The most wonderful time of the year can be, well, not so wonderful when it comes to holiday shopping.

The season has been getting off to an earlier and earlier start. This year, we picked out Halloween costumes while "Jingle Bells" blared on mall sound systems, artificial pine scent wafted through the air, and (sometimes mean-)spirited crowds battled over deals and steals.

One way to survive the madness: shop small. Philly is a treasure trove of locally run boutiques with products you won't find on a shelf in every superstore in every city in the U.S. These specialty entrepreneurs cater to the buyer searching for a gift for a particular someone. The cooking fanatic! The music lover! The bookworm!

A few ideas to get you started:

A good place to begin is a stationery and small-gifts store such as Paper on Pine (115 S. 13th St.), where you can load up on cards, hostess gifts, whimsical trinkets, and all the trimmings. Even if you missed the deadlines of the big custom card makers - Crane & Co., William Arthur, and the like - Paper on Pine has a stress-free solution. Design personalized cards (a set of 50 ranges from about $75 to $175) and get them printed up until a week before Christmas.

"I've come to realize that planning doesn't work for everyone," said Cindy McDonnell, who founded Paper on Pine in 2006.

Sometimes, a utilitarian gift of kitchen gadgets might be less than joyously received - but not when it comes from Kitchenette (117 S. 12th St.). This specialty emporium has just the right mix of indulgent and pragmatic cooking tools for your favorite chef.

Splurge on the trendy Vitamix blender ($449.95), and keep it playful with small treats like a set of Christmas cookie cutters ($19.99).

A tall bookshelf is crammed with cookbooks, a rack boasts a rainbow of aprons and cooking apparel, and the rest of the shop is filled with knickknacks that you perhaps didn't know existed, but that you now absolutely need.

"Even with cooks who have everything, I can find something that they don't have," said owner Michael Yurkovich.

He predicts that a big seller this season will be a Doctor Who mug ($14.99), based on the TV series. It's already flying off shelves.

Finding a gift for your music enthusiast can be intimidating. Luckily, a.k.a. music (27 N. Second St.) is the one-stop shop for the most discerning of musical tastes.

Stepping into the Old City institution feels a bit like exploring the attic of a very hip neighbor. Its vinyl collection, numbering in the thousands, has a vast range, from vintage Beach Boys ($2.99) to the new record from Haim ($25.99). Boxes of hundreds of cassettes (most going for 99 cents) and racks of used CDs add to the golden-oldie ambience.

Too nervous to flip through the vinyls? Right now, a.k.a. music offers a selection of cool music posters from Philadelphia Poster Guild ($15 to $20).

There are a lot of great bookstores in the Philly area, and Joseph Fox Bookshop (1724 Sansom St.) is a gem among them. The family-owned business is a pleasure to browse - not too large, and immaculately curated.

There are no signs marking the sections, but it's not necessary because the shop is so carefully organized: A few minutes of perusing is all it takes to get oriented, from new hardcover fiction at the front to the children's nook in the back. The bookstore also has an expansive architecture and design collection, and on the walls are displayed beautiful, oversized coffee-table books just begging to be wrapped up and gifted.

Can't decide? Ask for help. The staff of Joseph Fox Bookshop is exceptionally knowledgeable and gives excellent recommendations.

But how about that someone who doesn't quite fit into a gifting category? Someone who favors the interesting, the unusual?

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (116 N. Third St.) is just the place to find the charmingly odd and fascinatingly quirky. From apothecary remedies to eccentric clothing to novelty gifts, the store begs to be explored thoroughly.

The store doubles as a rotating exhibition space for local brands, while also hosting wares under its own name. Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is also notably the only Warby Parker showroom in Pennsylvania, and the winter collection of in vogue glasses (ranging from $95 to $145 per pair) is selling fast.

"It's an all-around lifestyle brand, not just a clothing store, and not just a gallery space," said Bob Myaing, 26, the store's manager and buyer. "There's something for everybody."