Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Local skate shops have come and gone over the years — except for indie Cowtown. The "family"-owned and -operated skate shop had been slangin' the best boards and gear to Phoenix skate rats since 1996 (that's three years before the first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game). The owners credit their success to outstanding customer service and knowledge of the industry — two things that are hard to come by these days, especially in the skateboard world (i.e., that shop in the mall). We love Cowtown for its extensive line of the latest and greatest skate shoes, the best shirts, and the biggest selection of boards in the Valley. If you're lucky, you might even stumble upon a few rare collectible decks (we recently scored a Toy Machine Black Worm of Death). Be sure to look out for newest gear from local skate companies like Old Man Army and AZPX, and don't miss the annual shop sponsored contest, The PHX AM.
Four Peaks Amethyst Mine holds the distinction of being both the last commercial amethyst mine in North America and one of the most inaccessible. Surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, this mine sits on the southernmost peak of Four Peaks in the rugged Mazatzal Mountains, at an elevation of 7,200 feet. There are only two ways to get there: by helicopter or a two-hour drive with an all-terrain vehicle to a place 5,000 feet up called "The Saddle," followed by a 41/2-mile, two-hour hike across all four peaks. Because of its high, remote location, the amethyst mine can be worked only by hand.
Miner Mike Blank makes the hike once a month, a trek that mine owner Kurt Cavano describes as "calf-burning" but which Blank says "isn't so bad. I'm pretty used to it." Until she got pregnant late last year, Blank's wife used to make the hike with him. They would dig rocks out of the mountainside with picks and chisels for two to three weeks, accumulating layers of dirt under their fingernails and in the cracks on their hands. (The Blanks' baby girl, whom they named Amethyst Jewel, was born this past spring.)
There's no running water at the mine. There's nothing outside except a small wooden, white tool shed and an outhouse. "But you don't want to use the outhouse," Blank says with a wry smile. "It's pretty scary in there."
Blank camps on the mountainside at night or sleeps inside the mine, where it's generally about 10 degrees cooler. The mine entrance looks like a cave in the side of the peak, and the main area is only about 18 foot by 6 foot. But after more than 12 years of digging the same vein, the mine itself extends more than 90 feet underground. There's an emergency exit tunnel about 15 feet long dug through the middle of the mine's west wall, its entrance marked by a couple two-by-fours nailed into a makeshift doorframe. "So we don't get stuck like those poor guys in Chile," Blank says. The only light comes from three dusty mining lamps hanging from cables in the upper corners of the cave, powered by the generator outside. On the sides of the mine, thick veins of tiny purple amethyst crystals sparkle in the light.
Four Peaks Amethyst Mine was discovered in 1925 by Jim McDaniels, who reportedly thought it was a letdown because he was looking for gold. Commercial amethyst mining didn't begin there until 1942. The current owners, East Coast businessman Cavano and his London-based partner, Jim MacLachtan, purchased the mine in 1997. A couple thousand pounds of ore are shipped out every year via a helicopter, which also shuttles supplies in every month. The stones mined here are diverse, ranging from pale pink, translucent crystals to deep purple gems with red hues, like the amethyst found in the Ural Mountains of Siberia (which does not mine its amethyst). Gems are tumbled and cleaned in Scottsdale, sent to Thailand for cutting, and shipped back to Arizona, where they're set in rings, necklaces, and bracelets at Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills. Some of the mine history and gems are on display nearby at the River of Time Museum at 12901 East La Montana.
Twice a year, Sami Fine Jewelry and Cavano give a handful of helicopter tours of the mine (480-837-8168, www.fourpeaksmining.com). The next tours are scheduled for October 15 and 16.
For Sami Fine vice president Stephenie Bjorkman, getting first pick of high-quality gems from Four Peaks Amethyst Mine is only part of the fun. "It is the only commercially run amethyst mine in the United States," she says. "And it is right here in our very own backyard."To see more photos of the amethyst mine, visit www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bestof2011.
The Western Ranchman is supplied with freshly hatched baby chicks on a weekly basis. Warning: Once you see how cute they are, you'll be jumping on the urban chicken bandwagon faster than you can say "farm-fresh eggs." Luckily, the North Phoenix feed-and-tack has everything you will need to begin your journey into the world of backyard chickens. The family-owned and -operated business has been doing this since 1966 — way before chickens became the must-have pet of aging hipsters.
