Best eco-friendly goods
The E House Company
1511 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-488-7455 or www.ehousecompany.com
"Re-gifting" is bad, but gifting recycled goods is not. So we suggest you do at least some of your holiday shopping at this haven of organic goods. E House, which sells recycled, organic and all-natural products, carries everything from bamboo cutting boards and salad tossers to hemp wallets and organic socks. Need to protect your coffee table? Why not buy coasters crafted from the motherboards of used computers? And if you're tired of mailing letters in boring white envelopes, consider jazzing things up with envelopes made out of government topographic maps. Whether you're sending a love letter or an eviction notice, you should at least try to make it attractive and eco-friendly.
Best indoor meeting place
Omni William Penn hotel lobby
530 William Penn Place, Downtown. 412-281-7100
Strategically located at the crossroads of Pittsburgh's business, cultural and political power centers, the lobby of the William Penn recalls the importance hotels can have for the people who actually live in town. Just a few steps away from Mellon Square Park, it's always been a great place to spot the people who built this city, as well as the visitors passing through. And sometimes you'll see a junior-level political aspirant making a pitch to the powers that be. OK, maybe the real decisions happen around pentagram-inscribed tables in the Duquesne Club ... but the William Penn reminds you of a time when men still wore hats. The old-school clock, the sound of Harry Cardillo on the piano, the clink of china from the Terrace Room next door ... it all speaks of a more accommodating age. And as a concession to the contemporary, there's even a Starbucks off to the side. Pull up an espresso, and keep a business card handy.
Best magazine stand
2705 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-381-3600
For pointy-headed intellectuals, most newsstands are an exercise in despair. How many lifestyle magazines can a society produce ... or consume? Looking over the average magazine rack, you'd almost get the feeling Americans care more about Jon Gosselin's career prospects than the latest essay by Malcolm Gladwell. Over at the SouthSideWorks, though, Joseph-Beth offers dispatches from a richer world. Sure, there's plenty of advice if you want to enjoy better orgasms, plus a wide selection of music mags and other fare. But this is one of the rare outlets to find a literary journal like Granta ... or heavyweight fare like Wilson Quarterly. Whatever your taste, this is the place to come if you need a periodic reminder that, in a reality-TV world, you are not alone.
Best store for people who don't get enough of Handmade Arcade
4209 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-224-2651 or www.wildcardpgh.com
Need to get your indie-craft fix year 'round? This new store, offering handmade and variously kitschy items, in the heart of Larryville is sure to satisfy. Wares include: upcycled clothing, silk-screened tote bags, jewelry made from various found objects, not-for-Grandma cross-stitch kits and hundreds of greeting cards. (There's a woodland creature for every occasion.) And this is a great place to get your Pittsburgh-themed gifts: quirky Steelers T-shirts, photographs taken at nearby Allegheny Cemetery, a Moleskine notebook screened "PIT" and a selection of books about our fair town. Wrap it all up in a sheet of skull-patterned wrapping paper. And guys: If your ladies are browsing, be sure to check out the free-play Wild West-themed vintage pinball machine.
Best place to go astray
562 Camp Horne Road, Ross. 412-847-7000 or www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org
With its sprawling suburban doggie campus and plentiful resources for pet owners, Animal Friends is more than just a shelter. It offers low-cost spaying and neutering as well as events in which adoptable dogs and cats are brought out into the community to meet potential owners. Animal Friends makes a point of engaging with the public and combating the problems of overpopulation and animal abuse. Most importantly, it's the only local organization with a strict policy prohibiting the euthanasia of pets unless they're considered truly dangerous. With a no-kill philosophy and a propensity for bringing the plight of shelter pets to those who can help, Animal Friends is doing some big favors for our furry pals -- and that gets our tails wagging.
Best place to recreate the trappings of Mad Men ... minus the outmoded gender roles
J.R. Weldin Co.
413 Wood St., Downtown. 412-281-0123.
You don't have to be a foppish steampunk type to want to write with a fountain pen in 2009, right? OK, maybe you do. Regardless, J.R. Weldin has your fancy-writing-utensil fix. This office-supply spot has shelves of ink-drinking pens and accoutrements, plus a bizarre mix of other goods. (Check out the yarn and knitting supplies upstairs.) Serious outdoorsy types know Weldin's as the place to go for topographic maps. Pittsburgh arcana represents, as do accessories from another era. Of course, you can also get stationery and the like there, as at any office store. And did we mention that the whole operation is overseen by a friendly store feline?
Best pop-up flea market
36th and Butler streets (Goeller's parking lot), Lawrenceville. 412-353-0109 or lawrencevillelittleflea.blogspot.com
Despite what you hear from Kermit, sometimes it is easy being green, especially in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. The market debuted in August, presented by Equita, an eco-friendly independent shop, as part of its Act Locally! project. Vendors sold their vintage wares, handmade goods and more every Saturday, weather permitting, through early November. One CP editor was able to pick up a hot-shoe flash, a unique picture frame and several antique pins and earrings for about $10. The neighborhood marketplace will lay dormant during the winter, but will return along with the pleasant weather.
Best bank asset that's actually growing
PNC's living wall
Fifth Avenue and Wood Street, Downtown.
Welcome to Downtown's newest residents: 602 plants growing high up on the southern wall of One PNC Plaza. The suspended garden is a noticeable aesthetic improvement upon the otherwise unremarkable corporate slab, and it also helps insulate and cool the building. But these plants aren't only working for PNC; they also "absorb volatile organic compounds, including pollutants in the immediate area" for all of us. Right now, the garden forms a swirly pattern that includes PNC's name and logo carefully picked out in plants. That's fair for a first season, but here's hoping the bank branches out beyond self-promotion. The building also has an historical plaque noting that Marquis de Lafayette spent a couple nights at this corner in 1825. Surely, that's worth a portrait in ferns.
Best Feel-Good Coffee
Building New Hope
106 Overton Lane, Squirrel Hill. 412-421-1625 or www.buildingnewhope.org
Until there's a way to grow coffee beans in Southwestern Pennsylvania, this outfit is about as close you'll get to guilt-free java. Building New Hope, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit committed to community development in Central America, counts among its projects importing coffee from a worker-owned cooperative in Nicaragua. The beans are organic and shade-grown, which is better for the environment; meanwhile, Building New Hope pays above fair-trade rates, and funds projects including alternative schools and alternative energy. The coffee's even roasted locally, by La Prima Espresso, Pittsburgh's only certified-organic coffee roaster. Buy the beans, or savor the light French-roast brew, at some three dozen area stores and coffeehouses.
Best example of misplaced anger at global trade
Irish Design Center
303 S. Craig St., Oakland. 412-682-6125 or www.irishdesigncenter.com
Among the more inexplicable actions taken by protesters during the G-20 summit was the vandalism directed at this unassuming shop. The Center -- locally owned, by the way -- has been a Craig Street fixture for 30 years, serving customers willing to take a step beyond the claddagh and buy genuine Irish- (and Scottish-)made textiles and other products. Even if woolen sweaters and trad-music CDs aren't your thing, we're pretty sure no Irish people were harmed in the making of these products. Besides, where else are you going to get a complete guidebook to the mysteries of the tin-whistle? Or copiously footnoted accounts of the Potato Famine? Fortunately, the IDC is still in business: If a little property damage could keep the Irish down, they'd still be pledging fealty to the queen.