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When was the last time you had a peaceful Christmas shopping experience? One where you weren’t fighting crowds, slogging through dangerous parking lots and searching sloppy shelves for a unique gift you haven’t already seen at every other mall and big box store? Wouldn’t it be nice to end the day filled with holiday spirit instead of feeling battered and defeated?

Christmas shopping never seems to turn out the way it looks on TV, where a doting clerk proffers an elaborate array of uncommon treasures, then wraps your purchases in tissue paper and boxes and sends you on your way with a smile. But that experience can be had, even in the thick of the holiday season, at non-profit gift shops all over Western New York. You’ll get awesome, unique gifts, great service and a shopping experience like no other.

The best part? The money you spend goes toward a great cause, whether it’s patient care at a hospital, pet food at an animal shelter, or the upkeep of our region’s treasures in museums and galleries.

Here are five types of gift shops filled with whimsical presents you might have never thought to consider.

1. Hospital gift shops. The gift shop at ECMC just got an extreme makeover, complete with beautiful, handmade wooden cabinets made by the hospital’s own plant operations department. Run by Lois Peterson, a charming, 42-year volunteer, the gift shop has everything from jewelry and toys to scarves and music boxes, and its Ty plush toys are $4 cheaper than those in department stores.

The hospital raised $110,000 last year through the gift shop, money that it used for patient care items not provided in the hospital’s budget, including bed tables, blanket warmers, a treadmill and medical equipment such as GlideScopes and an orthopedic foot-casting stand.

You won’t be disappointed at other hospitals, either. Just about every local hospital – Women and Children’s, Niagara Falls Memorial, Sisters of Charity – has a lovingly curated gift shop. Millard Fillmore Suburban’s gift shop sells sleep sacks at prices cheaper than Babies R Us, and DeGraff Memorial Hospital has gifts and figurines you won’t see anywhere else.

2. Art gallery gift shops. You’ll find artsy collections of the region’s coolest gifts, from zebra-striped dishes to pop-art travel mugs, artisan-crafted jewelry and artwork to prints and posters of your favorite artists’ work.

Try the obvious: Albright-Knox (a limited selection is available online at www.albrightknox.org/shop-ak), the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University (hurry – they close Saturday for the school’s winter break) and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College (www.burchfieldpenney.org/visit/the-museum-store/shop-online).

Starlight Studio and Art Gallery at 340 Delaware Ave., which serves adult artists with developmental disabilities, has super-cool original paintings, drawings, jewelry, sculptures and other original works in store as well reproductions of local artists’ work printed on T-shirts, mugs, calendars and magnets online (www.cafepress.com/starlightstudiogiftstore).

Buffalo Arts Studio in the Tri-Main Center at 2495 Main Street features stunning, handmade original ceramics, paintings, drawings, jewelry, books and other art work from local artists and the studio’s past exhibiting artists.

Proceeds support gallery collections, exhibitions and programs. Gallery members often get a discount on gift shop items (10 percent off at Albright-Knox, Burchfield Penney and Buffalo Arts Studio, 15 percent off at Castellani).

3. Museum gift shops. Western New York has more museum gift shops than you can shake a MasterCard at. The gift shop at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda is a magical place filled with carousel horses, music boxes, ornaments, snow globes, books and toys. The Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village museum in Amherst has lots of old-timey wooden and metal toys and household items, Victorian dolls and a huge collection of homespun Christmas decorations.

The Buffalo History Museum has a wealth of Western New York-related merchandise for sale, from neckties emblazoned with Buffalo’s waterfront and coasters bearing renderings of landmarks from the Pan American Exposition, to children’s books about Millard Fillmore and posters of John F. Kennedy at the Niagara Falls Air Base in 1962.

Members at each institution get 10 percent off their purchases.

4. Animal shelter gift shops. Gift shops at animal shelters help sustain the much-needed work the shelters do. Proceeds help defray costs on everything from dog food and kitty litter to medical expenses and housing.

The Erie County SPCA at 205 Ensminger Road in Tonawanda has a fun gift shop with lots of pet supplies and pet-related gift items. You’ll find gifts for animal lovers – mugs and keychains bearing adorable doggy faces – and animals alike, such as dog beds, water dishes, leashes and toys. You’ll also find a variety of reasonably-priced, second-hand children’s toys that have been donated for re-sale.

Tabby Town, a cat rescue operation in the McKinley Mall, has a popular gift shop that supports groups that find homes for cats from the SPCA, the Ten Lives Club, the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter, Hope for Cats and Feral Cat Focus. They’ve got everything a cat needs to be happy – food, toys, scratching posts, tunnels, pet wands, collars, outdoor beds – and unique items, such as cat paintings, glassware, wind chimes and cat-themed artwork by local artists.

5. Other cultural institutions. The Wisteria Museum Shop at the Darwin Martin House (www.darwinmartinhouse.org/shop_featured.cfm) has all manner of Frank Lloyd Wright-related merchandise, from Tree of Life iPhone cases and umbrellas to delightful Prairie-style clocks and home decor inspired by Wright’s designs. Members receive 10 percent off.

The Buffalo Zoo’s Zootique is a great place to find educational toys, and you’ll find the usual animal and zoo-themed T-shirts, hats, postcards and calendars.

But by far, the coolest gift available are the original, one-of-a-kind elephant paintings created by Surapa, the zoo’s Indian elephant. Zoo members get 10 percent off.

The Aquarium of Niagara’s Fin-esse gift shop at 701 Whirlpool St. has a nice collection of marine-themed toys, stuffed animals, clothing, books and mementos.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com