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The Money Where Our Mouth Is 

Chain stores are boring, shopping online is lonely—and more reasons to shop local

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It was a necklace emergency! I'd never had one before, but on the day of my big concert at the Napa Valley Opera House I realized that the only bling I owned was in the wrong color. After calling around in the hope of borrowing something, a friend recommended Betty's Girl Boutique. I rushed into a shop filled with vintage dresses, hatboxes, dressmakers dummies and a sewing machine. Was I in the wrong place? When I blurted my need to owner Kim Northrop, explaining that I had only 45 minutes before show time, she grabbed a collection of rhinestone jewelry and sat chatting me off the ledge as I looked through the box. When I found the right color and sparkle, the necklace was too small. If I'd been at a chain store, the clerk would have stood there blinking or shrugging vaguely in a substitute apology. But not Kim. She grabbed her jewelry pliers, cannibalized a bit from elsewhere and—voilà!—the necklace fit. And so did the price. I made it to the performance on time with a beautiful necklace, grateful for the creative problem-solving abilities of a local merchant. 1144 Main St., Napa. 707.254.7560.—Juliane Porier


About to have my first baby, I was daunted by the impending influx of capital-S Stuff. My husband and I live in a tiny house in west Sebastopol with only one bedroom, and I couldn't figure out where the co-sleeper, the high-chair, the changing table and all the doll-sized garments were actually going to go. What's more, I was beset by Left Coast guilt over the thought of spending so many dollars (and asking my friends and family to spend just as many) at low-wage-paying chains like Target. After much Googling, I found Sweet Pea Children's Boutique in Cotati. It was locally owned and, as a seller of used goods, it was cheap. And it was crammed with ovary-twistingly adorable wares of the shoe and sweater and crib variety—things that I didn't look at and think, "I might need it, but I do I really need to cram it in my house?" After spending 10 minutes in a haze of tiny, polka dot smocks and swings covered in smiling frogs, I decided to register there which, I soon found out, meant writing down all the things I wanted on a blank sheet of printer paper. I had to be as specific as possible—listing not just the "green shoes" but the "three-month-old green shoes with peas on the toes, $10." When I look at the jumper covered in red flowers, the brown dress, the co-sleeper in my house, I can immediately tell, by quality alone, that they came from Sweet Pea. 15 Charles St., Cotati, 707.794.1215.—Rachel Dovey


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Most of the board games sold in America these days are purchased at chain stores, which are known for having stacks upon stacks of stuff. But just try to ask one of those Stuff-Iz-Us employees if Pizza Theory is as much fun to play as it sounds. If they even have Pizza Theory—a cool game of logic and cheesy toppings—the odds aren't good that anyone there has actually sat down and played it. At Gamescape North, in San Rafael, pretty much all they sell is games, from the good old-fashioned board games we grew up with (Monopoly! Scrabble!) to role-playing paraphernalia for Dungeons & Dragons and Magic. And the folks behind the counter can tell you, from personal experience, what they like best about the shape-matching phenomenon Cirplexed or the artsy new card game Murder of Crows. The same is true of Outer Planes, in Santa Rosa (519 Mendocino Ave.), which adds a huge selection of comic books—mainstream, rare and underground—to its selection of games and role-playing accoutrements. Both stores feature demonstrations and host group tournaments—something you're not going to see at Stuff-Iz-Us. 1225 Fourth St., San Rafael.—David Templeton


How did it all begin? Was it the sheep soap dispenser—the first sheep soap dispenser? That wasn't the start of all things sheep to be gifted among my family. No, no. Maybe it was the quail soap dispenser, purchased years ago at an arts and crafts outlet in Duncans Mills. I can guess at how it continued, in any case: a surreptitious peek at the underside of some already-gifted dispenser or other, signed, "North Eagle." Aha. Gift idea. I wonder if they have anything in. . . cats. Once best known as the animal-soap-dispenser people, Valley of the Moon Pottery, aka North Eagle (long story), has been in business in Sonoma County for 30 years. Owners Wayne Reynolds and Caryn Fried still make their signature collection of critters—pelicans, cats, sheep, hippos and frogs; turtles, doves, quail and, yes, owls—but now only sell direct from their rural gallery. I like them because their designs, from coffee mugs, carafes and other items with everyday uses to statuettes and plates meant only for display, even when whimsical, have a certain sense of dignity. And if you plan your shopping trip ahead, it's a twofer: North Eagle is also a "living Christmas tree farm," so-called because trees are cut down to the bottom branches, which are then trained to regrow vertically into a future holiday tree. Speaking of little trees, they've got bonsai, too. And, yes, hot apple cider. 6191 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.538.2554.—James Knight


