While no big departure from the usual assortment of holiday fair merchandise — ceramics, housewares, art and photography, kids’ gifts, pets’ gifts, things that smell good, leather goods, jewelry, clothes, hats and scarves — the vendor selection as a whole reflects the best thing about the myriad fairs around town this time of year: the chance to uncover and support craftsmen, artists, designers, entrepreneurs and small businesses that are creating quality, often handmade, goods — and, in turn, jobs — in their home communities.
A number of the vendors here are literally local New York companies, and others come from up and down the East Coast and Canada. A lovely thought for this time of year, in this era of Big Retail ridiculousness: Think regional, buy local.
You have 76 different opportunities at the Grand Central fair to express that sentiment with your pocketbook. The merchandise is at a minimum fun to sample and, at its best, proffers the chance for one of those Aha! moments when you find the prom dress of gifts: the thing you knew you would know when you saw it.
But, like buying organic, buying local is more expensive (and for good reason). This is aspirational shopping to be sure. You’ll find items in the $15-$100 range, but prices here trend higher compared with Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. The value of what you’ll get trends higher as well.
If you have the budget to shop here, not only will you likely be able to cross a few people off your gift list, you can leverage your buying power to send Big Retail a message about opening on Thanksgiving, racial profiling, tracking your return activity… (Don’t get me started.) Score bonus points for being a conscientious objector and a thoughtful gifter.
Bottom Line: Is it worth a visit? If you happen to be in or near Grand Central with spare time, yes. Should you make a special trip? That probably depends on your budget. If you don’t have one, yes! If you do, and it’s tight, go if you enjoy browsing without necessarily buying. If you’re somewhere in between, factor your budget times your desire to find one-of-a-kind gifts times your motivation to think regional, buy local.
The One-Hour Strategy: I walked through the fair three times in about 45 minutes: first, a leisurely stroll through all the aisles without lingering in any one booth; a second pass-through to visit the booths that caught my eye on the first pass; and a third walk-through to see what I might have missed. I browsed in about 15 booths; if I’d actually made any purchases, I’d have been done in around an hour. For my picks, see The One-Hour Guide by Giftee, below.
Hours: Daily through Dec. 24, except Thanksgiving (thank you very much!); 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Eve.
Location: Vanderbilt Hall, on the south side of Grand Central Terminal. Navigate the shops with this mobile, color-coded, categorized map of the vendors. Directions below are based on standing at the fair’s entrance from within the terminal, facing 42nd St.
The One-Hour Guide by Giftee
For the person in your life who can never have too much color in any room:
Why: Colorful, reliable, ergonomic salt and pepper grinders crafted and sold by the most personable artisan you’ll meet at the fair. Robert Wilhelm’s booth draws you in with its arrangement of bright wooden kitchen wares — hand-carved functional art pieces combining color, form, pattern and texture in unexpected ways that will have you reaching for the salt. Starting at around $60/pair.
Location: Booth #21 (east side)
Suellen Parker Glass
Why: Pure joy in glassware — vases, plates and other pieces in layers of color crafted by a process known as “glass fusing.” Parker, whose company is called Case Island Glass (Flint, Mich.), starts with a large sheet of glass, from which she cuts a base piece. Next, she hand cuts smaller pieces, stacks those on the base and fires them at high temperatures, melting them together. Jewelry made of fused-glass pieces is also available. Around $25 (jewelry) and up.
Location: Booth #D (between Vanderbilt Hall and the Terminal)
Why: Sparkle! Shine! Color! Light! Try to walk past the array of Turkish mosaic glass lamps and ceramics without stopping. The warmth and glow of the lights pull you in — hanging lamps and table lamps of all sizes, shapes and hues — and once you’ve taken those in, you can peruse all the bits of bold, bright Turkish pottery and dishware available. $15 (Turkish salt dish) and up ($350 for a large table lamp).
Location: Booth #36 (east side)
For the woman in your life who can’t resist a statement hat:
Why: Expertly-knit millinery creations shaped into unexpected designs that will captivate the most daring hat-wearer. From the Edith Wharton to the Lady Gaga (my names, not hers!), Emma (one name only) has constructed a series of unique headpieces that are whimsical and warm, funky and functional. Stop by here even if just to admire the wall display (pictured). Pricing N/A.
Location: Booth #7 (east side)
For those who prefer to make a quieter statement, two other milliners have booths at the fair.
For the woman in your life who can’t resist a statement ring:
Why: Rings that look and feel delicious, with settings that show off gorgeous stones and shanks that slip on like silk. (“Shank” is a jeweler’s term for what most of us would call the band, and it’s alliterative!) Based in New York, this family-owned business, which has two permanent storefronts in the city, custom-designs its pieces around the gemstones it sources from South America and Asia. $200-$400.