Underground wine cellars are typically reserved for the ultra-wealthy with custom homes. Thankfully, Sun Devil Liquors makes their cellar and pub available to one and all to come and access one of the best wine selections (craft beers, too!) in the Valley. Sun Devil already has a crazy-great liquor store on ground level. Descend the stairs in the back of the store to the cellar and peruse dust-covered bottles old and new, sidle up to the bar and enjoy one of the featured wines or brews, or take a bottle back to the lounge. This subterranean hang reeks of old-school sophisticated alcohol enjoyment.
In 1900, cries of "There be gold in them hills!" could be heard ringing through the streets of downtown Phoenix. But these miners were not referring to the Superstitions and legends of lost Dutchmen. These were claims for mining rights on South Mountain. Today, most of the mines have been filled and covered, but several holes are still visible and accessible (though, for the record, we do not recommend you try to access them). The primary mine on the mountain was the Max Delta in the San Juan Valley, and it still can be seen from San Juan Road. Some clever online research can uncover hikes to a couple other mine entrances that have remained intact since Phoenix incorporated the park in 1924. Good luck!
Anybody who's ever tried to dig deep in Phoenix soil knows about caliche — hard deposits of calcium carbonate that take countless whacks with a shovel to break up and dig out. But for those who seriously want to break some ground (and turn that caliche to dust), nothing does the trick like a jackhammer. And there's no place like A to Z Equipment Rental and Sales to pick up a monstrous, vibrating machine that breaks through 60 pounds of damn near anything and sounds like a Gatlin gun. A to Z's electric "demolition hammers" range from 20-pound models to 60-pound beasts that require two-wheel haulers. Rental rates vary, so you'll have to contact A to Z for an exact price, but shattering layers of concrete and asphalt like a demolition warrior is just about priceless.
"No, you can't take my picture!" Marcus Breen hollers. "I'm a picker! We are totally incognito."Apparently, in order for him to score the very best deals, Breen and all the other pickers who are prowling our garage sales and thrift stores, looking for nice things that they can mark up and sell to antique dealers and to their own clients, must remain as anonymous as possible. They belong to a secret underground that allows them to show up, unrecognized, to scam our things.It seems that remaining invisible is just one of many tips of survival in this ultra-exclusive club. Pickers and antiques dealers tend to arrive early for a yard sale or an estate clearance. "If you plan to start selling at 8 a.m., and you see someone looking around your property, that's a picker," Breen says. "We want to be there before you even set up, to see what you've got before the other pickers get to it."Picking is an especially competitive and sometimes nasty sport, Breen says; there's no love lost among these people who make their living reselling our old junk. "I hate showing up at 5 a.m. at an estate sale and seeing three other pickers in line ahead of me. And we're all trying not to be too obvious while we're glaring at each other."Sellers have gotten savvier, Breen laments, since the advent of reality TV shows about his ilk. "It used to be that no one knew we even existed, but now you've got things like Storage Wars and American Pickers, and so when you start wheeling and dealing, people are less willing to cut you a deal. They're like, 'Are you going to resell this?' I liked it better when it was easier to blend in."
In the old days, places you frequented for years made you feel special with extra treats and freebies, but mostly with a kind of familiarity that only commitment and loyalty could buy. Today, every shop and service has some kind of "secret" deal, one that's broadcast far and wide via not-so-secret e-mailed coupons or Constant Contact campaigns. And, anyway, who wants to pay for their extras?
That's another reason why we love Savant Day Spa. It's worth the trek to the Westside for us, because at Savant we get to use a secret word that's truly secret, and just by uttering it, we're not only part of a special club, but we get one special service for free. It makes us feel like a total insider, and all because we were smart enough to get our hair and nails and, well, everything else done at this well-appointed spa.
Last time we were there, we whispered the secret word (which keeps changing and which you won't find in any Groupon offer or on Facebook — it's really secret!) and got a free hand massage while we were having our roots dyed. Later, Dan, the owner of Savant, walked us to the door and, as we were leaving, whispered the new secret word ("pixie") to us — for next time. Sure, we feel a little silly with all this make-believe espionage, but no sillier than when we announce to one of the friendly nail techs that we want little ladybug decals on our newly painted talons.
