Present company

Curio Photo by Carrie Eidson
Curio Photo by Carrie Eidson

Gift cards, once a social taboo, are now not only acceptable but welcome. But before you take that easy out, why not browse Asheville’s specialty shops for one-of-a-kind presents? It makes sense that, in a town with so much quirk and personality, the possibilities for giving are equally unique. Xpress went shopping, and here’s what we found:

It’s no surprise that laughter erupts as shoppers peruse the wide variety of cards and gifts at Write On (28 N. Lexington Ave.), where shop owner Richard Katzman says, “We specialize in humor.” The store carries the entire collection of The String Doll Gang made by Kamibashi, a locally based company that sources the handmade products from Thailand. At only $10 each, these tiny dolls function as key chains, and each character has its own special power, such as Pyro, who “lights a fire under your bum.” With dozens of characters to choose from, you can surely find the perfect match for anyone on your list.

And then there’s Mr. Ellie Pooh, a collection of paper products from Sri Lanka. “Elephants became a nuisance as people encroached on their territory,” Katzman explains, “but now these products make the elephants economically viable.” Elephant droppings are collected, sun-dried and boiled with margosa leaves, a natural disinfectant. The fibers then become charming stationary, journals and handmade greeting cards that help save elephants.

Write On also carries a wide selection of unique journals, some with recycled record albums or video jackets as covers, so you can be inspired by your favorite band or movie. ($8.99-$18).

For Tiffany and Orlando Hernandez, discussions of starting a family inspired opening up a toy store. The result was Curio (2 Battery Park Ave.), which just completed its third Christmas season. The shop is arranged by age (from newborn to 13) and theme, focusing on toys and games that encourage creative imagination and fundamental play. Curio’s mantra is “for the cute and curious,” and it aims for a retro approach that’s a little nostalgic. Orlando admits he especially loves it when a grandparent comes in with a grandchild and says, “I used to play with that.”

Curio may surprise with its diverse selection for the kid in all of us. The Living Sands interactive display attracts a crowd of adults as well as children, all delighting in the texture of the pulverized seashells that can be sculpted into sandcastles or other shapes. Nontoxic and antibacterial, kits range from $25-$80. They’d also make a great stress-relieving tool at the office — the 2014 answer to the mini-Zen rock garden.

The superfun Water Dancing Speakers by Leading Edge will light up any budding music-lover’s room. The 3-watt speakers are USB powered and can be hooked up to an iPod, MP3 Player or computer — water jets and LED lights pulse to the beat. They run $49.99 for a set of two.

One energizing toy made by local inventor Michael Hicks is the U-tube. Sort of a combination of hacky sack and juggling, at $20 it’s affordable and builds hand-eye coordination and focus.

Recently opened boutique Duncan & York (13 Rankin Ave.) specializes in unique gifts for men, women and children. Owners Lindsay York Woodruff and Stephanie Duncan Wilkinson often make buying trips to New York in search of items new to the market. One of their current bestsellers is The Secret Garden, a coloring book for grown-ups. Both meditative and creative, the book and set of colored pencils runs about $25. Another customer favorite are the loose-leaf Bellocq teas: organic, sourced all over the world, priced from $16 for a tin to $76 a set. Add a Tea Beyond teapot for $40, and it’s a perfect present for a teacher, friend, boss or any tea lover.

If you need a great gift for someone who loves entertaining, Morris Kitchen’s cocktail syrup is made in small batches in the U.S. Syrup flavors like spiced apple are right at home in appletinis, spiked ciders and hot toddies. Preserved lemon syrup is the basis for margaritas or Arnold Palmers (tea and lemonade). Add a cocktail recipe book for about $40 together.

Not much of a shopper? Let the experts at Duncan & York do it for you. They can create memorable custom gift baskets for any occasion, priced from $20-$200. Currently, they have men’s and women’s luxury baskets on display for Valentine’s Day (hint, hint) at $104 each.

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