Re-gifting: Its economical and ecological — but ethical

It might be a label maker, a toaster, an electric spice rack or a bagel slicer.

The gift you never wanted, don't need, already have three of or just isn't you.

What do you do with these gifts? Shove them in the back of a drawer? Force yourself to use them? Return them?

Re-gift them?

Anyone who has celebrated a major gift-giving simcha is familiar with the practice. Bottles of wine, fountain pens and serving platters decorated in a Noah's Ark motif, are rewrapped, re-carded and re-given to someone else.

After all, one person's albatross is another person's treasure.

Besides, it's ecological. Economical. Practical.

But is it ethical?

According to Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, there's nothing wrong with re-gifting. Just don't get caught.

"If you're going to recycle a gift, you must cover all traces that it's been given before," Martin advises. "Make absolutely certain that all gift tags, price tags, or other clues have been removed."

And, she might have added, remember who the gift came from in the first place.

"More than once [my mother-in-law] wrapped gifts I had given to her and gave them back to me as gifts," says San Mateo resident Alice Stern.

On one occasion, Stern received a portable radio that didn't work. "When I told [my mother-in-law], hoping she'd exchange it, she got offended. I'm sure she got it as a gift. I never saw it again."

Maybe those re-gifts were more a re-statement of some re-sentment than a recycling effort.

But sometimes, the relationship between re-gifter and re-giftee is such that these faux pas don't matter.

Consider Drucilla Ramey, executive director of the Bar Association of San Francisco, and her mother, Estelle Ramey.

"My mother is the queen of re-gifting," says Ramey, who characterizes her mother as someone who doesn't pay much attention to the gifts she gets or gives. "Without knowing it, she gives you something you gave her the previous year."

Once, after getting back the necklace she picked out for her mother for another occasion, Ramey called her mother on it. Her mother's response? "Then I guess you liked it."

But not everyone is so understanding. Thus, Ramey is cautious whenever she re-gifts anything, even bottles of wine.

"I carefully check wine bottles to make sure they don't say, `To Dru and Marvin with love,'" Ramey says.

And even re-gifts should show that some thought has gone into the selection.

"Re-gifting is a fine art," says a recent bride, who admits to re-gifting and being re-gifted, but for fear of being found out asks to remain anonymous. "Make sure if you're going to re-gift something that it matches the person you're giving it to and it is within the range of what you would typically spend."

The extravagant gift for a casual friend is a dead giveaway something is up. And never try to upgrade a gift by repackaging it in box from a fancy store. You might blow your cover and lose a friend in the process. Just imagine the scene if the recipient tries to return it.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik re-gifts all the time but never tries to conceal what she's doing.

"I'm pretty honest about this stuff," says Garchik, adding that her Jewish guilt kicks in if she isn't. "I get a lot of books from work. If I don't want them, I tell people this is a present from me and the Chronicle. I never resell them. I have standards."

Besides, honesty allows Garchik to put conditions on a re-gift. Like, "Don't wear this in front of my aunt."

Garchik has a unique style of re-gifting. She gives her belongings as gifts, particularly when a friend has admired them.

"It's the best present you can get from a friend," says Garchik, recalling a gift of four Italian plates that came from a neighbor's kitchen some 30 years ago. "It was a revelation. I still look at them in the [pantry] and think `how wonderful.'"

It's the kind of practice Miss Manners might frown upon. Heirlooms are one thing. Secondhand is another.

"If you can produce a story to go with it, then it's an heirloom and a splendid gift," Martin says. "If not, `Someone sent this to me and I don't want it anymore,' is not an acceptable story."

Or you can skip the story altogether, and just be up front. You can even invite re-gifting.

Take the New Jersey friend who sent Palo Alto attorney Diane Greenberg a best seller for her birthday. She asked Greenberg to send the book back when she was done. It never happened. Before the day was over, Greenberg had re-gifted the book to yet another friend who was also celebrating her birthday.

Greenberg will replace the book, but not until it comes out in paperback.

It all makes sense. But does re-gifting have a down side?

"The problem with re-gifting is that it doesn't make you feel as good as when you really plan a gift for someone," says Ramey. "There's not the same sense of satisfaction you get from giving. But then again, that is what re-gifting is — the gift that keeps giving."