If there’s an art to finding interesting, unusual, and even offbeat holiday gifts, it might just begin where art is found: in museums. And the shops in Trenton museums are just the places to go.
As one might expect, in the New Jersey State Museum’s second floor gift shop the accent is a New Jersey one, with gifts ranging from jewelry to fine crafts to state fossil T-shirts.
A walk along the cases against the window wall — overlooking West State Street by the capitol building — preview the inventory, starting with the shimmering and light sterling silver and glass earrings and necklaces created by the Millstone Township-based Ocean Sea Glass Creations ($40).
There are also handsome fused glass necklaces created by Vibrant Fusions, an enterprise born in Hamilton Township Life Skills class where students with multiple disabilities design and create art to support class projects ($12).
The Newark-based Glassroots — designed to “transform lives, especially of underserved youth, by fostering life-long learning and creative self-expression “through glass-making — is also offering a variety of attractive and, at $12, affordable earrings.
“Trenton Glory” is the name of the botanical print fabric collection created by the self-taught Princeton area artist Kelly Kouzmina. Her colorful silk scarves sell for $65 while the intricate felt works are $95.
Also on hand are works by Recklesstown Potters from Chesterfield and products by Sun River Arts in Lawrence.
While fine crafts are fine, there are also some fun products. Clerk Elizabeth Berkowitz is happy to show off the New Jersey tumbler glasses decorated with 1950s-era design of the Garden State and key locales — including Trenton and Princeton ($12 each). Matching tea-towels and aprons are also available.
Other New Jersey favorites are tree ornaments featuring the state insect (the honey bee) and bird (eastern gold finch), a New Jersey key hook that features state highlights, and a variety of products bearing the image of the New Jersey Statehouse — mugs, light catchers, and even a shawl, with each being more attractive than it sounds.
Elsewhere look books featuring New Jersey artists, including two on nationally known Trenton artist Mel Leipzig, another on famed New Jersey born American artist Jacob Lawrence, an Encyclopedia of New Jersey, and bios of Jersey guys Joseph Bonaparte (former king of Spain and brother to Napoleon) and Bruce Springsteen. Note cards with images from the museum’s fine and decorative arts collection and even some prints and artworks are also available.
And if none of the above are of interest, then look for the dinosaur shirts, posters featuring the state dinosaur, bags of plastic soldiers, and those messy vinegar and baking soda science kits that promise to create a mess.
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., suggested admission requested for exhibitions, tell them you’re going to the shop. (609) 292-6464 or nj.gov/state/museum.
At the Old Barracks Museum, the Quartermasters Store is all about the history of the Revolutionary War and a specific battle at a specific point: George Washington’s surprise attack on the Hessian Soldiers housed in the very same barracks.
If the shop’s large room with natural light flowing through large clear windows seems to be something from the past, that’s because it is. The room fills a space built in 1758 to house British soldiers.
And if that doesn’t get one in the mood for history, then checkout the book section, where titles such as “1776” by David McCullough are prominent. Nearby are recordings of fife and drum events held in the barrack courtyard. Then jump a few centuries ahead to the Trenton and New Jersey-themed magnets, drinking cups that glow when beverages are added, and T-shirts.
The causal souvenir collector will find tri-cornered hats, rifle pens, and finger puppets of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Betsy Ross. Yet serious collectors will also linger over the miniature hand painted Hessian soldier (a set of three for $75) or Philadelphia-born artist Kara Bettie Speckhals’s framed hand-cut designs, evocative of the era ($30).
A quick chat with clerks David Niecsor and Asher Lurie brings up some visitor favorites: honey stick candy and coffee, the latter being the Colonial Blend ($13 per can).
Other “olde-time” foods include jars of cranberry or horseradish mustard and Old Barracks Breakfast Tea ($10). And if all else fails, there are always the Old Barracks shot glasses to salute Washington’s Trenton victory in 1776.