Location: Booth #50 (west side)
Jewelry makers comprise one-third of the fair. I zeroed in on InnaSense because I’m (as you might have guessed) a woman who can’t resist a statement ring. Given that you can shop its merchandise year-round, you might focus on the 21 other options. Two highlights: Daa Glass (Booth #4), for its drops that look like tiny antique paperweights, and Alexis Russell (Booth #20), for hammered silver pieces that convey an elegant toughness, or a tough elegance, either a good thing.
For the man in your life who really needs a scarf, but you want to give him something more personal than a scarf:
Why: Scarves so soft, so luxurious and sophisticated, he’ll want to get more personal as soon as you wrap it around his neck. OK, well that’s gross if it’s for your dad or brother or other relation, but either way, these scarves signal that you want him to look good, know he won’t tolerate anything itchy around his neck and don’t want him getting the flu. And you were willing to pay for it. This relatively new American brand, based in Fall River, Mass., patchworks glen plaid, herringbone, houndstooth and birdseye weaves in Italian wools, silks and cashmeres into singular statement accessories. About $150 and up.
Location: Booth #45 (west side)
For the fashion-conscious environista:
Why: A structured, neo-40s women’s jacket that channels film-noir attitude and is made in New York. It’s outerwear that you’ll want to wear everywhere. In grey herringbone with a crimson charmeuse lining, both sourced from surplus fabrics, it feels sumptuous inside and out. The company uses natural and sustainable fabrics for all of its designs. (I believe the jacket I saw is this Short Swerve Coat, but I thought it was shorter than the one pictured at the link. I was asked not to photograph the one in the booth.) $425.
Location: Booth #70 (west side)
Why: The coolest coat in the warmest blue, that’s retro in style but constructed of cutting-edge vegan material that looks like velvet and feels like part fleece, part velour. And the designer is as intriguing as the design, committed to “a compassionate future in fashion,” right here in New York. Clever, too: The company name is shorthand for Vegan Haute Couture. (“Vaute” is also meant to suggest you can opt — i.e., vote — for a world in which “there’s no reason left to wear animals.”) Around $300.
Location: Vaute Couture’s booth number is not listed on the vendor map, but it is on the east side of the hall.
For the teen you live with whose tastes are a complete mystery (so you may as well buy something you might co-opt later):
Why: The equivalent of a graphic novel depicted on a leather belt you can customize with a choice of buckles. From belts with storylines — graffiti-style, tattoo-style and anime-style renderings of spacemen, sea monsters, zombies and other characters — to belts in bold stripes, plaids, paisleys, polka dots and other patterns, all are designed by a Washington, D.C.-based collective of artists. (And, they’re vegetable-dyed and water- and scratch-resistant, with rivets made in the U.S.A.) Graphic T-shirts for men, women and kids are also available. Around $50 and up.
Location: Booth #55 (west side)
Other booths to explore for teenage girls: The aforementioned jewelry makers and milliners, and LaCrasia Gloves (Booth 41, west side), with gloves galore — opera-length gloves, driving gloves, half-fingered gloves, plain old regular gloves — in every fabric from leather, satin and stretch velvet to crochet and sequins. For teens who live out in America: A few booths sell NYC-branded merchandise that might not appeal to a local kid but would give an out-of-towner street cred.
For kids whose parents you like (i.e., no messy or noisy gifts):
Why: Girly-girl fleece pillbox hats appliqued with flowers and faux fur and boys-will-be-boys Luchadore hats. The brightly colored apparel, which also includes coats and pullovers, is made in the U.S. from Polartec fleece produced in Massachusetts. But avoid the weird, sad-looking furry hats and scarves; they too much resemble the real thing (read: a dead animal). Give those only to kids whose parents you don’t like. About $25 (hats) and up.
Location: Booth #16 (east side)
An edgier option: Belt and T-shirt maker Jon Wye (see above) also has kids’ sizes.
Why: Irresistibly cute, eco-friendly hand puppets that even “grown-ups” will want to slip on (especially, perhaps, if they’ve been watching HBO’s Family Tree). This Toronto-based firm makes its toys from reclaimed wool; ergo, each puppet has its own unique characteristics. Plus, they feel good on the hand. The materials are washed and dried at high temperatures by an eco-cleaner prior to use, giving them a unique texture (and ensuring they’re clean!). $35 each; $30 when you purchase multiples.
Location: Booth #56 (west side)
Should you seek something more educational or traditional in the kids category, try the New York Transit Museum (Booth #33, in the northeast corner of the hall), the American Museum of Natural History (Booth #72, tucked into the northwest corner of the hall) or the venerable Madame Alexander Doll Co. (Booth #23, on the east side).