- T&S Hughes Photography
A boom box, just in case
Since the summer of 2012, the four-person team at SIR Case (Suitcase in Rhythm) has been scavenging vintage suitcases—the kind that may have once been attached to 50s-era door-to-door salesmen—from antique shops and garage sales, subsequently gutting and repurposing them into functional boom boxes. The modernization makes the suitcases useless for transporting stuff, sure, but they were clunky and cumbersome to begin with, and you couldn't plug an iPhone into one. Each SIR Case comes standard with a 3.5-millimeter audio jack, and the portable version has 15-plus hours of battery life. Some are available with Bluetooth capabilities and USB ports. You can customize the vessels, too: founder David Dodgson explains that he and his partners will put speakers in most anything, from old tin lunch pails to steamer trunks (the size likely dictates the power, which can range from 15 to 400 watts). And if you ever want your very own portable DJ setup, that's an option. Ten percent of the proceeds of each SIR Case benefits Lot 2545, which supports boys living in the slums of Uganda. —Kevin Warwick $650-$1,195, sir-case.com.
- Kimmer Olesak
If you find a cigar box decorated with elephants, give a shout to Kimmer Olesak. The hobbyist makes cigar-box guitars in his basement through his company, Axbox, and can customize them to your liking. The recipient doesn't need to be an avid guitar player either; the instruments also make great decorations. In fact, Olesak is on the hunt for a box with elephants so a client can hang it in her elephant-themed house. Olesak started building cigar-box guitars three and a half years ago after seeing one at a concert. You may notice the cigar-box guitar doesn't quite produce what Olesak called "the richness and tone" of a traditional guitar. But for an instrument made from a box—which Olesak sources from antique stores, garage sales, or eBay—the sound is pretty damn good. —Jillian Sandler $125-$225, axboxguitars.com.
- Courtesy the artist (Annie's Pet Portraits); Courtesy Dog City
Dogs are not easy to buy presents for. They destroy toys, vomit up treats, and become mutinous if you try to make them wear sweaters. Dog owners, on the other hand, are complete suckers for anything bearing the image of their furry beloveds. Dog City & Co. takes gross advantage of this weakness by selling throw pillows, T-shirts, iPhone cases, tote bags, and mugs emblazoned with silhouettes or typographical pictures of popular breeds. (They also do custom work.) Their best item, though, may be the "Rules of the House (Regarding the Dog)" pillow, which describes the process by which dogs ignore all attempts at setting boundaries and take over the house. Anyone who has ever had to sleep contorted into an impossible position because her dog has claimed the best part of the bed will understand.
And if you're feeling truly extravagant, you can commission Chicago artist Anne Leuck Feldhaus to create a portrait of a treasured pet. Feldhaus does both faces and larger scenes based on photos, and you can get the finished piece as a digital print or a painting on canvas. By art shall Fido be immortalized. —Aimee Levitt Pillow: $3.75-$45, dogcityandco.com. Portrait: $250-$1,000, annesart.com, and at Fixture (2108 W. Roscoe), shopfixture.com.
- Courtesy Divvy Bikes
Share the gift of bike share
There are two options for membership in Divvy, the bike-sharing program with stations—and wheels—across the city. The "Pedal" membership includes unlimited 30-minute bike trips. "Gear" offers the same, plus five 24-hour passes to share with friends and family, as well as a T-shirt. Bikes can be picked up at and returned to any of 400 stations across the city. The system is designed for riders who want to make quick commutes, run errands, or simply be tourists. —Deanna Shilkus $75 "Pedal" membership, $125 "Gear" membership, divvybikes.com.
- Courtesy Loopy Q & Co.
To paraphrase its slogan, the LoopyQ pouch is a peculiar alternative to handbags for the peculiar person. Creator and DePaul student JQ Crimaldi came across a vintage suede necklace pouch while shopping at a local thrift store. After receiving plenty of compliments on her unique accessory, Crimaldi decided to launch LoopyQ. The all-leather drawstring pouch hangs around your neck and can hold all of your daily essentials: smartphone, credit cards, keys, driver's license. The designs vary from classic colors to crystal studded to metallic. —Tanya Flores $20-$30 plus shipping, loopyq.com.
- Brian Confer
In support of food!
Timothy Young built a business around doing the right thing. All of the products offered by his Michigan-based company, Food for Thought—preserves, salsas, relishes, etc—are organic and sustainable and produced with a "great deal of love and commitment." The business's name has been trademarked for years, but that didn't prevent the Huffington Post and Chipotle from teaming up and launching a blog with the same name and a similar logo—and Young is taking them on. Support a little guy who's standing up to the big guys this holiday season by buying a gift basket full of Food for Thought's products. We're partial to the Herb! Stop Whining! basket ($47), which comes with three wine-infused fruit preserves (like Apricot Chardonnay) and two that are infused with herbs (like Blueberry Lavender). Or you can build your own basket with two, four, or six items. Products are sold at Publican Quality Meats, the Dill Pickle Food Co-op, Provenance Food & Wine, Chicago-area Whole Foods, and other local retailers. —Gwynedd Stuart $20-$57, foodforthought.net.
