Capital Region

Capital Region museum shops offer unique and unusual gift ideas

Here are some last minute gift options
National Bottle Museum Director Gary Moeller holds a basket of wrapped ‘orphan bottles’ on sale, November 13, 2019.
National Bottle Museum Director Gary Moeller holds a basket of wrapped ‘orphan bottles’ on sale, November 13, 2019.

One can fill a stocking with all manner of gifts found at just about any retailer.

Finding something unique or at least unusual generally requires a little more effort.

Independent main street retailers are famous for offering such gems. But many of the museums sprinkled around the Capital Region also have things you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. 

Have you seen a genuine Italian ceppo on the shelf at your local big box store? A century-old U.S. Army soldier’s manual? Glass bottles from the 1800s? Colonial Dutch-styled Christmas ornaments? 

All these are available at local museums.

Read on for some other ideas:


Philip DiNovo, president and founder of the American Italian Heritage Museum in Colonie, said the annual Christmas Market Dec. 6-8 will offer scores of infrequently seen options to those shopping for an Italian gift.

“About eight of our ten rooms have merchandise,” he said. “Italian movies, Italian baked goods, imports like candy and Christmas cards in Italian.”

More from Celebrate 2019: Gifts & Memories

When he spoke to The Gazette in mid-November, he was still trying to line up a way to sell visitors a ceppo — the pyramid-shaped, three-tiered decoration commonly displayed in Italy at Christmastime — because they already had sold out.

“We have three of them on exhibit in our Italian Christmas exhibit,” DiNovo said. 

He explained that ceppi often present the same three themes — God’s gift to man, Earth’s gift to man and man’s gift to man — but the details and symbolism will vary.

“It’s an opportunity to be creative,” he said.


The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has a museum shop that features, no surprise, military-related items and history.

There are the standard T-shirts and mugs but also items that will be much harder to track down elsewhere.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER New York State Military Museum store manager Bruce Farley opens a World War I book in Saratoga Spring Wednesday, November 13, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
New York State Military Museum store manager Bruce Farley opens a World War I book in Saratoga Spring Wednesday, November 13, 2019.

“We have a lot of books, obviously, a lot of them are used and out of print,” said store manager Bruce Farley. There are also items of specific local interest and limited-edition materials such as tableware made in the 1930s by Syracuse China for individual New York National Guard units.

“We have vintage Army manuals going back to World War I and before,” Farley added. 

There are also the retrospective collections of war coverage that publications including Collier’s and Leslies compiled at the end of World War I.

“There’s a nice set of Army prints from the early 1960s,” Farley added. These are from the “American Soldier” series, featuring American fighting men in different eras, created by noted military illustrator H. Charles McBarron.


Each year, the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa gets lots of  donations of old glass bottles, some of them left in baskets at the door like babies at an old-time orphanage.

“We always look through them to see if any make our permanent collection,” said director Gary Moeller. They’re dubbed “orphan bottles.”

Those that don’t make the grade may be very old or quite nice or both — they just aren’t needed for the collection. So they go up to the attic, which was starting to get pretty full a few years back. Rather than throw those bottles away, the museum got clearance from tax regulators to give them away in return for donations. 

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER National Bottle Museum Director Gary Moeller looks over hundeds of ‘orphan bottles’ on the third floor of the Ballston Spa museum Wednesday, November 13, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
National Bottle Museum Director Gary Moeller looks over hundeds of ‘orphan bottles’ on the third floor of the Ballston Spa museum Wednesday, November 13, 2019.

For $5, donors get an orphan bottle. It’s wrapped up, though.

“You don’t know what they are until you adopt them,” Moeller said. “They’re wrapped up. It’s mystery thing.”

So it can be a gamble.

“Some of the orphans have been truly unique, hand-blown pieces,” he added.

In fact, all bottles made before 1903 were hand-blown. So any orphan bottle more than 116 years old will make a truly unique gift — like a snowflake, it will have no exact equal.

Art glass also makes a spiffy gift, and Moeller also will sell you some of that, should you not be interested in adopting an orphan.


The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls features a collection of notable artworks and its gift shop follows closely.

One item unlikely to be found elsewhere is an ornament inspired by Niccolo di ser Sozzo’s “Angel.” The work was part of a larger altarpiece created in Italy around the year 1350 and is now exhibited in the Music Room at the Hyde. 

“The staff, docents, members and many regular visitors affectionately refer to the tempera and gold leaf on panel as our ‘Angel with Attitude,’” spokeswoman Rhonda Triller said. “We expect the ornament to be a hit.”


Here’s a ripe spot for the unique and unusual: The Shaker Holiday Fair is underway at the Shaker Heritage Society in Latham through Dec. 20, with the works of 100 crafters and artisans for sale. 

