Best Of :: Shopping & Services
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Changing Hands offers the best in book shopping, hands down. That's partly because it has such an amazing selection of new and used books. (Last time we were there, we bought the latest Augusten Burroughs at a discount and a 100-year-old sex manual for two bucks where else could we have scored both of these titles in one place?) But it's also because the people who work there unlike most of the chain stores around town clearly love books as much as we do. Want proof? Look no further than the helpful "employee pick" notes the clerks tuck into books, or the smiley and well-informed assistance they offer to book nerds like us. Not to mention the nice balance of famous and up-and-coming authors who read from their books at Changing Hands none of this "only best-selling authors" nonsense at our favorite bookshop (although you'll find your share of those, as well). If you don't find us browsing the stacks here, look for us next door at the adjoining Wildflower Bread Company, where we love to make a pit stop. And hey, one more thing: We hate cheesy chains as much as the next guy, but we wouldn't mind seeing another Changing Hands maybe in downtown Phoenix?
When we wanted to rent an Australian Jungle Carpet python, we knew where to go. Rich Ihle has been collecting, studying and breeding reptiles for more than 30 years, and he's happy to lend some of them out, for a fee and with supervision, for which we're thankful. We're not sure we want a python all our own (who knew they peed!), so we'll stick to the rental option, thanks to Reptile Adventures.
To be honest, we thought hydroponics was just a method to grow better dope plants inside your closet. That was before we stepped foot in Tempe's Sea of Green. Turns out it's actually a real science, dude. Who knew? Contrary to popular belief, hydroponics isn't about growing a plant in water. Heck, we all did that as kids with pineapples and potatoes, so who would need fancy supplies for that? Most hydroponic gardens are cultivated in a stiff substrate, like floral foam or Perlite, soaked with water and placed under a UV light. Sea of Green offers everything you need to set up an indoor hydroponics garden. There are seeds, pots, herbs and full kit systems with catchy names like Ebb & Flow. The bulk of the place's business is mail order, but hey, there are probably just a lot of model citizens out there growing organic plants. Yeah, that's it. Big, leafy, green, er, vegetables.
You'd think it would be easy to find good desert plants in the actual desert. Think again. We scoured nurseries (limited selection), souvenir stops (tacky) and gardens (pricey) before stumbling upon this little gem of a shop hidden in Old Town Scottsdale. Cactus Hut proprietor Jeffrey Shaw has been quietly importing and grooming desert plants for 30 years. His tiny storefront has a stellar variety of unusual succulents and cacti, from the spiny echinocactus, also called a barrel cactus, to the more welcoming hildiwinteria with its fuzzy yellow coat. Popular gifts include magnets with miniature live specimens and prepackaged cactus kits ranging from $7.95 to $26.95. Shipping service is available on most items. It's hard to kill a cactus, but don't get too cocky. Occasionally, a customer will come back after a few days with a dead aloe, says Shaw, wondering how that could have happened when it was watered faithfully twice a day.
We're cheating a little, because the truth is that High Spirits Prickly Pear Flavored Vodka is actually brewed in Flagstaff, at the Mogollon Brewing Company. Yeah, we know, Valley sprawl being what it is, Flag is practically north Phoenix . . . Maybe by next year. In any case, we feel justified in giving this vodka a Best of Phoenix not only because it's so good, but because when we finally did locate it, it was in a Bashas' in Ahwatukee, not at the brewery in Flagstaff. (You can't buy it at the Mogollon Brewery. We know that because we drove all the way to Flagstaff, walked into the brewery with a toddler in tow and asked to buy it. They can't sell it by the bottle, the kind bartender explained, because it's brewed on site. Whatever. We were annoyed, but glad no one commented on the child.) In any case, you can find High Spirits Prickly Pear Flavored Vodka at your local Bashas' here in the Valley, if it's not sold out, and it might well be because although it costs almost $30 a bottle, this stuff is gooood! We sipped it straight (warm, even, we were that eager to try it), but we prefer it over ice, or, as a friend suggested, it might go well over ice cream. We can't think of a better use for a prickly pear.
All year long, we keep a folder full of ideas for Best of Phoenix awards menus, newspaper clippings, notes scribbled on cocktail napkins. This year, that folder also contains a bar of soap. Yes, it makes the folder a little bulky, but we've found it's not enough to keep a bar of Wild Women Soaps prickly pear on the bathroom counter we like to keep it by the computer, and sniff it often. It smells that good. If you want your own bar to keep by the computer (and maybe one for the sink, too), you can buy it at the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden, or shop online.