Reporter's Notebook

Helping You Find the Perfect Gift
Zak Bickel / The Atlantic
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Who’s the hardest person on your holiday gift list to shop for? Readers sent us descriptions of their tricky recipients, and our staffers brainstormed some custom ideas. Read on for some last-minute inspiration. Got another suggestion for what to give these folks? Send us a note—hello@theatlantic.com.

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Age: 23

Place: Ohio

Relationship: boyfriend

From the gift-giver:

My boyfriend is the hardest person to shop for. He only wears black and gray. He isn't "fashion forward." He likes guns and ammo (but obviously wants to buy them all himself). He doesn't like chocolate or sweets. He doesn't read. He doesn't use hair products and shaves his head. HE'S IMPOSSIBLE! He does, however, like tequila and beer (but his palette is very plain). He likes to work on cars and is a combustion engineer by day. He's an outgoing socialite but also enjoys spending some nights in binge-watching Netflix. He likes humor and action! He occasionally plays Call of Duty to pass the time but by no means is he a "gamer."

Any gift they’ve loved?

Well, I have given him some clothes from Express (in black and gray, of course) and he really seemed to like them. But, boy... how impersonal for someone who is my BEST FRIEND! I guess he likes peanuts and peanut butter and surprise dinners in the crock pot... but doesn't cook often. HELP!

We recommend: beer-making kit ($64.95)

A beer-making kit touches on a few aspects of your description: The engineer in him might enjoy tinkering with recipes and flavor variations that suit his palate. The socialite in him would have a nice accompaniment for hangout sessions with friends, one that pairs nicely with a good Netflix binge or Call of Duty mission. The beer-lover in him would get, um, beer. And there are a few bonuses for you as well: Beer-making night could be a lovely stay-at-home date. Plus, you can choose a gift that matches your budget, from a $36 Mr. Beer deluxe kit to kits as costly as $189.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 71

Place: Idaho

Relationship: father

From the gift-giver:

My dad is the quintessential grumpy old man, and a total redneck in his politics and proclivities. He is a crass, badly dressed, Fox-News-watching, red-meat eater. I used to buy him The Far Side calendar every year and go through it and write him notes, and in the years since it went out of production I've tried to find a worthy substitute, but all have fallen short. He likes baseball, trains (especially model railroads), bluegrass and country music, the occasional beer, Navy memorabilia (he's a Vietnam vet), and things that feed his nostalgia for West Virginia. He is sentimental and likes the unapologetically schmaltzy. He reads a lot of spy novels. He is crazy about animals (especially cats), and they are crazy about him. He worked for the Forest Service for many years and loves all things outdoorsy as well.

Any gift they’ve loved?

He loved The Far Side page-a-day calendar, and he loved a Russian Blue cat that was given to him by his favorite former boss. (He actually wound up getting another cat that looks just like the one that was given to him, and he even gave it the same name, Spooky.)

We recommend: Omaha Steaks Steak Club ($69-$119)

You ever notice how nobody sends mail anymore? (I am channeling grumpiness in the spirit of your dad). Getting mail at all in this digital world is exciting—getting a carton of meat in the mail even more so. Omaha Steaks will do just that. Depending on your budget, you could recreate the year-long fun of your gift with one of their Steak Clubs—new steaks quarterly, or every month. Or you could do a one-time shipment of some filet mignon (or whatever kind of steak he likes—you can also make your own combo), and cook them together, so the gift includes an experience, too. (By the way, the steaks come packed in dry ice, so for a real experience, put the dry ice in the sink and run some water on it—your kitchen will fill with fog, which is pretty fun. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 64

Place: Winnipeg

Relationship: mother

From the gift-giver:

This is a tough one. Mom is picky, and she's moving in the next couple of years so she's downsizing "stuff" out of her house—she doesn't want dust-gatherers, knick-knacks, etc., but she wants something tangible from me because we live in different cities, so no tickets, spa days, etc. She doesn't want books, appliances, garden stuff, flowers/arrangements (they're impersonal—you'll see a theme here), or food of any type (she finds gift baskets impersonal). She has all the DVD sets and music she wants. She's weird about other people buying her clothes/scarves, and she finds gift cards impersonal.

