Tales from the gift closet
Admit it. You’ve got one. The gift closet. The holding cell where the less-than-ideal presents are stowed for regifting later. The staging ground for clearance purchases that could not be resisted (but should have been). Or, if you’re a particularly thoughtful or generous or organized gift giver, perhaps just a great place to hide your finds from throughout the year.
On Christmas Eve, as gift-shopping procrastinators grow ever more desperate, perhaps someone in your home will be madly searching for something — anything! — that might do the trick.
Even if you don’t have a gift closet — or box, or drawer, or bin — chances are you’ve received a lovely (or not) gift-closet present from somebody else. Though that might earn the disapproval of Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette doyen Emily Post, whose Tip No. 1 is “Don't put gifts people have given you into your gift closet,” party planner Colin Cowie sees it another way. He once he gave a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage, an Australian wine that runs into the hundreds of dollars. “Two years later, she gave it back,” said Cowie, who believes there is nothing wrong with regifting. “I was so glad to get that wine back I couldn’t tell you.”
For the gift closet pros and newbies alike, we canvassed dozens of folks from all walks of life: Nate Berkus, Jonathan Adler, Bob and Cortney Novogratz, the "Dinner Party Download" guys. We posed the question: What’s in your gift closet? Here's what they all said:
I always have Starbucks and Target gift cards on hand. I just bought some today! For either $50 or $100. Everyone goes to Starbucks, and everyone goes to Target, so it’s perfect. But I will admit that my stash of gifts does include some regifted items. Those are usually for my sisters. We regift among ourselves a lot. Like recently Lady Gaga gave my sister Tamar two pairs of really nice sunglasses. Well, she says her face is too fat for them, so she gave them to me. But we always reveal the real giver when we regift, so Tamar told me the sunglasses were from her and Gaga.
I did not have to hesitate. A boy I dated in college was raised by a great-aunt, and she could not stand me. … They were high-society New York, and maybe they thought I was a Southern bumpkin. … It was a set of salt-and-pepper shakers and a creamer. They were pigs – I was a little chunky in college, and I got the message. Of course, if you used the creamer, it came out of the mouth. And it grunted! … It was the most awful thing. She shopped long and hard for that. Now that I’m 50, I can laugh, but I never got over it. … It’s cheap ceramic.
Eric: It’s not really a closet. What would you call it?
Amy: We have gift baskets that we keep filled with small hostess and holidays gifts. They’re in the garage. We probably have about 10 to 20 gifts at any one time. I replenish it when it starts getting low, but I usually don’t buy more than two of any item. Right now, we have: Armenian brandy, Hollywood ornaments, cute little handmade ornaments, wine glass charms, salted caramels and a modernist birdhouse. For kids we have educational toys — like a talking clock, a wind-power renewable energy science kit and a mini-piano. And I almost always have potted succulents or orchids that we use as gifts.
Eric, on the worst thing: There was the home-growing gourmet mushroom kit. It just kind of got moldy when we tested it, so I don't know if any others will ever be gifted.
Amy: There are also bottles of wine in there that sometimes disappear before we have the chance to give them away.
The contents of my gift closet fall into two categories, staples and vintage. The first are items that are evergreen when it comes to gift-giving. Beautiful bars of soaps, candles (both wick and flameless) frames, simple Turkish hand towels. They're the gifts that work for nearly any occasion and cater to the details of living beautifully. The second category of vintage is comprised of what I love but have outgrown from my own house as well as flea market finds that I hauled home but didn't find a place for. In other words, they're things that I love and could be the perfect gift for the person on your list.
You perfect the art of the gift closet not by what's in it, but by simply having one. In other words, a gift closet means avoiding the headache of having to rush to the mall on the way to your next dinner party, running from store to store trying to find a hostess gift. You're prepared. Now, all you have to do is open the door at the end of the hall. Problem solved.
I'm obsessed with order. So, if something’s been lurking for too long in my gift closet, then you can bet it goes in the charity bin well before its expiration date!
Scrooge: What’s a gift closet?
Melville: I don’t he think he gives anyone anything other than a hard stare. He’s the meanest person alive, I think. After Christmas, Mr. Scrooge would have the biggest gift closet in all of London.
I live in this very eccentric [Chatsworth] house that has a fake Medieval turret on the front … and a not-very-convincing Medieval banquet hall with all these secret compartments. (There’s a secret compartment found by pulling on a lion’s head on the side of the fireplace. I didn’t know it was there for about two years.) It’s always last-minute. We’re filling it up with Thomas the Tank Engine, and my 10-year-old is still into Pokemon.
My gift closet currently has lots of sachets of lavender that I brought back from Antibes. We just returned from performing “A Christmas Carol” in the U.K. and France.
