The best places to buy unique gifts in Toronto have more heart than any cookie-cutter present from the mall. Those who appreciate the locally sourced, handmade, and one-of-a-kind will surely be pleased by the material things that can be obtained at these shops, even if they’re not exactly Material Girls.
Here are the best places to buy unique gifts in Toronto.
1. Cocktail Emporium
Cocktail Emporium in Kensington Market is a lively and colourful space glowing with a vintage Miami vibe. The store is a fun little wonderland where you can venture to get your creative cocktail juices flowing. This is a place for people who love the art of crafting a good drink.
Kristen Voisey owns Cocktail Emporium and its counterpart BYOB on West Queen West. You can find her chatting with customers and giving them advice on which bitters enhance a given cocktail. "Cherry bitters and orange bitters can go along way," she tells a customer looking to spice up her rum drinks.
Voisey's concept for Cocktail Emporium was to create a one-stop shop for everything drink and cocktail related, whether you're a seasoned aficionado or total novice. Maybe you didn't even know that you could add cardamom or celery flavour to your drink.
Well, you can, via a well-stocked dispensary of bitters displayed on a shelf at the front of the store. Bitters range from $10-$22.95 with the bestseller being the Jack Rudy cocktail ($19.95).
Cocktail accessories and bitters are great for gifting. That's what I'm thinking as I lazily glide through the entirety of the store, getting absorbed in the different items, tools, vintage glassware and coasters available.
In addition to the various cocktail accessories on the shelves, they also carry niche products like absinthe fountains, beer-making kits and turkey leg pint glasses -- everything you didn't know you wanted, until it was an option.
Voisey calls the Cocktail Emporium the Â˝ oz since it's smaller than the Queen location. At the new location, the aim is to focus on vintage glassware ($6-$25) and unique items.
BYOB offers high-end items like Japanese-made bar stools, according to Voisey. In Kensington, she's just "having fun with it."
"The neighborhood is so creative and diverse that we'll likely allow the clientele to dictate the direction we ultimately take," says Voisey.
So, why open a second store? "I had a conversation with Heather Reisman (CEO of Indigo) and she told me, "If you can have two stores you can have fifty... It was the logical next step for a retail business, and the second location happened really fast.
One day we were walking around Kensington and happened to look into the window of an empty building. We signed the rental agreement the next day!"
Three weeks later, the new location was open.
Be prepared to find something quirky for everyone. Watermelon Keg ($19.95) and bamboo straws for tiki and rum lovers, small batch tonics and lavender bitters for gin lovers, and in-flight cocktail kits ($26) for everyone else.
2. Kid Icarus
Kid Icarus was originally born out Michael Viglione and wife Bianca Bickmore's own background in custom printing. They had amassed a large enough stock of art prints to necessitate a proper retail space, and they opened up shop in June 2007 on Nassau St.
The couple previously operated out of 400 sq. ft., in which the retail space, Viglione's studio, and Bickmore's office were understandably cramped. In this 1,700 sq. ft. space, they have room to stretch out -much like their cat does, a temporary visitor on a couch in the back.
Kid Icarus is much more than a stationery and gift shop - the back is filled with intimidatingly industrial paper cutters, screen-printing set-ups, and stock shelves. "We also have a meeting room and kitchen now," Bickmore tells me.
Here, they undertake custom work - from posters, to cards, to rubber stamps, to wedding invitations, incorporating either their designs or your own.
When it comes to cost, "we're in the mid-range for custom wedding invitations," Bickmore tells me. Viglione adds that "people come to [them] for the quality of the paper - rather than going digital, they can say it's limited edition. It becomes a commemorative piece."
You'll find issues of Worn Journal, Cuppow - the ingenious plastic lid ($3-$10) which easily fits the mouths of canning and mason jars, turning that Owl and Goose smoothie into a perfect to-go option - and the delicate nature-inspired jewellery designs of Old Weston ($32-$120).
"We have dozens and dozens of artists," Viglione says of their stock, with an emphasis on local artists. You can't get much more local than a Dupont studio, where Falcon Wright produces their screen-printed leather pouches ($22-$55, depending on size), or the feminine floral brooches of Toronto-born ceramicist Julie Moon ($25-$45).
Then there are the greeting cards (on average $5-$6) - entire rows of them. Encompassing the store's eponymous line, the focus is on handmade and letter-press cards.
I learn that Toronto's curiously devoid of letter-press artists, but they carry Sudbury's Papillon Press and Kingston's Everlovin' Press, as well as a wealth of cards from Chicago.
The posters almost constitute an eccentric gallery onto themselves, and range between $20 and $40. Depending on rarity - such as the Arcade Fire poster from last year's Polaris music prize - you can expect to pay up to $100.
