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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace about town

The buying season

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Not many days left till Christmas, have you bought anything yet? Way back in September, my friend Pam was talking about gifts she'd already purchased. Christmas was nowhere on my radar back then.

But I'm starting to panic a little bit. It didn't used to be like this. When I was a kid, I'd make elaborate, time-consuming, costly presents for my family.

One year it was candles. In making them, I spilled copious quantities of vanilla on the wooden cutting board, leaving a vanilla smell for months afterwards. I also spilled great quantities of wax (once again, not called Grace for nothing).

Another time, I was mad for homemade ornaments. I went to a now-defunct hardware store on Wabash. I'm sure they went out of business because their checkers were so mean to little kids. Ornament-making supplies were expensive, and although I'd saved up a pile of money, after the checker rang up my dozens of beads and ribbons, I came up short. She yelled at me, and I cried. Where's the Christmas spirit, lady?

Mom still has some of these ornaments; they're a little beat up now, but maybe hanging them on the tree every year has defrayed the cost over time.

Once I made Christmas chocolates, and ran into problems similar to ornament-making: costly ingredients, hostile checkers, weeping (it takes me a long time to learn a lesson). This was at the old Kroger's at the corner of 2nd and South Grand; we lived a couple of blocks from the store and I went there almost every day to buy something for various cooking experiments. But my chocolates were much more expensive than a nice box of Fannie May. And not nearly as delicious.

Now, since I don't feel like spending a fortune on making gifts (although Hobby Lobby is my No. 1 favorite craft store in Springfield; the prices are fantastic and the checkers never make me cry), I need to buy stuff. I've been exploring places that might be overlooked for gift-purchasing.

A great one is Wild Birds Unlimited, at 1930 S.MacArthur Blvd. You like birds? They got bird stuff. All kinds of bird feeders -- my favorite is the bird's-buffet-squirrel-proof-bird feeder. I like this one because it follows my "Land of Lincoln, Eat All You Want" Springfield slogan, plus it keeps the squirrels away.

But WBU doesn't play favorites. You can keep the squirrels out of the bird food, but you can also feed the furry critters. The person who invented my favorite one is a genius -- it's called a "Squngee;" it's just a hook attached to a springy wire. An ear of corn is jammed onto the hook, and the squirrels go crazy for it. A video of this was playing, and it was highly entertaining watching the squirrel grab the corn and swing around like a lunatic trapeze act. Buy a Squngee, it's fun for the whole family.

Another nice touch at WBU is the big (real) gray cat prowling around the place. He's friendly and quite enjoyed being petted. A calming moment in the mad rush of holiday-shopping.

Downtown is filled with shops that seem to get quite a bit of press, but I don't see so many people in them, especially on weekends. Go downtown, for crying out loud. No lines, no hassle, lots of free parking all weekend long. My favorite downtown store is the Food Mart. At 416 E. Monroe, this place is ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN years old! I hope you've been there, it's a landmark.

The Food Mart has almost everything you could desire, food-wise. One Saturday they had an open house, with free samples of delicious dips, wine and punch. On Saturday, Dec. 13, they're going to have an "Italian" open house, and I'll definitely be the first in line.

The FM reminds me of a New York deli, except it's not crowded and the prices are very reasonable. Right now they've even got chestnuts. In the deli case are all kinds of cheese and sausage, plus fresh pesto and spreads. There's an extensive alcohol selection, including wine from Galena. They have European chocolates, truffles, breaded olives stuffed with blue cheese, four kinds of capers, a dozen different olive oils, and the frozen case is filled with goodies like homemade ravioli stuffed with everything from crab to chicken to asparagus.

I could list more of their delicacies, but you really need to go there yourself. You could make fabulous gift baskets for everyone on your list and your holiday shopping would be all done.

My holiday purchasing would be complete, except I keep buying things for myself instead of Christmas presents. But I know it's time to get serious. Next week I'll tell you about a few more stores I love so you, too, can wrap up the shopping.

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