An abundance of great stuff led to my spending upwards of 4 hours browsing the Union Square holiday market. Here's some of what we found. A host of eager, enthusiastic faces with wide-open mouths caught my eye when I arrived. No, it wasn't audition interviews for a new reality show; it was Silly Puppets (www.thepuppetstore.com). Clearly influenced by *Sesame Street* (but aren't the best of us?), the puppet designs here are cheerful, bright, and a little wacky, with skin and hair shades spanning the color spectrum. Smaller models go for $20, larger ones for $40; and the finger puppets, which are actually substantial in size (and as impressive in craftsmanship as their heftier counterparts), are a steal at $6 (2 for $10!). These were actually not on display when I arrived, due to space constraints, but I saw them listed on the booth's promotional sign and asked to have a look. As soon as they were out, they started selling left and right. If you visit here and don't see them in the puppet population, go ahead and request an introduction.
Next I happened upon the Otavalos Creation booth, offering handmade sweaters from Equador. Most are 100% percent wool, some a wool/cotton blend; all are joyfully colored, sweetly patterned, and well made. The children's sweaters (a pink, white, and yellow number with a flowered hood was among my favorites) are an extremely reasonable $25; adult sizes start at $40. The young woman tending this booth explained that the wares were made by her relatives and the people of the Equadorian village where she was born; so a purchase here directly supports the artisans themselves.
One of the pleasures of shopping these fairs is the chance to meet those who've made the items shown. At Mara Made jewelry, designer Mara Sinderbrand and I chatted about the unusual weather, the 2008 elections, and yes, her work while I admired the elegant display. I was especially drawn to her Chanel-like hoop necklace, made of 10K-gold-plated circles ($40, also available in silver), and a unique "pearl bar" necklace ($35). Classic-with-a-twist earrings start at $20.
At the Unemployed Philosophers booth, the stock was so varied and noteworthy that I hardly knew where to dive in. This company (www.philosophersguild.com), founded by two brothers who needed an answer to the question of what to do with a Liberal Arts degree, sells creative and truly amusing knicknacks related to art, politics, literature, and, sure, philosophy. Conservatives, beware: The goods here may fail to please you. But one young woman, apparently not a big fan of our current pres, was scooping up a "Smush Bush" stress-relief "squeezy toy" ($7) in Dubya's image as a gift for her equally George-averse mom, along with a tin of "Impeach Mints" ($3, 4 for $10). Another shopper especially loved the "Sisyphus watch," which depicts poor Sis engaged in his eternal boulder-pushing ($34). The "Little Thinkers" rag dolls are a definite draw--and a very decent deal at $16. Many beloved thinkers are available, including Buddha, Emily Dickinson, and even Edgar Allen Poe (consider carefully before tossing that one into the baby's crib). Freudian Slippers, Surrealist fridge magnets, and many other quirky classics had shoppers laughing out loud.
I can personally attest to some strengths of the products (all-natural candles, soaps, and aromatherapy products) from Colorado-based Bluecorn Naturals (www.beeswaxcandles.com): When I arrived at this booth I stood quietly for a minute or so, just breathing, before asking questions, taking notes, or even fully noticing what was for sale. I wasn't aware of my somewhat trance-like state until I snapped out of it; but when I did, I could swear I felt both a little calmer and a little more energized, as if I'd just done some yoga poses or taken a quick swim. Company founder Jon Kornbluh (cute company-name pun, Jon!) was not surprised, and talked with me about the beneficial qualities of essential oils. Beeswax candle pillars start at $14. Spruce- and Cinnamon-scented pillars, ideal for the holidays, are $18 and up, and deeply yummy. Soaps start at $6, and travel candles (perfect for combatting stale-hotel smell) are $5 each.
At Karma Kiss, I admired the Bubble Watches (with patterned, water-filled "bubbles" atop the faces). I especially liked the flower pattern, the soccer field, and, most of all, the basketball court (a popular item, said the vendor, who, with her partner, "curates" the collection). All are a remarkably reasonable $10. The animal alarm clocks ($22) are also way cute, and I haven't seen them offered elsewhere. Duck, pig, and cat sound off with the expected calls of their species--but look out for the monkey: That model, as the vendor graciously explained, is best for the heaviest of sleepers. (Having heard it, I assure you she's not kidding.) Robot alarm clocks, also $22, would appeal to most any boy and a good many girls; but their charms don't stop there. One man, in his fifties or so, happily brought a robot clock to the cashier. "For a kid?" I asked. "No way," he said. "This is for me."
The Tribal Concepts booth offers art pieces handmade in Turkey. I loved the bowls (from $9 for a small size) and the lovely painted jewelry boxes (from $29), and I was especially taken with the ceramic tiles, painted in traditional Turkish patterns. You can hang them on your walls, use them as trivets, put them under wet bowls or vases to protect your table, etc.--and at $9 each, they're affordable as well as beautiful and versatile. (The woman beside me asked the vendors if perhaps they'd misprinted the price. They had not.)
At Carnellian Knoll, I found Julie Siegmund's gorgeous jewelry designs. Carefully made and built to last, they carry the feel of cherished heirlooms. This is due in part to Julie's craftmanship, but it's also a result of the vintage materials she incorporates (glass, silver, beads, and semi-precious stones). I loved the earrings made of hand-blown Murano glass (from $38) and those featuring Japanese glass from the 1950s ($18). The "green pineapple" necklace, $68, made of pineapple-like beads from West Germany, was striking and completely distinctive. I'll admit, Julie is a favorite of mine; I own some of her pieces and have also given some as gifts. They garner strings of compliments and have never let me down.
Next up: Original etchings, vintage maps, felt purses from Nepal, a "miracle manicure" kit (no polish required), mosaic art made by a local grandmother, and more.