SPARTA-It's that time of the year when even the most reluctant shopper has to make that dreaded trip to the large department stores in search for that special something. Once again shoppers at department stores have to face the fights for parking space, the long checkout lines, the clutter, confusion, and the lack of personal service. The enormity of it all can be overwhelming, leaving many feeling like the Grinch himself. Although large discount stores do have advantages and can be positive shopping experiences throughout the year, who doesn't enjoy saying hello to a good buy and saving some money? Just knowing that necessary toaster or vacuum was bought at a discounted price makes people feel good about themselves. But be warned, a toaster is not going to get the elated reaction from its recipient on Christmas morning. Nor does that vacuum make the perfect Christmas gift statement that you hoped for. An alternative to the mass confusion and chaos of the mega-stores is found not far from shoppers' front door steps. Located throughout Sparta are stores offering exclusive items, typically not found in department stores. "Sophie goes above the norm for gift-giving creativity," says Phylisa Cerene, an employee at Sophie's Place, one of Sparta's unique stores. "There's always some kind of sale, and it's great to save sbucks before Christmas." Sophie's offers simple to elaborate gift baskets, floral arrangements and unique stationary, among other gift ideas. Another store offering one-of-a-kind items and personalized attention is Tweeds, located in the Theatre Plaza. "We're a great store for gifts all year, especially for wedding, engagement, and shower gifts. But for the holidays we pride ourselves on our out-of-the-ordinary tree ornaments. Many people return each year to buy ornaments as gifts or for themselves. We also sell a lot of unique holiday decorative items for the home," said Sandy Miller, manager of Tweeds. RJ Mars and the Sparta Pharmacy have for years been one-stop shopping places. Both offer household items, decorative glassware and figurines and an enormous array of gift ideas. The pharmacy even offers gift wrapping. "We have the most beautiful party dresses for girls," said RJ Mars employee Lynn Bolio, while arranging the inventory in preparation for the holiday shoppers. Also located in the Theatre Plaza is the Sparta Bookshop, which offers a large selection of best sellers, self-help, and theme related coffee table books, all of which make great holiday gifts. From a casual coffee or tea at Greene's Beans Café to the more formal dinner experience, Sparta offers great places for shoppers to catch their breath. For some shoppers, the most satisfying advantage of small town shopping is the customer service - knowing that their shopping needs are a priority to the store owners and their employees - the kind of service seldom found in the large department stores. Uptown Girl in the White Deer Plaza is known for its customer service just as much as for its perfect outfits. The store caters to girls from eight to eighty-years-old. "We offer clothes and accessories at reasonable and affordable prices without the hassle of going to the mall. You can find something special and unique here that you won't find elsewhere," said Jennifer Baker, co-owner of the store. For those shoppers looking for a gift for that person who seems to have everything, Drue Chryst Gallery is the answer. "We offer artwork for everyone. We have all sizes, scenes and prices," says employee Pat Brown. "You can choose from a variety of prints and original artwork, many from local artists. The antique post cards and Lake Mohawk prints make great gifts." The gallery also offers customized framing. According to Brown, shadow boxes are a very popular way to turn cherished items and family heirlooms into works of art. "Come in and see our distinguished gifts and we will help you find that perfect present." Gifts for the four-legged relative can be found at the Sparta Pet Shoppe and Spa owned by Lynn Crandall and Eddie Driscoll. "We have a great Christmas line of raw hide cigars, truffles, and candy canes. Also popular are the pet stockings, jingle bell collars, Santa suits and our variety of sweaters to keep your pets warm," said Crandall. Also available are talking pet toys, which are certain to be a unique conversation piece at Christmas. The store is located in the Upper Lake Plaza. "I would encourage residents to shop in Sparta because in many local businesses you can find unique, personalized gifts which would be perfect for the holiday season," said Scott K. Seelagy, mayor of Sparta. "In addition, patronizing shops and stores within the township helps maintain the viability of these businesses and spurs the local economy."