Old Barracks Museum, 101 Barrack Street, Trenton, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., access to shop is free. (609) 396-1776 or barracks.org.
At the 1719 Trent House there are two small gift shops. The first and easiest to access is in the carriage house information center. That’s where you’ll find a handcart filled with Trent House souvenirs: magnets ($4.50), bookmarks ($1.50), notebooks ($4 and $8), handheld fans ($4), and caps ($14). Here archeologist-turned-docent Shawn Carney shows off some of the historic house’s top favorites: bags of English Tea ($6) and Brown Betty Teapots ($35) made with English red clay to keep the tea cozily warm.
But it’s the store in the basement of the house built in 1719 by Trenton’s namesake, William Trent, that takes visitors into the Colonial era. Here one can stock up on inexpensive pennywhistles, Jacob’s ladders, cats cradles, replica arrow heads, and goose quill pens. Or just stop and marvel at the bright stripped old fashioned stick candy displayed atop of giant barrels.
But it isn’t all child’s play, and Carney points out lavender scented soaps ($4.50) and sachets from Carousel Farm in Bucks County ($4.40 and $9), and the Trent House note cards ($8). She also says to look for the Trent House’s Open House and the Greens Sale on Friday and Saturday, December 2 and 3. That’s when the Trent House and the Garden Club of Trenton create and sell wreaths, trees, and other holiday decorations to support the museum and usher in the season.
1719 William Trent House Museum, 15 Market Street, Trenton. Wednesdays through Sundays, 12:30 to 4 p.m. (609) 989-3027 or williamtrenthouse.org.
A few steps into famed American architect John Notman’s mid-19th Ellarslie mansion in Cadwalader Park is Molly’s gift shop.
Molly is the late Molly Merlino. A Trenton-born figure who studied art and was married to longtime Trenton-born State Senator Joseph Merlino, Molly was a persistent art advocate who not only was able to help raise funds but would show up with a hammer or paint brush if need be.
Molly’s pro-Trenton spirit is reflected in the shop where she was a presence, and, as museum representative James Strobel explains, visitors can find regular museum-shop fare — such as the popular earrings handmade by Montreal’s Christophe Poly — as well as framed artwork by prominent area artists. That includes Robert Sakson ($450 and even lower), Larry Chestnut ($200), Gail Bracegirlde (a Princeton scene for $400), and others. A bin with unframed paintings enhances the selection and lowers the cost.
Also available are prints — at various prices — by well known area artists including the very active painter and sculptor Kate Graves and the beloved late Trenton artists Peggy Gummerie and Tom Malloy — the latter even has a museum gallery named for him. And for something completely different, there are several framed images by Penthouse — yes the skin magazine — publisher Bob Guccione, who was the subject of a past exhibition at the museum (the Matisse-inspired works go for $450 framed or $300 unframed).
If the art work isn’t an eyeful enough, then go to the section with Trenton-related books and publications by area authors. There’s the biography of the neighborhood, “Cadwalader Heights,” by former Trentonian Glen Modica, the mystery novel “Trenton” by area writers John Calu and David Hart, books on the Roeblings and Mercer Steamer by Princeton-based historian Clifford Zink, and even “If Picasso Had a Christmas Tree” by Bordentown artist Eric Gibson.
There are also a variety of other niche products: veiled hats for hat ladies and socks with Michelangelo’s David or Van Gogh’s Starry Night for men who need art — or a statue of a naked guy — on their ankles. And don’t overlook Ellarslie Tea Blend, created by the Trenton-based Tea For All’s Debbie Raab ($12).
The shopping heats up on Saturday and Sunday, December 3 and 4, with the museum’s annual holiday boutique. That’s when the museum showcases original art, jewelry, ornaments, clothing and accessories and more created by local and regional artists. Antiques and Trenton memorabilia will also be on sale.
Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Parkside and Stuyvesant avenues, Trenton, Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m., free. (609) 989-1191 or ellarslie.org.