Both the secret word and the service you get make us feel special, which is the whole point. But even without it (and, if you ask someone who works there, they'll be sure to tell you the secret word — it's that simple!), you'd be hard-pressed not to have a relaxing, beautifying time at this top-notch salon. Haircuts and coloring, brow waxing, scalp treatments, aromatherapy sessions, facials, massage — this place offers it all, much of it available in thrifty spa packages and à la carte, and all of it super-professional and fashion-forward.
We love you, Phoenix shoppers, and we're giving up our most closely held secret to prove it. In fact, it's not just our secret. Up 'til now, no one has known about The Book at Zinnias at Melrose. But now you do, because we're blabbing. You can thank us later.Here's how it works: At Zinnias — the city's latest and greatest Seventh Avenue antiques and collectibles mall — there's this book that's kept behind the counter. If you're looking for something, say a specific vintage coffee pot or a piece of furniture, you can write it down in the book. The dealers who work there read the book and can add your "must have" to their list of stuff they're looking for.Big deal, right? Lots of antique stores have "want lists." But here's what makes the Zinnias book different: People who are not antique dealers — just everyday shoppers and collectors like you — can also ask to see the secret book, which is kept tucked away under the counter at Zinnias. If they have what you're looking for, they can sell it to you from their private collection, and Zinnias doesn't seem to mind."It's like a very low-fi Craiglist, for collectors," Zinnias owner Michael Robertson confides. Robertson let us look at this ultra-private book and pointed out items that customers had found for other customers. Why, since Zinnias doesn't take a cut from all this goodwill, is this good for business? "We're doing just fine," Robertson says. "So why not let collectors share in the fun?"
When the apocalypse comes (or maybe just when the dust storms outside are particularly nasty) nothing beats an underground bunker for comfort — provided you have all the essentials. And Allied Surplus has them all. You'll need food, and this military supply store stocks a wide selection of emergency, ready-to-eat meals ranging from canned "scrambled eggs and bacon" and "seafood chowder" to granola and pouches of "chili mac." Just add water and a heat source. Speaking of heat sources, Allied Surplus stocks a really handy Esbit Pocket Stove for less than 13 bucks. If you want better water, pick up a water-purification filter pump or some purification tablets. If things get really hairy (or dusty), AS has Israeli M-15 gas masks. Oh, and there are plenty of can openers, flashlights, and first aid kits to choose from, as well. With so many survival tools to choose from, going underground doesn't seem so bad, after all.
Like many of the best things in life, Last Chance just isn't what it used to be. Back in the day (like, the mid-'90s) you could pick up a Kate Spade purse for under $20 ($19.97, to be exact), a Nicole Miller ballgown for under $40, five pairs of Hush Puppies for well under $100. But now Hush Puppies are out of style — again — and the folks who run Nordstrom's clearinghouse for all returns and the crap it didn't sell at it department stores or outlets are onto us. More important, they're onto the network of re-sale experts who truly seem to live at Last Chance. These days, you can't just snatch up every Prada purse that lands on the pile; there are rules and limits. And, yes, that takes some of the fun away. (Although really, did you need that fifth Louis Vuitton?) Still, there are bargains to be had in this musty, well-lit basement in the former Colonnade Mall, where, on a recent Saturday afternoon, shoppers packed the aisles, trolling for TOMS espadrilles and Hobo wallets as "That's the Way I Like It" by KC and the Sunshine Band played overhead. We must admit, there's nothing we like better than a big score at Last Chance. Uh huh, uh huh.
There are so many things that make this old gas station turned coffee shop cozy and charming, from the vintage pump out front and the exposed industrial piping in the ceiling to the comfy couches and red brick walls adorned with local art. This is a hangout place, where hip Phoenicians gather to gab over a cup o' joe or cloister in a corner with their laptops. Of course, all the quaint ambiance in the world wouldn't matter if the coffee sucked. Thankfully, Copper Star serves up some delicious brews, from frozen treats like green tea smoothies and blended double chocolate mochas to hot Americanos and chai lattes. Everything is made fresh, so expect to wait for your drink (especially on weekends), but while you're waiting, there's no shortage of people to chat up, free magazines to read, and pastries to ogle.