Asked to pick a single item that symbolizes the nation’s oldest Shaker settlement, Executive Director Johanna Batman chose the oval wooden box:

“Oval boxes were not invented by the Shakers, but being innovative woodworkers, they took the design and perfected it. Commonly made from pine, maple or cherry, Shaker oval boxes were used to store food and other household goods. Shaker craftsmen formed the boxes by soaking strips of wood in warm water, wrapping them around a mold, and fixing their fingers with copper nails. Historically, they were painted in bright yellows, blues, or reds, but these Shaker-style boxes by artist Steve Graselli showcase the natural beauty of the wood.”


The Arkell Museum in Canajoharie is another notable collection of art, and some items in the gift shop are based on the collection.

Executive Director Suzan Friedland said the staff is most proud of the note cards and jigsaw puzzles they’ve commissioned that feature works on display at the Arkell.

A particularly beautiful puzzle features the USS Constitution under full sail in heavy seas, and there’s a local connection: Canajoharie schoolchildren raised money in 1929 to help pay for the restoration of Old Ironsides in Boston.


Elizabeth Bechand, museum shop manager at the Albany Institute of History and Art, said she curates the shop to closely reflect theme and content of exhibits.

“What they’re buying in the shop really reflects what they’ll see in the museum,” she said. “We can tell great layered stories. That’s something we can do very well.”

In that vein, they’re currently featuring food items, particularly those of the early Dutch settlers of Albany. Schuyler Plum Jam uses a sweet Italian plum to replicate the flavor of the gage plums General Schuyler was well-known for growing at his Albany estate. It’s one of the first products the museum has developed on its own.


Can you guess what the dominant theme might be in at the gift shop at a museum and hall of fame dedicated to horse racing?

Sure you can. There are many options within that theme, however. And one excellent choice is a book dedicated to the signature race at nearby Saratoga Race Course, said gift shop manager Carolyn Potvin: “The Travers: 150 Years of Saratoga’s Greatest Race.”

The pitch: “Racing historians Brien Bouyea and Michael Veitch take an in-depth look at each of the first 149 editions of the Midsummer Derby, as well as the one-of-a-kind history of Saratoga racing. Each race has a story that is unique and worthy of being chronicled. Here, for the first time, these remarkable events are told in a singular volume.”


The Walter Elwood Museum of the Mohawk Valley is the eclectic collection of an Amsterdam school teacher who wandered the world and gathered pieces of history wherever he went.

But one of the most popular items at the gift shop is a series of books on the history of the city itself, Executive Director Ann Peconie said. This year’s offering by the Historic Amsterdam League is “Amsterdam’s Architecture — Architecture is History Written in Stone.”

Previous years’ editions are available as well. 


The site of the Old Stone Fort Museum dates back to 1772, and some of the items in the gift shop reflect this history. Among the more unusual, said store manager Laura Spickerman, are replicas of tavern games: Three dimensional wooden puzzles similar to those a traveler would find at a rural tavern in the nation’s early years.

One features a stack of cannonballs similar to the stacks of mortar shells outside the Schoharie museum.


The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum sells replicas of the plaques for more than 40 of the baseball greats enshrined there. 

Each has a wooden base and acrylic face with laser-etched portrait and details about the player. Honorees on the scaled-down plaques include span the eras of modern baseball, from Lou Gherig to Stan Musial to Johnny Bench to Ken Griffey Jr. They’re available online or on-site in Cooperstown.


The New York State Museum in Albany is all about New York state, and so is its gift shop. One item unique to the shop is an ornament depicting the state Cultural Education Center, the building at the south end of Empire State Plaza that houses the state Museum, Library and Archives.

Each one is unique, hand-crafted using the reverse glass painting technique, spokeswoman Antonia Giuliano said. They each take several days to complete.


The Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College is heavy on catalogues on exhibits that have been featured there, said spokesman Michael Janairo.

One with a local connection is Borrowed Light, a sweeping 372-page collection of photography compiled by Jack Shear, showing the evolution of the medium from its very beginnings in the mid-1800s to the present day.

Shear, a resident of Spencertown in Columbia County, donated more than 500 images from his collection to the Tang in 2015.


Visitors to the USS Slater, a World War II-era destroyer escort now moored in Albany as a museum ship, have multiple options at the gift shop. Most are standard fare, but a few will be hard to find elsewhere in the Capital Region, including sailor headgear: The standard dixie cup-style hat and the cold weather watch cap.

There’s also a small thermos bottle, holding only about 12 ounces, styled like a large bullet, or a cut-down version of one of the 40mm anti-aircraft shells that the Slater’s guns once fired.

The ship has closed for the season but the gift shop is still reachable by telephone.

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The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology in North Greenbush focuses on science-based items for both kids and adults in its gift shop.

“One of our favorite things that we sell is called ‘Pinch Me’ Therapy Dough,” said Emily Joyce. “This is a putty infused with soothing scents and colors designed to channel relaxation through touch, sight and smell. We offer a variety of scents like citrus and ocean and a portion of every sale goes towards the Wounded Warrior Project.”


Mary Treanor of the Schenectady County Historical Society said the Schenectady History Museum gift shop features a range of delft, the blue Christmas ornaments popular during the area’s colonial Dutch era.

There are about a dozen styles, and prices range from $5 to $12.

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