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In a season when people might as well carve reindeer into their Halloween pumpkins, beleaguered shoppers looking for unique gifts should head to places where they'll never see a mall Santa.

At the Denver Art Museum shop, posters and reproductions neatly coat the walls, and minimalistic household items such as magazine racks and coffee pots make parts of the store seem like a cross between a Sharper Image and a Pottery Barn.

The usual standbys--calendars, cards, T-shirts, executive toys, magnets--are available, of course. But glass nightlights also shine with the great works of Cezanne and Renior, and there's an umbrella printed with Monet's "Musee D'Orsay." New items such as Oriental purses made from antique kimonos are the favorites of shop volunteers, as are watches designed by renowned architects including Maya Lin, Richard Meyer and Denver Public Library designer Michael Graves.

"Our store is eclectic, like the museum's collection; we want to reproduce what people saw upstairs in here," says museum-shop manager and buyer Donna Garcia. "No one wants something that they could see in any mall or catalogue."

600 Years of British Paintings--The Berger Collection of the Denver Art Museum, a printed version of the museum's current show, sits among a glorious array of other art books, such as Georgia O'Keeffe --At Ghost Ranch, a collection of John Loenbard's rich, dusky photographs of the artist that were a major museum attraction about a year ago. And if you think gossip isn't present in the realm of modern art, check out Anthony Haden-Guest's True Colors, which claims to reveal the true personalities of the art world's major players.

No more that 200 feet away is the central branch of the Denver Public Library, in all of its architectural splendor. Housed in a wing that resembles a green granite paper-towel roll, The Library Store sells more than 4,000 "non-traditional" books taken out of regular library circulation; the result is an odd shopping experience in which a tawdry novel titled Arrow to the Heart is shelved next to What You Should Know About Your Child With Spina Bifida. There are also the ubiquitous bins of rubber spiders and beetles--including a pen with a jumping spider attached for a mere $3.25--and a display of greeting cards, stationery and calendars, many with book-related themes. On one wall, endless strings of Magnetic Poetry are arranged in loopy sentences. Near the back is a display of children's items, from books to finger puppets to Slime Science kits.

Trish Conlon, the store's manager, takes pride in the unusual interior of the library and her store. "We have a lot of architecture-inspired items, like Michael Graves's pens, earrings, teapots and textile designs," Conlon says. "He did the whole interior of the library: the carpet, the furniture and chairs--everything. The theme of the library is a city within a city, with all the different shapes.

"The atmosphere of our store is very calming," adds Conlon. "A lot of people come in and say that. We surprise a lot of tourists, who come in and compliment the building."

The gift store in the Denver Museum of Natural History proves to be a powerful magnet for holiday shoppers as well.

At any given time, middle-aged men unabashedly bounce rubber dinosaur balls near the cash register. And forget high-tech toys for children--the bin of colorful polished stones draws the attention of most kids long enough for their parents to browse through walls of books on natural history. There is a huge assortment of all things glowing, such as star stickers and green reptiles. And the shop is more likely to entertain visitors with the soundtrack to Star Wars than with "O, Come All Ye Faithful," making it a refuge from the holiday Muzak wafting through most department stores.

Manager/buyer Alicia LaPiano tosses off her shop's standard objects with a wave of her hand. "I'm much more excited for the new stuff we're expecting for the holidays," she says. Examples of what she found at the San Francisco International Gift Show include gold-leaf-encrusted glasswork by Jeffery M. Andrews and glass coasters engraved with nature images. LaPiano is also eagerly awaiting the arrival of miniature fountains with ferns and dragonflies as decorations.

"Our candles were huge last year. We're expecting these hip candles with parchment sun petroglyphs to sell really well," she adds.

Jewelry is also a big attraction at the museum store, which carries a wide array of amber and American Indian-inspired pieces. And a favorite for the green-thumb-impaired is the Zen Rock Gardening Kit, complete with sand, rocks and a rake for soothing your soul.

Those who have no trouble growing things will find everything they need at the Denver Botanic Gardens gift shop. Gardening tools, birdhouses, plant stands and instructional books line the shop's walls and shelves. Pointing out a table of nature-scented perfumes, gift shop employee Colene Brink says, "You wouldn't expect us to have this stuff, but we do. Our honeys and vinegars do well, too. Food-related things, you know." That's in addition to the store's huge selection of children's books and toys. Brink also expects T-shirts, calendars and Christmas pottery to move rapidly over the course of the season.

And if you have $1,295 weighing down your wallet and a sudden urge to own the pair of six-foot-tall metal storks that guard the entrance to the Botanic Gardens visitors' center, well, they're waiting for you.

But if you can't tear yourself away from the mall, you can always visit the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art store on the first level of the Cherry Creek Mall or the Museum Company in Park Meadows, which has representations from museums all over the world. Good luck navigating the waves of holiday cheer, though.

--Nadia Pflaum

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Nadia Pflaum
Contact: Nadia Pflaum