The gift closet resides on Cortney’s side, and we are constantly refreshing it when we are on the road shooting our show. We also love to use flash sale sites like TheFoundary.com to stock up on things all year long. In all honesty we have everything from toys to homemade gifts to a 69 Ford pickup. Obviously, the truck is not in her closet…. The pile is in a constant state of flux. Holiday time means gifts are both coming in and going out. We use this time as a restocking period with a lot of items that are sent to us as gifts. … The holidays are a great way of regifting.
The No. 1 rule of regifting is don’t give that gift to the same person who gave it to you originally — and, yes, we did it once. Ouch. Absolute worst gift we would not regift? Put it this way, we don’t need another smoothie maker to go with the other 10 we already have.
I do keep a little gift cabinet and I have a little elf who works for me and keeps it stocked for those last-minute goodies: hostess gifts, baby showers, that birthday that slipped through the cracks. Some of the things we like to keep on hand are along the lines of baby clothes, women's necklaces, sunglasses, Origins lotions, yummy smelling candles, a picnic/wine set gift basket, tea or hot cocoa sets with the little pots to brew them in, even a few iPod shuffles. I have never been one to have collections or too many little do-dads in my house, so "regifting" is a wonderful thing. Ever the Girl Scout, as the motto goes: Always be prepared!
I’ve always had a gift closet my entire life. Before when I worked at my mom’s store, or when I had boutiques, I’d always grab a few products and have them stashed away for different age groups. We have so many kids in our life, and there are so many last-minute birthday parties. I’m a Girl Scout at all times: Be prepared.
I’m also a really good labeler and tend to be highly organized. But every once in a while something will get screwed up. Last Christmas, I went to my gift closet where I had wrapped everything in the same paper and bows. I had done my tree in these really cool deep purples and plums with faux fur throws for the skirt. So I decided that silver paper and silver bows would be a beautiful contrast. Mistake! I didn’t label things properly and ended up giving someone a much, much less expensive gift than I had intended. I said, “I’m my gosh. I’m so sorry. I owe you a gift certificate to Neiman Marcus!”
I am a strong proponent of stocking up on a bunch of little gifts at the beginning of the season so you don't have to think about it when you're rushing around during the holidays. Better yet, gift wrap them all and put a little note on them so you don't forget what's in the box. These end up as hostess gifts or gifts for people who arrive unexpectedly with something for me. I call those the “I'm SO glad you came by, I was just wrapping your gift!” gifts. I avoid generic gifts and pick something quirky and unique that anyone would love. This year it's the Native Union Pop Phone. I can't wait to see everyone walk down the street on these.
I love giving gifts, not only during the holiday season, but throughout the year. I usually shop sales all year round and keep adding to the gifts in my closet. I also keep a photo box filled with greeting cards that I think work for people in my life.
If I find some amazing skin-care product, I always buy some for my girlfriends. This year, I'm wrapping them in silos that you put wine bottles in, so they'll think they're getting some delicious libation — and they are, but it's for their skin.
A mini-bar makes a great last-minute gift. I make sure all their favorite libations are in there. It's a special, personal twist on giving wine, which everyone loves. I also love giving useful gifts that are beautiful, yet make life easier. Stationery with a gorgeous design or pattern on it and special candles make wonderful gifts.
I'm a lucky gift-giver. My store is my gift closet. But for special occasions, I pop into my studio and throw something one-of-a-kind.
I have a semi-walk-in closet and one area where I keep them all.
I have lots of candles that smell really good, very beautiful soaps, and I tend to hoard earrings for gifting to my girlfriends and female colleagues. … What ends up happening is that I forget I have them, and I’ll find a stash and I always want to keep them myself.
I also have interesting weird food things … truffle salt, truffle oil, truffle paste. I’ll probably never get any of those given to me again! But I’m not a big user of them. The worst thing in there is probably a 10-year-old bottle of something fabulous that’s completely dried up and you’re afraid to give it away.
Of course I don’t keep a master list. Hey, that a good app idea. A log where you can take a picture and write on it.
I've always admired people with gift closets. Unfortunately, I am not one of them!
The only thing I buy and keep around the house for gifts is wine. I buy a case of different California wines a couple times a year and keep it for hostess gifts. I never regift anything. I'm too paranoid that I'd mess up and give something to someone who would bust me.
You don’t want to have your gifts that are in there become predictable. I’d be really careful about going out and just picking up anything at the bargain bin. … It gets risky. The problem with a gift closet: It’s incredibly useful, and it can be really impersonal.
