On the surface, shopping options in Key West are not exactly myriad or varied. T-shirt shops (with the obligatory “EVERYTHING $5!!!!” signs in the windows), stores hawking lotions and potions of dubious efficacy, and all manner of trinket and tchotchke peddlers crowd Duval St, luring unwitting purchasers into emptying their wallets for mass-produced junk. Though it may seem like Key West is a retail desert, there is a vibrant local marketplace overflowing with gift ideas for the budget-conscious to the outlandish spender. From local artisans crafting one-of-a-kind objets d’art to fine wines and apparel, Key West has done well to transcend its reputation for all things seedy and strange. A new generation of stores run by an influx of entrepreneurs who appreciate the distinctive offerings of the Florida Keys has rendered the usual stress of holiday gift-giving virtually nonexistent. The pressure of giving “the perfect gift” is real and the quest to find presents for friends and family that feel authentic and original can feel, at times, more overwhelming than charitable. Of course, you can always just give a gift card or cash, but we know you’re more creative than that.
If you’re having trouble deciding what to get a particularly hard to shop for friend or family member, read on for a few outside-the-box suggestions.
For The Oenophile – $-$$$
Mark Gambuzza is one of the more incomparable characters of Key West. In a profession that is typically associated with refinement and delicateness — Mark is a purveyor of fine wines — his tattoos and his refusal to participate in the usual grandiloquent verbiage employed by those whose profession involves peddling expensive fermented grape juice to customers is as refreshing as a glass of crisp rosé to the face. Step into his unpretentious, sun-soaked shop, Uva (519 Fleming St.), and you’ll usually find him behind the bar, his tatted-up arms and flowing locks making him appear as though he wandered into the wrong bar on the way to CBGB. But beneath the tough guy exterior lies an uncommonly candid and tolerant mind, one that’s earned Mark and his equally charismatic wife, Dina, a loyal cadre of fans who swarm their bar at all hours of the week. Add in Mark’s unparalleled knowledge of the wine he sells and you’ll be mesmerized by his guidance and his thick Long Island accent (OK and maybe his dimples too if you’re into that sort of thing).
The first thing you’ll notice about Mark is that, when asked to recommend a bottle to purchase, he’ll tell you straight away which expensive bottles he feels are simply not worth the money — not unless you happen to possess a palate so refined as to make the undertone of smoked hay (is that even a thing?) noticeable. In Mark’s opinion, there’s a bottle of wine for every consumer at every price point. And if you happen to be one of those people for whom $400 bottles of wine are a no-brainer, fear not: Uva’s got you covered as well.
Breeze into Uva spouting everything you learned on your last trip to Tuscan wine country and Mark remains pointedly unsnobbish, discussing your preferences with you instead of making you feel unwelcome or unintelligent. Make no mistake: the man knows his vino, chatting casually about a particular wine’s unusually lengthy life in an oak barrel as though he’s discussing the weather. But whether it’s the accent, refusal to up-sell, or the heavy metal music playing quietly in the background (did we mention Mark is the front man for a heavy metal outfit ironically called Parrothead Massacre?), Mark exudes the kind of amiability and immediate trustworthiness usually reserved for toy poodles. It’s like slipping into a Twilight Zone where a shop owner is determined to make sure you don’t spend a penny more than you should.
When suggesting why wine is a perfect gift for the holidays, Mark exhibits the same desire to protect invisible, theoretical customers as he does the ones that stand in his shop and ask him for help. “The average person is going to shop at a big box store for wine, and normally short -changes themselves on a good quality bottle,” he says. “By giving a wine that’s not necessarily something the recipient has, (you’re) usually upping the quality of what people normally drink at their house.”
And if you’re having a total breakdown over what wines to pair with your all-over-the-place holiday spread, Mark will be the oenophilic version of a brown paper bag. He’s got plenty of recommendations for versatile reds, whites, and rosés that will impress even your most snobbish relative. Cin cin!
For the “Shop Local” Enthusiast – $-$$$
In a dramatic response to the proliferation of bargain basement big box stores and the convenience of Amazon.com, the gift givers of today are increasingly interested in bespoke items that reflect a more creative and thoughtful approach to giving. If that description fits your charitable philosophy, there are a handful of boutiques in Key West that will satisfy. SALT Gallery (830 Fleming St.) features locally harvested sea salt and honey, as well as salt scrub, jewelry, pottery, and art crafted by local artisans. The gallery also has gorgeous gift baskets you can fill with your own choice of goods.
If you’re distracted by shiny things, you’ll have a hard time passing by Gilded Peach Inspired Jewelry (1114B Truman Ave.). Each stunning piece of Gilded Peach jewelry is handmade by local jeweler
Abigail Houff and her pieces range from simple solitaire pendants to multistone briolette necklaces that explode with color. Abigail’s one-of-a-kind pieces can also be purchased online at https:// www.etsy.com/shop/GildedPeach.