She doesn't like Christmas-themed gifts because then you have to put them away immediately. She doesn't like pajamas or robe-type things because she tends to run warm. Her brother usually includes a calendar in his gift package. Her birthday is two days after Christmas and I bought her beautiful, one-of-a-kind jewelry so I don't want to do jewelry for Christmas also.

She's a great cook and baker, loves classic rock (especially the Beatles and Stones), enjoys the ballet and theater, movies, tea, and wine. She has a ton of loose leaf tea, good kettle, pots, teacups, and mugs. She doesn't drink coffee. She enjoys reading and gardening. She loves her iPad (has a case for it she really likes). She likes trying new kinds of food and restaurants. She has a lot of nostalgia for her blue-collar roots and her self-made present. She's a reading and behavior specialist in an elementary school. She loves the Muppets, Ten Thousand Villages-type stuff, callbacks to her northern Ontario upbringing, and Newfoundland and Ukrainian history of the family. She has fond memories of going to Cuba with me for her 60th birthday. She's thinking about moving to Ontario to be closer to me and the rest of her family sometime in the next couple of years.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Gift subscription to a newspaper she loved at the time but no longer reads; The Thorn Birds and 1980s series Beauty and the Beast on DVD; Waterford Crystal clock; when I digitized her photos and made photo books of major events.

We recommend: indoor tea garden kit ($37.99)

As someone whose mom only wants him to move back home to Texas tonight, get married tomorrow, and have 12 children next week, I understand the perils of shopping for a picky mother. May I humbly suggest, then, the best of all worlds for someone who enjoys gardening and tea: an herbal tea herb garden starter kit. For a paltry $37.99 (plus free shipping!), there’s a mini-greenhouse, soil pellets galore, and 12 kinds of seeds to tend. Once the herbs are all grown, she can pack them in the provided bags, and boil them to her delight. Plus, y’know, bonus tea infuser. The greenhouse is also reusable so once the tea is gone, she can do it all over again. What Stones fan doesn’t love a little tea and sympathy?

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 43

Place: Austin, Texas

Relationship: boyfriend

From the gift-giver:

Loves: movies, cocktails, cycling, anime, Fallout (video game), physics, Nikolai Tesla (he's an electrical engineer by training, consultant to microchip designers by profession). He loves doing iPhone photography, but I bought him some really nice lenses for that before, and he never uses them. He loves mid-century style and wouldn't mind if his house looked like a Mad Men set and/or his wardrobe did! His favorite comic book writer/illustrator is Alex Ross. He has two children: a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. His favorite color is the deep orangey-red of an intense sunset. He's obsessed with taking photos of sunsets. He makes a lot of money and buys himself anything he wants. (Well, anything that I could actually afford to buy him, anyway!)

Any gift they’ve loved?

His daughter bought him a vest for Christmas last year—a gray suit vest with four buttons and he wears it all the time under his jackets. He loves wearing jackets in winter.

We recommend: graphic novel painted by one of his favorites ($99.99)

Your boyfriend sounds very visually oriented from your description, so it's not surprising he's an Alex Ross fan. DC Comics publishes its "Absolute" series of high-quality collections of their most popular comic storylines, so I'd suggest getting Absolute Justice. Ross's paintings for Justice are among his finest, and even if he already owns these issues, this collection features them in a larger-than-the-original hardcover that's both more durable and more readable than their first printing.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 56

Place: Florida

Relationship: best friend

From the gift-giver:

Retired and wealthy. I am neither. I met my friend because we both enjoyed foxhunting. Now that we are older we no longer ride, but have remained friends for 30 years now. She and her husband moved to Florida 13 years ago to look after her aging parents. While she lived in Michigan she owned a plumbing store. She is generous and helpful to family and friends in need.

Her home is beautifully decorated in a Florida fashion—lots of citrus colors. She enjoys cooking and we have often cooked together. She loves the Food Network. We exchange recipes often—she has all of mine. She golfs and plays bridge, and loves to entertain. I live in Michigan and I visit her at least once a year; she comes up here once a year. When I visited her recently, she rented a limo for us and five of her women friends, and we went shopping and out to dinner. This is an example of what she likes to do for fun. I guess you could say that we are best friends. I love her and I like to show that in the gifts that I give her.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Some of the favorite things I have given her are things for the kitchen such as trays and gadgets. But she really likes it when I send her cookbooks.

