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Sophisticated Kitsch

How many times have you been caught empty-handed while attending a birthday, anniversary, or wedding? You're in a need of a quick gift, but procrastination got the best of you. Here are four gift stores that not only help you save face, but make you look hip in the process. Heartfelt, tutti frutti, Rainbow Station, and kar'ikter will make gift shopping as easy as ordering a Big Mac combo through your local drive-thru.

The common thread weaving each of these gift stores is "kitsch." Perhaps a definition might illustrate why these stores are defined as such? The literal German translation of 'der kitsch' is 'trash.' When mass production met consumer consumption, 'kitsch' moved from meaning 'trash' to implying vulgar popular culture items, devoid of high-brow aesthetics. A good example would be something your mother picked up at a five and dime store. Remember when you were embarrassed as your friends witnessed her proud collection of porcelain angels?

While kitsch stores run the gamut from gaudy to tasteless, there are some shops that put 'kitsch' into another class. Priding themselves in finding the cream of the crop, you'll be amazed how mass produced items, when collected in a suitable store, can transform into something individual and unique. Let's take a look at some of these stores and help illustrate kitsch-as-cool.

Heartfelt is neatly tucked on Courtland Street in Bernal Heights. Owner Darcy Lee describes her clientele as "soup to nuts", which goes hand-in-hand with her eclectic mix of gift items. Whether you're looking for greeting cards, gift wrap, house wares, kitchenware, or toys, you've stopped at the right place. Notable items include pink elephant cocktail stirs, Bozo the Clown bop bag key chains, Jesus action figures, and the pig catapult gun (launching plastic pigs up to 15 feet). Heartfelt also has gift selections that are more palatable for those without a sense of humor. Ornate wooden sushi bowls, hand-painted Chinese silk lanterns and vintage button bracelets will tempt your eyes and your wallet.

Nothing best describes the second store then its own name, tutti frutti. Located on Irving Street in the Sunset District, you'll only need five minutes in the store before hearing, "I remember those!" or "Ah cool, look at these!" Falling under the category of a toy and card store, there's more kitsch per square inch here than what any Las Vegas gift store can offer: from cowboy TV dinner trays, Dr. Seuss alphabet trains and Betty Boop lunch boxes to sea monkey watches, Slinky Dogs, Mad Libs and Sparkling Mullet car and body wash. Manager Linda Schireson carefully handpicked two unique items. The current best selling item is the Perpetual Motion Sunshine Buddy by Tomy toys. Running on solar power, the oversized 'carefree and happy' face rocks back and forth dizzying you into outright anger or sublime calmness, depending on your anger management skills. Another unique item was the Freud finger puppet (with wife stuck in between the chaise cushions), a gift suitable for your closest pseudo-intellectual friend.

Rainbow Station proves kitsch doesn't discriminate, as all cultures have their own form. Located on Grant Street in Chinatown, the store is evenly divided between the gender lines. One side of the store is draped in a sea of pastels. What better commodified character to depict neo-kitsch then Sanrio's own Hello Kitty? School supplies, backpacks, address books, t-shirts, stickers, and purses blanket the store in pink. The opposite side of the store focuses on Bruce Lee figurines, Anime lunch boxes, remote control cars, Pokemon trading cards, and Johnny Sokko dolls. Nothing, however, compares to their collection of Maneki Neko or cat figurines. Porcelain cats, in gold and white, raise their anchored paw back and forth beckoning luck and fortune.

If Rainbow Station centers around Eastern culture, kar'ikter focuses on European flair. Nestled around Union Square, kar'ikter specializes in two main areas: European childhood characters and innovative design products. What may seem like a strange mix lends itself to an eclectic gift store able to please dad, mom, and children alike. For those who grew up in Europe, kar'ikter focuses on children's characters that are dear to your heart. Tin Tin, Asterix the Gladiator, Babar, Madeline, and Le Petit Prince, are just a few of the characters in which they specialize. Transformed from simple book characters, they are now marketable sundries for every part of your home. In need of Le Petit Prince porcelain plates, a Tin Tin wall clock or a Barbar rug? Look no further. kar'ikter also has high-end European design products like the clear polycarbonate Louis Ghost armchairs, Troika stainless steel office products, and Stelton metal bowls and platters.

Spread across the city, Heartfelt, tutti frutti, Rainbow Station, and kar'ikter offer the best in San Francisco kitsch. Whether you have $5 or $50, the consumer in you will dish out the greenbacks to celebrate popular culture and get down with the kitsch.

436 Cortland Avenue
Hours: Monday - Friday 11 am - 8 pm, Sunday 11 am - 6 pm
Phone: 415.648.1380

Tutti Frutti
718 Irving Street
Hours: Monday - Thursday 10 am - 6 pm, Friday - Saturday 10 am - 7 pm, Sunday 11 am - 6 pm
Phone: 415.661.8504

Rainbow Station
1047 Grant Avenue
Hours: Sunday - Saturday 10:30 am - 7 pm
Phone: 415.397.7829

418 Sutter Street
Hours: Monday - Saturday 10 am - 7 pm, Sunday 11 am - 5 pm
Phone: 415.434.1120