For the Bibliophile – $
Key West may be most saliently associated with boat captains and unruly spring breakers but the island has a pretty serious literary tradition, having hosted the likes of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway in their prime. These days, the linguistic mantle has been taken up by homegrown authors and longtime residents alike for whom our island home has provided inspiration. One such author is Arlo Haskell, a native son of Key West who left the island to attend college in New York and returned years ago with a renewed appreciation for the multifaceted history of the Florida Keys. He recently completed his non-fiction book, “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969),” a comprehensive account of Key West’s Jewish community. “The Jews of Key West” is colorful and accessible and provides an enlightening perspective on the development of Key West in its first decade and change of settlement. Interested buyers can purchase Arlo’s debut at Books & Books (533 Eaton St.), SALT Gallery (830 Fleming St.) or online at www.jewsofkeywest.com/.
For someone who might want a little lighter fare, prolific Key West author David Sloan (notably of “Quit Your Job and Move to Key West” and “Roosters are Assholes” fame) has released his newest paean to all things Cayo Hueso, “The Best Key West Trivia Book Ever.” Test your knowledge and prove your prowess with 500 questions in 50 categories, including pirates, presidents, famous residents and key lime pie. And if you’re anything like us, you’ll figure out a way to turn quizzing one another into a drinking game. David Sloan would most definitely approve. “The Best Key West Trivia Book Ever” can currently be purchased on Amazon.
For the Homebody – $-$$
Artists Kelly Lever and Adam Russell seem to have the type of life that only exists on television — one so joyful, generous, and aesthetically pleasing that you’d fault whatever show they appeared on for being totally bogus. “No one is that good-looking AND kind AND creative AND involved in their community AND good at yoga AND has impossibly polite, meditative children who appear to have stepped out of an advertisement for GAP Kids’ new surf line,” you would yell at the TV. But the Lever-Russell family are (somewhat maddeningly) as lovely as they seem — tolerant, goofy, clever, lighthearted, and pacifying in their totally innate serenity. They are the stuff of Instagram dreams. After migrating to Key West from Ohio, the two artists established their ceramics company, Key West Pottery, and quickly found a following for their vibrantly colorful pottery, which they made and displayed in a small studio-slash-gallery on White St. They hosted dance parties in the parking lot, curated gallery shows of other people’s work, and taught pottery classes on the side. Soon the two branched out beyond ceramics, selling prints and paintings of their own alongside their increasingly popular pots, vases, plates and mugs.
But as their family and their fan base continued to expand, the couple found they needed more space to create and display their functional and decorative works; they moved the bulk of their studio to a space closer to home, and signed the lease on a sunny gallery on Upper Duval St. in order to better display their finished pieces. Though both are deeply involved in various community programs, schools and nonprofit boards, they somehow find time to mingle with customers in their gray-walled gallery, explaining the symbolism behind some of their more contemporary works, or simply basking in the glow of the adoring groupies who simply had to buy another one of the store’s signature rooster pieces.
Key West Pottery’s gallery, located at 1203 Duval St., is the perfect place to pick up a gift that is unique, sustainable, and above all, beautiful. “The gift of art speaks loud. It tells a story, creates a mood, and is a symbol of culture passed down over decades,” says the duo. “Pottery is a family heirloom that has witnessed family dinners, morning conversations, after school snacks, and the occasional road trip. Give a gift that will last generations, create memories, and that speaks volumes.” You heard them.
For the True Gentleman – $$$
There are men’s stores, and then there’s Assortment Inc., Key West’s iconic menswear boutique that has been the go-to for tastemakers and style influencers since the store’s first iteration on Front St. in 1977. After a jaunt on Duval St., the store found its current home at 514 Fleming St., where it has remained since 1994. The vibe is decidedly old world nautical, with an emphasis on craft and heritage, not trendiness; you’ll be sorry if you’ve come in search of lurid neon polo shirts with oversized logos or madras pants meant to signify luxury while hiding a Made in China tag inside the waist. These are heirloom clothes, clothes for true Preps — the frugal sort who invest in a good pair of admittedly expensive loafers they will then wear for 15 years.
Joe Alan Carr and Claude E. Reams Jr., store owners and gurus of all things elegantly masculine, understand this brand of living better than most. Over the course of the store’s nearly 40-year tenure, a clientele has emerged that, much like the city Assortments calls home, defies any typical categorization. There are, of course, the dandies, those meticulously dressed men who appear lab-made in their perfection. There are also the military fathers searching for a well-made, timeless dress shirt, or the alternative hipsters looking to incorporate a pair of Nantucket reds into their current zeitgeist.
Possible gifts for the man in your life are abundant: a classic pair of cufflinks, a cheeky rubberized take on the traditional boat shoe, a linen party shirt, a buttery leather overnight bag. Perhaps most unique is a bottle of one of the store’s three in-house colognes, bottles of which have been shipped to discerning fans as far away as Egypt. Crafted by a former Estée Lauder perfumer, the scents are complex but somehow familiar, evoking memories of salt-brined sailing trips to Cape Code that you never took, but wish you had; with every spritz, the daydream becomes clearer. Hey, it’s certainly cheaper than a sailboat.