You'll also find higher-end art prints from artists such as Melinda Josie and Gary Taxali (up to $300). Since these are not suitable for haphazardly taping onto your bedroom wall (banish the thought), Kid Icarus offers their own standard frames, or they'll refer you to Telegramme for custom framing (with a helpful discount).
Listening to Bickmore and Viglione, you get a sense of their pride at the concrete things they've accomplished in five short years, but also at the more ineffable network they've created between like-minded artists and craftspeople. "It's very community-oriented," Viglione says of Kensington Market, and looking at Kid Icarus' stock, it becomes clear just why they call the Market home.
Curiosa: Purveyors of Extraordinary Things is Toronto's Harry Potter-inspired store that's supposed to make you feel like you've entered Diagon Alley. It sells books, toys, games and some Harry Potter-related merchandise.
4. Drake General Store
The Drake General Store is now a three-storey design store at 2 Abell Avenue in what used to be an abandoned condo presentation centre, across the street from their former location.
The giant blobby brain-like sculpture outside and the odd little teardrop-shaped windows dotting the building didn't change, but the whole building has been shrouded in imperious black paint.
One might not think that three stories of space would be needed for what is essentially a massive gift shop for the legendary Drake Hotel, but the shop became so popular that expansion was necessary.
The Drake seized on the move as an opportunity to diversify their offerings and incorporate local business and unique products even further into their brand. The second floor features a rotating pop-up shop, and the third floor hosts an events space that can be used for special art installations, talks, and more.
The store is divided into relatively distinct categories. The food section takes up an entire corner with more on offer than ever before, most notably creations by the renowned Nicolas VahĂŠ which range from condiments to cookware.
As soon as you arrive, you'll notice the cash station doubles as a coffee bar, with a unique cold brew tap and even tea on tap ($4 - $5) from Pluck, a Toronto company. Their coffee, from Reunion Island, is roasted in Oakville.
They also serve treats at the counter which rotate regularly but always keep a Canadian or Torontonian influence. One day there could be delicious donuts in the case, and on another, a Toronto favourite like beef patties.
Just past the freezer which contains Augie's ice pops and Death in Venice gelato is the Drake General Store's Classic Canadiana collection, where you can pick up a pennant advertising your favourite province ($18) or a Toronto Public Library tee ($38).
Beyond that, so many companies and designers are highlighted in their own special areas it's ridiculous. There's a Monocle "Shop in Shop." Creations from local eyewear designer Steven Alan peer up colourfully from glass cases. Their apothecary section features a full range of products from Denmark company Meraki, and they're one of very few Meraki retailers in Canada.
A baby section features onesies and partnerships with beloved children's companies and programs, like Sesame Street.
Advertised on the front door, the Drake General Store has partnered with Crows Nest Barbershop to put in a permanent chair at the back. Schedule an appointment, though, because the barber there is typically booked up and unavailable on Mondays.
Scout is a quaint little Roncesvalles gift boutique specializing in local and handmade goods. For some reason, the plum purple ceiling seems to tell me all I need to know about the shop. It's a little different, soft and pretty, and fits well with the aesthetic of the neighbourhood.
Owner Leah Eyles tells me she was determined to open her own shop in the area. "Roncesvalles is its own little village," she says. "And it had a flower shop, coffee shops, but no gift store.
Leah decided to create her own space after working at Red Pegasus for 10 years and taking a trip around the globe. "It was nearing the end of my 3 week trip," she says, "that I realized I needed to come back and start something new.
While not all of the gifts at Scout are made by hand or produced in Toronto, she says about 60% of the shop is stocked with Canadian goods. " I go to NY trade shows, smaller gift shows, the One of a Kind Show, I even scour Etsy--Canadian made is so important but I also try to have a range of price points and look for items that all make sense together."
Scout has sort of a nature-cozy type of feel. Leah shows me a 100% wool knit hat and mentions all the knitwear and outerwear is handmade in Canada. It's very soft and would surely keep you warm.
Other personal adornment pieces at Scout include a fabulous line of earrings from Hamilton designer Rare Specimens ($40) and necklaces made in Kelowna by Ugly Bunny out of wood ($75). All of the jewelry in Scout is made or designed in Canada.
A gift shop, of course, will always have cards, and Leah says she scours for anything that diverges form the norm. Thus, Scout has many handmade letterpress cards, as well as a great line of "To Do" checklist birthday cards from Vancouver's Regional Assembly of Text.
And this wouldn't be a Roncesvalles shop if Scout didn't exist with a little community integration, so Scout stocks Roncesvalles based Skipping Stone soaps, Toronto centered pins & patches from neighbourhood maker The Button Machine and bags handmade on Dundas West by Toronto's Eleven Thirty.
Leah says she's always "scouting" (ha..) for new pieces and will be updating inventory on a regular basis.