The Best Places to Buy Unique Gifts in Toronto
The best places to buy unique gifts in Toronto have nothing to do with food courts, fake-beard Santas, and multi-level parking lots. Outside of cookie-cutter shopping malls and made-in-China chain stores, the city is full of independent design shops offering alternative gifting ideas. They celebrate local. They delight in the obscure. And, they ensure I'll never gift another H&M sweater again.
It's that time of year. You know, when I should have sugar plums and gingerbread on the brain but all I can think about is the stress of buying gifts. And every year, don't I find myself helpless and frustrated in the middle of a mall? I assure you, this is not the meaning of Christmas. (I have ingested enough Charlie Brown to know better.)
I fall into the mall trap partly due to my suburban upbringing. I grew up on New York Fries. But I'm hip and urban now (right?). There's really no excuse. Unique and thoughtful gifts are best found in the tiniest West Queen West and Kensington and off-the-beaten-path street-side shops. On any budget and armed with a TTC Day Pass, indie shopping beats the mall crush any day. Whether I'm on the hunt for a Barbapapa alarm clock, Philippe Starck designer kitchen gadgets or screen-printed posters by my fave Toronto illustrator, these shops always man-up.
Check out our list of the best places to buy unique gifts in Toronto, as chosen by readers of this site.
Maybe it’s because I was a military brat, or due to summers spent in a canvas tent, or that I would rather have been a Boy Scout than a Girl Guide. Whatever the reason, there is something way-appealing to me about this store. It’s a boys’ clubhouse without the “No girls allowed” policy. Against a log-cabin backdrop (Bathurst location), I find a wardrobe worthy of Paul Bunyan, all-natural pet treats, Cannabis-scented candles, and squirrel nutcrackers. Boyfriends won’t wait outside for this one. More »
Steve Cober and I nerded out over character toys while he assured me that I was, in fact, not too old for “cutesy”. The shop stocks the stuff of (really) big kids. These are adult versions of all of the treasures mom sold at the yardsale when your room was converted to dad’s study. I am loving the ham-hock cufflinks, knitted cacti, and Team Macho t-shirts. Ask about artist-led classes that take place in the gallery space at the back of the shop. More »
In its newer location, Swipe became a major player in the gift game. What was once a place I frequented for cool design books during my art-school days, has evolved into a MOMA-worthy gift store. Quebec-made modern pottery, Frank Lloyd Wright LEGO sets, and designer pepper mills squeeze in among books about typefaces and colour theory. More »
Bergo’s collection of European designer housewares, décor and furniture manages to fill every available inch of their massive Distillery District space. And that’s just the first room. In the back, trinkets and what-nots and gizmos delight kids and kids-at-heart alike. I am especially partial to the glow-in-the-dark graffiti kit – vandal-like fun that won’t earn me a misdemeanor. More »
I feel like a puppy that hasn’t grown into her paws, but I suppose my size-9 feet are proportionate to my frame. Still, I seem ultra large and clumsy in this shop. It’s stuffed with product but still feels dainty. When I hit my head on a hanging light, elfish Ferdinand tells me he “didn’t consider the tall people”. No matter. He’s too cute for me to stay upset, and Studio Brillantine stocks the most adorable kitsch in the city. I dig the Comme Des Garcons leather pouches, vinyl taco luggage tags, and garden gnome cookie jars. More »
This sweet little Dundas West studio produces modern and natural furniture pieces and soft goods in-house. Best bets are cotton/linen home bowls that mesh well with contemporary and boho spaces, and screen-printed Canadian animal stuffies. Larger splurge pieces include “steam bent” wooden benches that can be custom made in any size. Be sure to add on a Bookhou letterpress gift tag or card. More »
This Baldwin Village shop isn’t much bigger than the average downtown backyard, but excellent “lateral thinking” means that it’s still airy and not too cluttered. Man, the Japanese could sure teach me a thing or two about maximizing small spaces. 90% of the wares are Japan-made. Out-there colour, innovative design and wacky gadgets are indicative of the country’s exports. I am both impressed and amused by the offerings, including a little plastic dude that tells you (by changing colour) when your instant ramen noodles are ready. More »
Annoyingly, nothing in the shop is priced. This is usually reason enough for me not to shop, but I figured that maybe the voting readership knew something I didn’t. Fuji instant cameras, metallic Lomo cameras in electric hues, and fish-eye lenses take photography back to the basics in a really modern way. The shop caters to old-school film-camera hold-outs and those looking for a little throw-caution-to-the-wind in their photography. My quest for a non-ugly camera bag is over, too! More »
Gotta say, I’m a little confused by this store. It was intended to be a handmade destination, I suppose, but it still seems overwhelmed by mass-market stuff. The 2-level Kensington shop is as large as a Walmart, though there are lots of quirky prezzie ideas if you’re willing to dig. The space is so large, it has it’s own coffee shop and ATM. In between the too-common “Keep Calm” posters and cheesy cat clocks, there are some finds. I marvel over Le Petit Chapeau fascinators, the build-your-own lip balm bar, and handmade peppermint-flavoured marshmallows. More »
The sibling proprietors of this novelty concept shop have been bringing unique design gifts to the East end since 2004. Whether it’s a Scrooge-approved Christmas tree ornament (“bah humbug”), architectural grow-kits, tongue-in-cheek smoker-friendly mittens, or diamond ring erasers (not recommended for proposals, guys!), Up To You stocks clever gifts for even the most challenging of recipients. More »
I’m warning you, this is sensory overload. Rolo stands for Realm of Ludicrous Objects and these guys aren’t kidding. This is The IT Store for the Yorkville set (or those who’d never be caught dead in The IT Store). Gadget-heavy, the shop piles cool inventions upon gag gifts and stacks ‘em high. There isn’t a merchandising strategy here, really. Best gifts include the orgasmic head massager, heart-shaped optical computer mouse, and placemats that convert to retro paper airplanes. More »
We should really cook at home more often. That’s maybe the hint the folks at Good Egg are none too subtly trying to impart. I am shamed. With cookware this adorable, why ever bother with take-out? But my run-of-the-mill pots and pans at home aren’t as inspiring as the fuchsia and tangerine Le Creuset roasting pans, or the plaid nested storage bowls, or the alphabet-print lunch bags. This is the one-stop-shop for gifting if you tend to hang out with a lot of foodies and budding chefs. Or, if you’d like to be invited to dinner more often. More »
This Distillery gift shop is high on whimsy. I discover unique gift ideas and hard-to-resist personal splurges at every turn. Handmade hats with recycled fur pom-poms, plush cloud mobiles, and TTC-station resin bracelets are good bets. I also love the silkscreened elbow-length mittens and “Be Proud” badges. The local factor here is paramount, and the buyers have scoured the city (and country) for the best-of-the-best in made-with-love goodies. More »