I dated a guy whose mother who had laundry baskets with the name of the people she cared about. Throughout the year, if she saw something that reminded her of the person she’d drop it in the basket. … That was a wonderful way to utilize that shopping all year.
Rather than a closet, I make candy. The night before a party, I’ll whip up a batch. I’m single with no kids, so I have time.
I think I was one of the inventors of the gift closet. I get invited out three or four times a week, and I don’t ever go anywhere empty-handed. It doesn’t only have the recycled items. But when I find things, I buy six or seven if it’s really chic and sexy. I always have a case of Champagne, wrapped, and a case of wine. And at least a dozen fragrant candles.
At the bottom [there’s] a picture frame with Father Christmases all over it. And a shirt that actually came from a women’s store — because the buttons are on the wrong side. I recognized the store, and it hadn’t been around for two or three years.
It’s not so much a closet; it’s a lower cabinet in my kitchen that I fill with beautiful candles that I find on sale throughout the year and jewelry. There’s a store in L.A. called Tweak 99, and I ransack it every year. But here's the deal: I always wrap the gifts right away, because if they aren't wrapped, I’ll end up using them. And I label them with a Post-It — that’s key, putting what it is it and who it’s for.
I also love items that are really fabulous but that people won't buy for themselves. I stock up on these. Like there is this item that lets you stack up your water bottles in the fridge like a pyramid. It makes you feel like you’re in a fancy hotel or a really cool spot. Your water is actually merchandised in your fridge. It’s something you’d never buy for yourself. Water bottle bumpers. And my absolute favorite is a twist top for your water bottle that doubles as a tripod for your digital camera. It uses the water bottle as a tripod. It's $25, and I absolutely love it.
So, here’s what happens. It’s always the same, and it’s always a disaster.
I plan to buy Christmas presents all year while I am traveling. I love to do it, and I always find great things for my friends.
But then I give the gifts immediately, so in December there’s always a big flail to get new things, because I love to give Christmas gifts.
I pull out all the things I haven’t given away already from the top of the hall closet, and I put them all on the dining room table, buffet style. I go to my trusty favorite stores — Book Soup, OK, A + R and Plastica — and find more great things to add to the pile. I love to give books, but I always hesitate to do so, because I am a bookseller. I prefer to get books, too, but people rarely give me books for the same reason. That’s too bad, because books are the best gift of all.
Sometimes I buy something I think is hilarious and then look at it later on the buffet-gift-table and realize I have had a terrible taste lapse. I think the Obama Chia Head is probably a mistake, as is the Hello Kitty telephone.
Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newnam, hosts of the American Public Radio show “Dinner Party Download”:
Gagliano: My wife keeps a gift closet full of things that anybody would be completely happy to have. She does a great job. If she goes to a gift store, she buys something for herself and five more things for any future holidays. I kind of think of my ITunes as my gift closet. [He makes mix tapes for gifts that are tailor-made to the recipient.] My vinyl collection is also my gift closet. … A lot of people who buy vinyl buy it because [something they see] is just so weird and you’ll never find this again. … I have a set of 78 rpm records that is a children’s story book about a clown. [The cover picture of the clown] is just the most horrifying.
Newnam: I don’t have a wife, and I don’t have a gift closet. But our show is about culture. … Part of the reason [I’m in this career] is that we get free stuff all the time. So my nephew will get the new Salman Rushdie young adult book. My sister will get the Colson Whitehead new vampire book. They haven’t complained yet.
Gagliano: This explains a lot. We work in the same office, and I’ve never seen any free stuff.
Gagliano: Amazon is the entire world’s gift closet.
Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founder of decorating blog Apartment Therapy
When I was a child, my parents used to store everything at the dark end of the cellar in our brownstone in New York. I remember distinctly the year my brother and I were old enough to finally begin exploring down there and ran into a cache of old, dusty presents that we'd never heard about or seen before.
The worst thing was that there was a beautiful train set that was rapidly aging from being lost down there. Because we were good boys and didn't want to break the secret, we went down there for weeks, played with the train and then put it all back again, so they wouldn't know. When they finally found out, they gave it to us, but it was not Christmas and the secret was over, so we were disappointed. Funny the difference a holiday makes.
My gift hide-out is the shelf in our clothing closet over all my shirts and pants. It's where I put the books, small toys and clothes that I buy long in advance. It's also a mess! But it's so messy that you can't find anything in it, and things stay secret.
I just discovered two wooden animal puzzles that I bought a few years ago for a friend's son. I totally forgot to give them, and now he's way too old. It makes me feel so guilty every time I look at it. I should give it to someone else, but I feel too guilty to do that either.
-- As told to Mary MacVean and Alexandria Abramian Mott, with additional reporting by Lisa Boone and Craig Nakano