A Holiday Shopper's Guide to Alternative Giving

By Kelly Dowe

Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 18-20

When my mother was a little girl in Centreville, Alabama, she received the gift of an apple--not a real apple, but a wooden one with a tiny wooden tea set inside. The cups were no bigger than the tips of her fingers.

I loved hearing about that apple tea set as a child. For me it represented pure romance as I knew it, and it somehow captured the sweet mystery of my mother's life before me. When I was about ten, I found in my Christmas stocking an apple tea set of my own. The apple was a rich enamel red. It was the size of a real apple, at least the big one in my Christmas stocking, and the dishes inside were no bigger than my fingertips.

Which was better, the apple tea set of my mother's stories or the real thing? Who cares? I now tell my own daughters, aged five and nine, about both apples and they berate me for not saving my apple for them.

As Christmas and Hannukah approach, all of this brings to mind the choosing of gifts and the work we want our gifts to do. We want each gift to complete ourselves or the recipient (preferably both); we want to give joy, warmth, pleasure and romance. What we often do instead, as depressing memories remind us, is the reverse. Succumbing to the pressures of last-minute shopping, local supply and personal finances, we present a child we love with another molded plastic toy. We regale people we care about with boxes of powder. Uninspired shirts and ties, best-selling trash in hardcover, and gift-wrapped, waxy candy...and all after we have promised ourselves, "This year, I won't."

Happy chance!

A shopping helper has arrived in the form of "alternative" mail order companies. These businesses have mushroomed in the last five to ten years, and sell generally good quality, hard to find items, often at modest prices. Such companies are "alternative" because they are usually connected to a social cause organization, such as UNICEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or Koinonia Partners, into which they pour excessive earnings. Most, though not all, are non-profit.

Other, profit-making, businesses in the "alternative" category dedicate themselves to a particular purpose or philosophy. The Earth Care Paper Company of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, sells mostly recycled paper products. A number of toy and book companies, such as Hearth-Song: A Catalog for Families; Tryon Toymakers; Animal Town Game Co.; and Chinaberry Book Service, are dedicated to the idea of teaching kindness and good values to children through healthy play. Each sells beautifully made toys and books in luscious, natural materials. Customers shop by catalog, which are obtained by writing or calling the company. (Even heavy users of mainstream catalogs are not on many alternative catalog mailing riots.)

Imagine these among your holiday gifts to loved ones:

  • Beautiful, handmade quilts, in patterns such as Bear's Paw, Coat of Many Colors, and Grandmother's Dream, made by the Freedom Quilting Bee, a women's sewing

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    cooperative, in Alberta, Ala. Quilts cost from $395 for single bed size to $695 for king size. FQB also makes butcher-style aprons for $9 and potholders for $3, among other items (prices are approximate). For a catalog write: The Freedom Quilting Bee, Route 1, Box 72, Alberta, AL 36720.
  • A solar-powered re-charger for a car battery. Just set it on the dashboard and plug its adapter into a car or RV cigarette lighter. Cost: $39.95. Sold through the Renew America Catalog, which supports renewable energy. Other solar powered products include a calculator ($19.95), music box ($19.50), refrigerator ($1,560) and child's construction kit ($14.95). The catalog offers many other energy-saving products. Renew America Project, 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 638, Washington, DC 20036.
  • A child-sized, handmade wooden carpenter's box, and a small hammer, ax and saw to use with it. Tryon Toymakers of Campobello, S.C. The carpenter's box is $12 and the tools $12 per set. Other toys, all hand-crafted and painted, include: a Noah's Ark with animals ($35, small, and $65, large), a magic wand ($4), puzzles ($6 to $30) and a rocking horse ($80). Tryon Toymakers, Route 3, Box 148, Campobello, SC 29322.
  • A delightful book for a child is Paper By Kids by Arnold E. Grummer, a treatise on how to make paper at home by recycling your junk mail. For fifth graders and up. $10.95. Earth Care Paper Co., 100 S. Baldwin, Madison, WI 53703.
  • To organize the sizable alternative holiday catalog offerings a different way, one might look for:
  • Food Items--Koinonia Partners, of Americus, Ga., a Christian farm community which provides low-cost housing and other services to its neighbors, sells gift-boxed fresh pecan products noted for their high quality. They include: shelled and unshelled pecans, pecan dates, pecan bark, fruitcake and granola. Koinonia Partners, Route 2, Americus, GA 31709-9986.
  • Music--Appalshop, Highlander Collections and Flying Fish sell acclaimed music selections on records, tapes and compact discs:
    • --An arts and education center in Kentucky, Appalshop has Lee Sexton's bluegrass banjo "Whoa, Mule Whoa" on LP and cassette, and "Blues For My Kentucky Home" by the Buzzard Rock String Band, cassette only. Both are $8. Appalshop Sales, 306 Madison St., Whitesburg, KY 41858, or call 1-800-545-7467.
    • --Highlander Center sells a selection of records and tapes celebrating social activism through the years, including "Come All You Coal Miners," produced by Guy Carawan, and "Sing for Freedom," featuring Bessie Jones and Doc

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      Reese. Most are $7. Highlander Center, Route 3, Box 370, New Market, TN 37820.
    • --Flying Fish sells records, tapes and compact discs including "Carry It On," an anthology of union songs sung by Pete Seeger, Jane Sapp and Si Kahn. Flying Fish, 1 304 W. Schubert, Chicago, IL 60614.
  • Clothing--Amish work pants, with button-drop and buttons for suspenders if desired. $24. A favorite with customers of Co-op America, a nonprofit association of businesses which share a commitment to peace. Other offerings: Peace Fleece--Soviet and American wools blended into knitting yarn, a range of craft items, and home products. Coop America, 2100 M Street, N.W., Suite 310, Washington, DC 20063.
  • Another source of distinctive imported clothing is One World Trading Co., which functions as a direct link between you and Mayan producers living in Guatemala. By eliminating a middle agent, it offers consumers good prices for high quality items, while insuring the Mayans a fair return. Goods include blazers, belts, shirts and other handmade garments of lovely, all-cotton fabric. Write to One World Trading Co., c/o Plenty, P.O. Box 310, Summertown, TN 38483-0310.
  • Cards, stationery and calendars--Although these are stock items of many catalogs, special mention should go to:
    • --The National Wildlife Federation for its line of holiday cards with wildlife artwork. From portraits of a dramatic snow owl to impressions of a flock of Canadian geese, its offerings are rich and captivating. Its cards cost from $12 to about $20 for most boxes.
    • --UNICEF, which works to ease the high mortality rate among children in the developing world, offers a wide range of note cards and stationery in its catalog. These include no-occasion cards illustrated with seventeenth century Ching Dynasty depictions of spring flowers ($5.50 for ten cards and envelopes) and stationery with delicate bird illustrations by Tran Phuc Dyen of Viet Nam ($9 for ten note cards, fifteen writing sheets and twenty-five envelopes). Write to UNICEF, One Children's Boulevard, Ridgely, MD 21685, or call 1-800-553-1200.
    • --The Fellowship of Reconciliation, which helps finance work for peace and social justice worldwide, offers a line of cards, posters and calenders [sic] which are stark testimonials to the cause of peace. A package of plain white stationery with the words "Practice Nonviolence" in dark blue and cherry at the top costs $6 for thirty sheets with plain envelopes. Greeting cards with "Peace" in both Hebrew and Arabic on the cover and the message, "Peace is our hope" inside, cost $5 for ten folded cards with envelopes. Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960.

Writer and editor Kelly Dowe lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala.