on-line contest

What's New

Most Popular


Story and photos by

Our shopping list was long: Christmas, wedding, hostess and birthday gifts for adults and children. We didn't have much time to shop. We wanted a stress-free place to shop for unique gifts that would make the recipients say Wow!

Shoppers in Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art
Shoppers in Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Deciding to bypass cookie-cutter items at chain stores, we searched out treasures hidden in Ontario museums, art galleries and science centres. In Toronto, we found four specialty shops within a five-minute walk of each other.

Gift ideas

Shoe-themed gifts filled the entranceway shop at The Bata Shoe Museum. For a fashion-loving friend, we selected a multicolored silk scarf adorned with images of shoes from the museum's collections.

We spotted a shoe-shaped stainless steel cake server with a magnetic rhinestone 'heel' that could be detached for washing. Packaged with a home-baked cake, it would be a novel hostess gift for an upcoming party.

Art work

The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art shop in the lobby is bright, airy and modern. Pastel and boldly colored glass and ceramics, displayed on white shelves like contemporary art, drew us in like magnets. We resisted the urge to buy some of the decorative plates, trays, mugs and bowls for ourselves before finishing our gift list.

Silk scarves decorated with shoes at The Bata Shoe Museum
Silk scarves decorated with shoes at The Bata Shoe Museum
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The diversity of handcrafted work by Ontario artists impressed us. (Some have exhibited ceramics at Gardiner shows.)

We checked one birthday gift off our list when we spotted a floral glazed stoneware teapot by Scott Barnim, from Dundas, Ontario. "Scott's work is very popular," said assistant shop manager, April Walsh, as she handed us his biography. "Our customers like to read about the artists' education, work experience and exhibitions."

We admired the creations of Toronto-based Karin Pavey, a master of glazing, who's an instructor at the museum. The mugs, bowls and wine coolers by Thomas Aitkin from Warsaw, Ontario, also drew our attention. Aitkin's wife, Kate Hyde, is a porcelain sculptor. Her white angels were perfect Christmas gifts for two more people on our list.

Our eyes then zeroed in on an exquisite red-and-turquoise vase by Kleinburg artist, Kayo O'Young. It was a one-of-a-kind wedding gift for the couple on our list.

Unusual presents

To finish our shopping, we walked across the road to the ROM Museum Store in the Royal Ontario Museum. Located on the main floor of Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, it's a huge 650 sq. m. (7,000 sq. ft.) treasure house of unique gifts from around the world.

Glazed floral teapot made by Scott Barnim
Glazed floral teapot made by Scott Barnim
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The theme of each display corresponded to a ROM gallery. Tribal masks, decorated gourds and books about Africa. Kimonos from Japan. Geodes, cracked open to display purple amethyst crystals.

A shiny helmet with a brilliant red fringe dominated a display of Roman gifts. A small, carved wooden sarcophagus, in the adjacent Egypt section, would certainly be a conversation piece for the male on our list. A clerk opened the cover to reveal a carved wooden mummy inside, partially wrapped in gauze.

Finally, we spotted the perfect gift for our coin-collecting relative. The Dirty Old Coins kit contained 10 authentic ancient coins, at least 1,000 years old, with a brush, magnifier, storage cases and instructions for restoration, identification and valuation.

Robin's egg soaps at ROM Museum Store
Robin's egg soaps at ROM Museum Store
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We perused items in ROM Reproductions, a glass-enclosed section of the store, for our nature-loving niece. Egyptian gold cat jewellery, Mohawk pottery cups, yellow Chin Dynasty bowls, all copies of museum artefacts, would make novel gifts, but not for our young teenager.

In the main store, we saw something she would love — a set of French-milled soaps shaped like robin's eggs — pale blue with brown speckles. We pulled out our credit cards.

Unique gifts for kids

An entire shop devoted to children's gifts, ROM Kids Store, on Level B1, made it easy to find gifts for the four-year-old boy on our list. But our heads spun with choices. A large green iridescent bug in a frame? A stuffed mammoth toy with curled tusks? A plush Atlantic puffin that squawked when you squeezed it?

As we flit like butterflies from one toy to the next, we noted a little girl studying a replica dinosaur. A young boy ran to the same display, grabbed a triceratops in one hand and a brachiosaurus in the other. "Roar!" he growled, confronting the two extinct reptiles in an imaginary dino-battle. Decision made. Our nephew would love the replica allosaurus.

One of the advantages to shopping in museums, galleries and science centres, is that many boast cafés and restaurants, so you don't have to leave the building to eat.

Another bonus? After our shopping was done, we took a leisurely stroll through the exhibit galleries. It was our reward for a job well done.

Girl with replica dinosaur at ROM Kids Store
Girl with replica dinosaur at ROM Kids Store
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ontario museums

According to the Ontario Museum Association, the province has more than 600 museums, art galleries and cultural institutions. Most have gift shops. Their themes are as diverse as the interests and ages of the people on your shopping list: archaeology, aviation, Canadian history, canoes, hockey, minerals, ships, railroads and wildlife, to name a few.

Take Ottawa, for example. The main boutique at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, across the river in Gatineau, has 10,000 items for sale. They include original handmade Inuit sculptures, First Nations beaded moccasins and argillite reproductions of Haida carvings in the museum's collections.

For children, gifts range from games and stamp sets to books on architecture and Egypt (one of the themes in the Canadian Children's Museum).

Kids love the items (many under $5) in the Canadian Museum of Nature boutique in Ottawa. Besides rubber dinosaurs and genuine fossils, it sells a large selection of nature and geology books, covering topics from bats to porcupines.

Glass inukshuk in Whizards Gift Shop at Science North
Glass inukshuk in Whizards Gift Shop at Science North
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

If there is a Canadian history buff on your shopping list, visit the Diefenbunker: Canada's Cold War Museum in Carp, just west of Ottawa. Its Diefemporium, open after tours and on request, sells souvenirs ranging from spy toys to original hand-held dosimeters produced for the military during the 1960s.

Get well soon gifts

In Sudbury, Whizards Gift Shop at Science North sells cool science toys like gyroscopes and magnetic levitating globes. Multi-hued plush giant microbes, depicting maladies from ulcers to the flu, make fun get-well gifts.

The Big Nickel Boutique, at Dynamic Earth, sells crack-open geodes, agate slab wind chimes and Canadian gems, rocks and minerals for budding geologists.

Both shops sell inukshuks, hand-chipped from blocks of solid glass in Northern Ontario.


Ontario museums, galleries and science centres: www.destinationontario.com

More things to see and do in Toronto:

Toronto Chinatown Walking Tour