Go vegan: no sissies allowed
Chicagoan Natalie Slater launched her insanely popular blog Bake and Destroy in 2006 with the aim of promoting the vegan lifestyle in an anything-but-stuffy manner. With an emphasis on sweet snacks, youth crew hardcore, Norwegian black metal, and tattoos, her unconventional approach landed her on small screens nationwide, with appearances on Food Network and Cooking Channel baking competitions. This year, Slater delivered her first-ever book, Bake and Destroy: Good Food for Bad Vegans (Page Street Publishing). Bake and Destroy isn't your typical vegan cookbook, and if you're looking for healthier options, this is probably the last place you should start. Slater leans heavily on junk food: countless cupcake recipes, nachos, mac 'n' cheeze, giant sandwiches, brownies, tater tots, and quite possibly the best food invention ever: French fry tacos. (Her falafel waffles are a close second.) Quinoa and kale be damned! The recipes and tips are offered up with Slater's signature charm and bite, and there's a foreword from pro-wrestling superstar C.M. Punk. Available at local bookstores including Challengers, Book Cellar, Quimby's, and Barnes & Noble. —Luca Cimarusti $15-$19.99, bakeanddestroy.net.
- Joe Tighe, Courtesy Brew Camp
- Brew Camp director Whit Nelson (right) talks hops.
Brew it yourself
Brew Camp, a home-brew shop in Lincoln Square (4639 N. Damen), offers brewing classes, firesides, and group brews to beer lovers of any skill level. For people wanting a purely educational experience, classes cover the process of home brewing. Firesides are more social events, where participants can bring their own beer, taste beer from local breweries, and brew their own bottles. The third activity, group brews, is for groups of two or three people who want to brew a full batch of beer, wine, or cider. (A "full batch" is five gallons.) "I want people to understand this isn't just a frat-house thing," co-owner Jared Saunders says. "You can make a nice wine to go with your dinner and it can be done in two square feet in your kitchen." Gift certificates are available; Brew Camp will even bottle and cap them. —Rachel Graf $20 classes, $30 firesides, $100 (plus cost of ingredients) group brews, brewcamp.com.
- Courtesy Book Table
A gift card might not be the most inspired thing you can give someone for the holidays. It kind of says, "I didn't feel like putting in the time and effort to get you something thoughtful, so just take this plastic thing and get it yourself." We've all done it. Luckily, the Book Table (1045 Lake, Oak Park) has gift cards that are gifts themselves. Comic artist and literary hero Chris Ware created two new illustrations for the bookshop to use as art for its gift cards. For the lit nerds in your life, these aren't so much gift cards as they are collectibles that happen to come loaded with cash they can spend on books. —Drew Hunt $10-$200, booktable.net.
- Courtesy iamhome
Skull chalk? Sure.
Joseph and Sarah Belknap, the husband-wife crafters behind Iamhome, have a knack for making simplicity beautiful and fun. They've created amped-up trophies, custom fences to hang on your wall, and a line of cranial decor. The brightly colored skull chalkboard pieces are cast from molds of actual skulls and offered in whatever biological classification you prefer (and, if you're feeling flashy, covered in gold). Along with adding a unique decorative element, these pieces are also functional for friendly reminders—leaving notes to roommates to do the dishes on a turquoise skull sends a message that's both fun and deadly serious. For those who can't decide between the Homo sapiens or Paranthropus aethiopicus models, there's also soap molded from a raccoon skull available to add a skeletal edge to your home. —Brianna Wellen $34-$46 chalkboard skulls, $8 skull soap, iamhome.us.
- Courtesy Project Onward
A very personal work of art
Ever since cameras came along, it's been pretty much only presidents, royalty, and other fat cats who've had the luxury of seeing their own mug transformed into an artwork rendered by the human hand. But Project Onward, a studio and gallery for artists with mental and developmental disabilities, has a dozen portraitists among its members whose exceptional work can make a truly unique gift. Portraits start at $20, an additional person in the picture is just $10 more, and gift certificates are available. The recipient can peruse samples—styles range from fanciful to strikingly realistic—and select the artist of his or her choice before the sitting, which usually takes about a half hour. Formerly located in the Chicago Cultural Center, Project Onward is now in large new quarters on the fourth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center (1200 W. 35th). —Deanna Isaacs 773-940-2992, projectonward.org.