the first crop of holiday wish books. I offer them below, just in case you're not digging out from under your pile of catalogs.

A few of my colleagues wondered why they don't get any at all. Am I hogging their share? No, it's just that shopping breeds shopping. If you buy by mail or online, even once, you'll be on that company's mailing list. And pretty soon you'll be on another list, and another . . .

I get catalogs in a steady but modest stream all year. I often shop online, so lots of the books in the heap were from familiar companies.

But they were pressing their attack more urgently than usual: In six days, I'd gotten three from Williams-Sonoma and four from Pottery Barn. Maybe they were worried when I didn't order artisanal goat cheeses and Dupioni silk lamp shades the instant the first books arrived. Touching.

But what struck me as I sorted was how many catalogs I'd gotten from outfits I'd never done business with, or even heard of.

Some of them made sense. I've bought food by mail, so it's no wonder I'm now on the list for catalogs of Godiva chocolates, Georgia pecans, English muffins and French mustard.

Most of the clothing catalogs made sense, too. Sensible sweaters and dresses for middle-aged ladies abounded; no Victoria's Secret catalog for me (I think it's illegal to send it to women over 50). Home furnishing and art supply catalogs were logical given my buying habits, too.

But half a dozen different toy catalogs sent to a childless couple? A 132-page tool catalog to what is perhaps the most repair-impaired household in the neighborhood? (On second thought, maybe we need that one.)

Then there was Friendship House, a catalog for music teachers and students. My last experience as a music student was an ugly encounter with an accordion some 40 years ago, and I don't talk about it.

Most mystifying was the catalog from Lighthouse Depot, which offers exclusively items involving lighthouses. Models of lighthouses, pictures of lighthouses, lighthouse motif watches and dishes and screen savers and lace curtains. I swear I've never bought anything in my life connected in any way to lighthouses. But I'm on their list.

Before I hauled them to the recycling bin, I cruised through all those catalogs. Here are some of the oddest things I found in their pages, followed by a few cool gifts.

As for my wish list, I think I'll ask for a wheelbarrow I can use to bring the mail in next holiday season. But not one decorated with lighthouses.

ODD STUFF

BEST GIFT FOR THE CHILDREN OF SOMEONE YOU DON'T LIKE: Totally Gross, a science board game in which players answer questions such as how fast, um, stuff flies out of your nose when you sneeze (100 mph). Winner gets to perform a "bizarre" experiment. $27.95, from Spilsbury (www.spilsbury.com).

GIFT MOST LIKELY TO BE CONFISCATED BY AIRPORT SECURITY: The Snap Utili-Key, a "stealth survival tool" that looks like a house key but when unfolded reveals a "serious, and sharp, straight and serrated knife edge" as well as screwdrivers and bottle opener. $17.95 from Herrington (www.herringtoncatalog.com).

BABY'S FIRST EMBARRASSMENT: Camouflage baby romper emblazoned "Pee All You Can Pee." $19.95, from Catalog Favorites (www.catalogfavorites.com).

WORST GIFT FOR YOUR UNCLE THE LUSH: Straight-Up Checkers, a board game in which the 24 traditional checkers are replaced by square and round 5/8-ounce shot glasses. "Be creative and fill them with wine, vodka, bourbon or your favorite liqueur." $74.95, from Wine and All That Jazz (www.winejazz.com).

THE NEIGHBORS WILL LOVE IT: College Football Helmet Mailbox, in high-impact, full-color plastic; choose from 127 teams. $69.50, from Solutions (www.solutionscatalog.com).

THE SOUND OF ONE SPUD SPROUTING: The Art of the Bonsai Potato kit; potato not included. $20, from Flax Art & Design (www.flaxart.com).

LET ME KNOW HOW YOUR CAT LIKES IT: Pet-Temp Ear Thermometer for cats and dogs, "less stressful than the traditional method." $79, from Frontgate (www.frontgate.com).

GEE, JUST WHAT I WANTED: Lighthouse Novelty Toilet Tissue Holder. $19.95, from Lighthouse Depot (www.lighthousedepot.com).

I THINK IT ATE THE ANGEL: Lighted Tree with Bear, an artificial pine tree with a life-size plush black bear cub climbing its trunk. $249.95, from Plow & Hearth (www.plowhearth.com)

SINGLE MOST POINTLESS ITEM: Hu-La Jazzy, a fashion doll "workout companion" (for adults!) comes with a special base and an infrared transmitter you clip to your waist. As you exercise with a Hula Hoop, the doll imitates your moves. $24.95, from Lifestyle Fascination (www.shoplifestyle.com).

COOL STUFF

HEADING UP NORTH?: Florida kids with underdeveloped snow-fighting skills can use the Sno-Baller, a plastic tool that makes perfect snowballs and keeps their mittens dry. $8.95, from HearthSong (www.hearthsong.com).

SWEET NOSTALGIA: Retro and regional candies and other goodies, including Walnettos, Chase's Cherry Mash, Sky Bars, Cranberry Bog Frogs, Liquorice Allsorts and Charles Chips. Various prices, from the Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com).

WHAT ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN?: Handmade Silk Shantung Christmas Stocking with beadwork, tassels and hand painting. No coal in the toes of these, please. $150, from Frontgate (www.frontgate.com).

PROUD TO LIVE IN FLORIDA: Dressup Flamingo and seven outfits, including Santa, pilgrim and Halloween witch. $49.95, from Catalog Favorites (www.catalogfavorites.com).

THE GIFT THAT TRAINS YOUR SLACKER KID FOR A CAREER: Starbucks Barista Espresso Machine, $249.50, from Starbucks Coffee (www.starbucks.com).

FOR THE IRON CHEF WANNABE: Personalized cook's jacket just like the pros wear, with a double front for disguising spills. Maybe he'll look as cool as Tony Bourdain. $56, from Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com).

HI, GRANDPA: Clarity Enhancing Telephone, for those with hearing loss, amplifies and equalizes sound; also has oversized numbers. $139.95, from Hammacher Schlemmer (www.hammacher.com).

THE MEASURE OF A MAN: Sony Universal Remote controls not 10, not 12, but 18 audio and video components. $179, from Gentleman's Domain: Official Catalog of Things Men Want (www.frontgate.com; click on "Shop," then on "Gentleman's Domain").

TOO CUTE: Cotton Snowflake Sweaters for the whole family: babies, kids, adults and, of course, the dog. $12-$49.50, from Lands' End (www.landsend.com).

JUST DON'T LET THEM JUGGLE CHAINSAWS: Penn and Teller Present the Basics of Music Making, a three-video set featuring the extreme magic team, for kids in kindergarten through Grade 6. $110, from Friendship House (www.friendshiphouse.com).

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