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Challenged to shop

Giving is simplified when the underpaid get direction

Email|Print| Text size + By Caitlin E. Curran
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2006

CAMBRIDGE -- For the average twenty something on a low salary, holiday shopping can seem impossible. Creativity is essential, not necessarily for personal expression or popularity among friends and family, but for the bottom line.

It has become something of a tradition for me to take on the low-cost gift-giving challenge -- last year's individualized CD mixes for each family member were an instant hit. So this year the question was: What could I do to take holiday shopping from a mere amateur competition to an all-out gladiator sport?

The answer: Fulfill the gift-giving needs of Ryan Little, Ben Weiss, Bob Armentano, and Phil Harris, my four underpaid, single, easily distracted roommates, by forcing them to spend an entire weekend day shopping with me. Naturally, this would be no easy feat, but the possible benefits (unique gifts for all, minus the last-minute Christmas Eve scramble) largely outweighed the potential risks (sore feet, terminated friendships).

Armed with my meager savings and lots of determination, I set out on a Saturday morning in late November to break new ground. Step one: Get my roommates out of bed . I purchased five coffees, then (ignoring my vegetarian impulses) fried some bacon, luring the foursome out of their slumber s with those alluring scents.

Dressed and semi-ready to go, we headed to Lorem Ipsum, a quaint used bookstore near Inman Square in Cambridge. The store is quiet and inviting; beams of sunlight line its wood floors, illuminating the place with a sense of history and reverence for everything literary. "We get a lot of writers in here," co-owner Sara Theriault said as she manned the cash register.

We delved into the varied selection and within moments re emerged with our finds. Phil purchased a book about the popular yet short-lived TV series "My So-Called Life" for his sister, while Ben wondered which biography of Bruce Springsteen to buy for his father. Bob snagged a copy of "Into the Wild " by mountaineering writer Jon Krakauer to give to his sister.

Next, we ventured into Inman Square, to Boutique Fabulous. The store is an overflowing, eclectic trove of house wares, clothing, jewelry, and artwork, which has become an Inman Square staple in its three years of existence. It exudes a vintage feel, despite its non vintage merchandise, and I surmised that, for the four of them, finding gifts for female family members and friends would be as easy as covering their eyes and (carefully) extending one hand to the nearest item.

This was not the case. Ben initially chose to wait outside , and the others proceeded cautiously -- feeling overwhelmed, out of place, and untrusting of their gift-selecting abilities. Ryan tentatively eyed a small, embroidered purse, a possible present for his sister, and Ben and Bob examined the 1920s-era European poster art, but ultimately the three emerged empty-handed. "I would come back though," Phil said.

Piling into Ryan's car, we moved on to Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. The locally owned chain sells new and used CDs, records , and DVDs, obscure magazines , and, yes, a small selection of comics. It is a haven for musically-inclined young professionals, loitering teens, and uninspired holiday shoppers alike. We could easily have spent the remainder of the day there, making selections for ourselves: a used copy of the early ' 80s classic "And Don't the Kids Just Love It" by seminal British post-punk rockers Television Personalities, the latest album by singer-songwriter M. Ward, "Post -War ," the DVD of "Caddyshack," one of Bob's favorite movies.

In the end , we used this strategy to our advantage: Consider which albums are our favorites, and purchase them for our family and friends. Phil bought the M. Ward disc for his sister, and the Arcade Fire's spectacular 2004 debut album, "Funeral ," for his dad. Bob decided to share his love of "Caddyshack," and I picked up Camera Obscura's "Let's Get Out of This Country," Ali Farka Touré's "Savane," and an album by local alt-country band Frank Smith. Ben came out with a Napoleon Dynamite bobble head doll -- not the classiest of gifts, but creative nonetheless.

The demanding day called for a break to refuel, so we stopped at Grendel's Den for pints and people-watching on the patio before heading to Urban Outfitters' bargain basement. On Saturdays, the basement is a cluttered, frenzied, pulsating mass of people and clothing, with little semblance of organization, yet plenty of gift opportunities for the artful shopper. Ryan found a shirt for his brother, and we escaped from the madness to head toward our final destination: Economy Hardware in Central Square.

Economy Hardware has become a house favorite in recent months because of it s abundance of inexpensive picture frames, and our abundance of blank walls. We've learned to transform old Art Deco calendars and New Yorker covers, both new and vintage copies purchased on eBay, into instant artwork. In the holiday mindset, this makes the perfect individualized gift for family members.

Everyone was exhausted as the sun set on Central Square -- Phil and Ben noted that they had spent more time shopping that day than on all of the accumulated shopping trips in their lives -- so we retreated homeward. Only one question remained: What would next year's challenge be?

Contact Caitlin E. Curran at ccurran@boston.com.

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