San Francisco isn't necessarily known for fashion—though the city has its share of great boutiques—but it is recognized for design. These gift shops are inseparable from their owners, as every item—many of which are handmade—seems to have been thoughtfully selected and artfully arranged. From jewelry to kitchenware and art prints to books, these design-focused retailers contain the sort of gifts you might buy with someone else in mind, but end up keeping for yourself. The city’s indie clothing stores and vintage emporiums also yield unique finds.
Design and gift shops
A taxidermy unicorn is stationed at the door of this eclectic den of plants, animalia, and oddities, drawing gawking window shoppers in off the street. The store has an off-kilter, mystical feel inspired by plants and the natural sciences. Anatomical posters and scientific illustrations adorn the walls, and lush plants hang overhead. Glass cases contain jewel-toned entomology specimens, small taxidermy (including tiny stuffed mice dressed as religious figures), fossils, earrings fashioned from butterfly wings, animal bones (red fox penis bone, anyone?) and pocketknives. All are interspersed with an assortment of garden supplies, whether tools or hummingbird feeders and hanging planters. Work your way back, past the humid greenhouse, until you emerge in the peaceful landscaped courtyard. All the plants here are for sale, including flowers, ferns and air plants. In addition to the retail store, the duo behind Paxton Gate—Sean Quigley and Todd McCrea—run a construction and landscape-design company. The team is responsible for building a number of stores and restaurants around the city, including Central Kitchen, Salumeria, Flour & Water.
This colorful shop is located at the apex of the cooler-by-the-day NoPa neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Mill (that of the famous $4 toast, not to be confused with the women's clothing shop), locavore grocer Bi-Rite, perennial brunch fixture Nopa and Alamo Square. Since 2011, the store has been headed up by Giselle Gyalzen, who has a particular penchant for handcrafted, thoughtfully designed and eminently giftable goods. That haul includes affordable art prints, ceramics and tableware, gourmet foodstuffs, locally designed jewelry, beauty products, design tomes and kids' toys. (Plus, several twirling racks filled with letterpress cards for topping off impromptu gifts.) The space also doubles as a gallery, with a focus on Bay Area–based illustrators and screen-printers. Take a spin through the store after brunch, then stroll through the Divisadero Farmers' Market, which unfurls every Sunday just across the street
This 1,400-square-foot store and gallery is a champion of emerging artists and clever design. The colorful wares are spread across large central tables stocked with books, and dozens of posters and prints cover the walls. The store's curated stash includes playful office accessories and housewares from Japan, Germany and Scandinavia, jewelry and other wearable art, T-shirts and stationery. Park Life maintains a time-stealing display of art, photography, and design books, including a handful of rare, out-of-print books and exhibition catalogs. Co-owner Jamie Alexander curates ten exhibitions per year in the gallery in back; he also serves on the board of the Headlands Center for the Arts. The shows typically coincide with the introduction of spin-off T-shirts, skate decks or prints in the store, created in collaboration with the featured painter or illustrator. Previous notables include artists like Jason Polan, David Shrigley, Tucker Nichols and Ian Johnson. More recently, Alexander added a sister outpost in the Mission.
You wouldn't be the first shop visitor to fantasize about wrapping yourself in a Pendleton throw, settling into the broken-in leather armchair and never having to leave. This gift and home-furnishings shop is the brainchild of prop stylist Rod Hipskind and photographer Kelly Ishikawa. As one might expect, every surface and nook is impeccably styled. The vibe is rustic and nautical-cool, from the anchor motif to the collection of vintage typewriters. (Browsers are encouraged to type a short note on the blank pages supplied.) The goods include housewares, home decor, ceramics, jewelry and industrial-era décor arranged throughout the moodily lit space to artful effect. The back area contains the SF outpost for Oakland-based kitchen and barware shop Umami Mart, where you can peruse Japanese imports and gold-plated cocktail shakers, shatter-resistant highball glasses, exotically flavored bitters and beautiful ceramic cookware.
After founding Little Paper Planes as a web-only store for art, home decor and accessories in 2004, Kelly Jones graduated to a brick-and-mortar space on a retail-packed strip of the Mission in 2013. The interior is modern and gallery-like, and neon and metallic wares pop against pristine white walls. Jewelry, tabletop items and small home accessories cover the large central table, while neat shelves are filled with design books, art prints, zines, and stationery. Jones herself designs Uniforma, a line of bags and small leather good in simple, easy-to-wear silhouettes and bright hues. The Little Paper Planes residency program hosts one new artist per month. He or she takes over the blank white box in the rear of the shop, whether for performances, interactive art or a more traditional exhibition.
Need to track down a bottle of Scurvy Begone or a tin of Mermaid Bait? Thank goodness for the Pirate Supply Store, the retail front of nonprofit youth writing center 826 Valencia (which is also the brainchild of local lit-god Dave Eggers). The wood-paneled interior is fashioned after the belly of a ship, and ropes and flags dangle from the ceiling. There are treasures hidden behind every door and within every drawer, and the shop is designed for curious exploring. You'll find a wealth of tongue-in-cheek pirate gear and paraphernalia, including skull and crossbones die, peg leg sizing charts (plus, peg leg oil, for conditioning said prosthetic), eye patches, hooks, jailer keys and gold coins. The kids' classroom is in the back, where the organization hosts writing workshops, after-school programs, and field trips. Don't miss the “fish theater,” two plush theater seats and a glowing tank filled with colorful aquatic creatures that's hidden behind a red velvet curtain.