I thought it was odd when my dad insisted I go to Martin & Harris Appliances some years back to buy a new fridge. My parents were never too big on supporting local mom-and-pops, finding the wholesale warehouse prices too good to pass up. But Martin & Harris not only delivers competitive prices, its staff is by far the most knowledgeable in Marin. I learned this myself when I finally made it in. Our older sales guy immediately reminded me of the mythic "old days," where everyone took pride in their work and treated each customer as a king or queen. He spent 20 minutes explaining more than I ever need to know about ice makers, and learning about my food storage habits. He recommended an Amana, which was delivered the same day and has chilled my household from beer to baby formula. It's no wonder they have such a devoted following, considering all they do is appliances, everything from selling to repair and spare parts. While other homeowner concerns might involve cringe-worthy customer-service nightmares, it feels good to know that Martin & Harris have this one major area taken care of. 2158 Fourth St., San Rafael, 415.454.2021.—David Sason


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"It's like being in a big record store in San Francisco," says Last Record Store vinyl slinger Josh Staples, behind the counter, "but without all the crowds of people looking for the same things." True to form, the place feels like just the right size: large enough to browse comfortably but small enough not to become overwhelmed. There's every genre and plenty of obscurities. I have walked out with sealed copies of Ravi Shankar, Isis and Paul Simon records, not to mention "The Contest." (How can one resist the recording of an international flatulence competition?) This makes the store dangerous, and prevents me from visiting as much as I'd like. But every time I need a certain recording on vinyl (read: I am an audio snob), the Last Record Store is the first place I look. Heading in last week with hopes of selling a bunch of CDs (the store is pretty much only buying vinyl at the moment, to my dismay), I left with a Prince record for just $4—and I didn't even have time to check out the substantial $1 record bin. 1899 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.525.1963.—Nicolas Grizzle


Hurray for hobbies and enthusiasms, which would seem to present the gift shopper with a slam-dunk. Harken, gift shopper, and beware the hobby: gift not the nerded-out nanobrewer nephew a brew-in-a-bag starter kit. Better to present the budding garagiste with three French hens before the embarrassment of a can of Cabernet concentrate. Those ensconced comfortably deep in the rabbit hole of homebrewing or winemaking know exactly what they want; they don't have it on account that it's darned pricey. But that's where you come in, dear, thoughtful gift-giver. So get a list or look for clues. Is she boiling hops in grandma's rusty old enamel canning pot? Somebody needs a $200 stainless steel brewing kettle. And if you should stumble on terms like wort chiller or self-adjusting refractometer, seek advice at your local fermentation supply. This is one sector that seems to rebuff the advance of internet retail. Case in point: after a decade of lugging around substandard rented grape destemmer machines, I decided to splurge on one. Well, splurge on a budget, and with a specific, quality-enhancing feature: lobed rubber rollers. Mmm, gentle crushing, but not easy to find. After scrolling through dozens of tiny pictures and woefully brief product descriptions, with one phone call I found that Napa Fermentations had exactly what I wanted, and at a crazy good price. Located in the Napa County Fairgrounds—with plenty of parking—the store is stocked with all manner of gadgets, and staffed with people who've been helping to make sugar plum dreams bubble into tasty beverages since 1983. 575 Third St., Napa. 707.255.6372.—James Knight


It's overwhelming, visiting that huge, toy-store conglomerate. Bearing down are endless rows of items from the latest movies, shows and other heavily promoted juggernauts that probably don't constitute the best influence on your young-uns. There are a few educational toys, but by the time you locate them, your little one is fully gaga over the all too common reinforcer of American military aggression or anorexic California-girl vapidity. Thankfully for parents, Five Little Monkeys on Grant Avenue in downtown Novato feels more like a cozy neighborhood bookstore than an imposing personification of corporate tween culture. The store carefully selects its toys, games and books to be environmentally sound, safe and educational. There's something charming about their wide selection of wooden train sets and the like, which hark back to a time when imagination trumped the hot new action figure or gadget. The icing on the cake is the personal service by staff, who provide free exquisite gift-wrap and will even spend a half hour with you to find that perfect gift for the kid who has it all. These days, it's rare to find a toy store that plays so nice with others. 852 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.898.4411.—David Sason

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