We recommend: Ruth Reichl’s new cookbook ($35) and a sweet apron ($32)

Your best friend may live in Florida now, but the way you describe her reminds me so much of what I admire about my dear friends from Michigan. They seem to do everything well—and joyfully. Your friend's enthusiasm for cooking and generosity of spirit calls to mind, too, some of my favorite writers—Nora Ephron, Ruth Reichl—women I always wished I could hang out with, in part because they remind me of my best friends.

Reichl, who has a new cookbook out, talks about how the act of making a meal is its own meditation, something to be savored (almost) as much as the resultant dish. In My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, Reichl catalogues the months she spent cooking and finding joy again, after the magazine she edited, Gourmet, unexpectedly folded.

And you might pair that with an apron—not the kind you put on just to protect what you're wearing underneath, but one that makes creating a meal feel even more festive. I like this one from Anthropologie.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 51

Place: Marin County, California

Relationship: mother

From the gift-giver:

My mother is a catering chef. To survive, she is always on the go and always bubbling with take-action energy. Basically, she's the kind of trigger-pulling creative problem-solver any daughter would want in their lives—until Christmas-shopping season hits. Throughout the year, if she needs something, she buys it herself—quickly. In the past six months, I've culled together what I thought was a smart list of things she's casually declared she needs or wants: a new jacket, The Hobbit movie trilogy, an iPad case, makeup products, new knives. But lo and behold, even before I can let my Amazon page load, she has magically tracked down, purchased and utilized said jacket (it was a nice leather one... I could not have found it myself), makeup products and custom-made knives. Apparently I am "slow."

Any gift they’ve loved?

Yes, anything hobby-related. She creates a miniature "fairyland" in our yard (we are normal) in her spare time and creates jewelry. I've gifted her gemstones and little "fairy cottages," but there's only so many times I can have her unwrap a hunk of citrine or buy a whimsical mushroom home without my mailman thinking I'm a lunatic.

We recommend: soap-making kit ($35.99)

Your mom sounds like she's happiest when she's taking care of things on her own, and she clearly loves a project, so I thought she might like to try soap-making. With this beginner's kit, she can create her own custom-made scented soap, start a new hobby to mystify your mailman, and hopefully take some time out of her busy life for an at-home spa day. (One important note—the ebook included in this kit is in PDF form, so you may want to consider printing it out if your mom is not an e-reader. You can also find a cheaper option here, or a more luxurious one if she's OK with following video instructions.)

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 26

Place: Los Angeles

Relationship: best friend

From the gift-giver:

He is an iOS app developer and programmer, a low-key graphic artist, an absolute minimalist when it comes to his appearance and the things he owns (which makes buying for him so hard—I don't want give him anything that won't be used or that will create clutter, because that is so not him). He loves the absurd (Turquoise Jeep's elegant work, for example) and the adorable (but they have to be exactly the right aesthetic to evoke pleasure, which is hard to pin down). When he gets a kick out of something he's very loyal to it. In other words, he's not the kind of person to be into something for a moment or for a few days and then forget about it. He knows nothing about pop culture (Drake who?), doesn't give a crap about what people think of him, and is an ardent philosopher. Life, death, right, wrong, what does it all mean?! How do we make it count? Also, he loves the game Eve Online—or “SpaceGame,” as we call it—mostly for its beauty.

Any gift they’ve loved?

I bought him a robe last Christmas—he used to use this small blanket as a shawl/poncho and claimed that it was exactly all he needed to stay warm around the house. So I took a leap and bought him a thick, soft robe, in his favorite dark colors, and now he never wants to take it off.

We recommend: Lego Architecture Studio ($159.95)

So he likes games. And the absurd. And minimalism. And designing and building things from scratch using complex code/instruction manuals/drawings. How about this Lego architecture studio? It features more than 1,200 bricks in two shades, which can be used to recreate plans included in a 272-page booklet submitted by leading architects. It’s educational (you can learn the basic fundamentals of architecture), it’s aesthetically pleasing, and it’s Lego, which every single non-Grinch in the world likes to play with. If the $159.99 price tag is a little hefty, perhaps you could pick one of the iconic world building sets also on offer, and help him build a Lego White House ($49.99), or a Lego Seattle Space Needle ($19.95), or a Lego Trevi Fountain ($49.95).

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.