Culture is too often measured in art institutions. Yet places like Volumes give you the real pulse of a city's art and design. To say this is our only source of Archi-Lit would be to damn it with faint praise. Everything about this store -- its selection of books, its movable fabric walls and ceilings, and owner-designed shelves -- distinguishes it as the city's best recent Design den.

The place is small, but it's substantial enough for browsers in search of a book about Gaudí to stray into a collection of writings by Walter Benjamin or Le Corbusier. Its ambitions are considerably larger. In addition to selling books, Volumes in the past year has sponsored film festivals, lectures, book drives and exhibitions of drawings and photographs. The result is a smart, elegant hub in a downtown that, the last time we looked, still has plenty of room for architecture and intellects to flourish.

So it doesn't have five floors and special columns that light up during the summer solstice. We still like going to the Mesa Public Library.

It's got an impressive collection of material, yet it's small enough to navigate. And it's got chess sets in the youth area, a bulletin board offering jobs to teens and a sheet music index. But what will turn you into a Mesa library fan is its honor system copying policy. The first 10 sheets are free, whether it's stuff you print off the Internet, copies made from microfiche or microfilm (usually 25 cents apiece) or any other stuff you might want to slap on the copy machine glass.

One rule, though: You can use the copier to duplicate library material only. Do you copy?

Thank heaven the owners of Saints and Sinners rent a retail space at the Willow House coffee shop, allowing us to pick up devilishly fun gifts on the cheap -- and on the go.

Along with traditional "Day of the Dead" sugar skulls, you can find a cast iron Catholic Nun bottle opener for a ten-spot. For 12 clams, pop pennies in a coin bank shaped like a Mexican wrestler's head. Need to release some tension? How about a set of head-butting, arm-swinging wooden fighters for $1? And $8.50 will get you a pair of Mutant Women From Outer Space salt and pepper shakers.

An offshoot of the late, lamented flagship store in Glendale, this Saints and Sinners nook obviously doesn't have the extensive selection as the original location. Still, we never fail to find something kooky and unique -- and still have change left over for a coffee refill.

Don't you dare go write a fat check at an upscale antique boutique before spending an afternoon digging through the funky furniture shops on this stretch of Bell Road.

Camouflaged in a motley section from 24th to 29th streets are four wonderlands of eclectic furniture and accessories, some of it used, some new, others identical to Scottsdale gallery pieces but without the price tags that pay for the landlord's Jag.

Our top choice is Another Time Around Furniture, a 10-year-old business that originally sold pre-owned items and now specializes almost entirely in new items from all over the world. Treasures include rustic bookcases (kiln-fired so they don't crack like kerosene-dried cheapies), Tiffany-style lamps from Quoisel, Meyda and Dale and, on one visit, a $200 hand-carved Paris bench. Prices range from $5 to $4,000 furniture sets.

A close second is J&K Furniture next door, a claustrophobic warehouselike building where furniture spills out into the parking lot. Cupid's has a bohemian emphasis, while the Furniture Registry specializes in furnishings from the Lucy and Ricky Ricardo era.

For lower-end comfort, a honkin' big La-Z-Boy is hard to beat. But for higher-end visual pleasures, the furniture at this intimate showroom just down the street from the Phoenix Art Museum is about as good as modern design gets.

The gallery specializes in mid-century furnishings from the original production lines of such companies as Herman Miller, Knoll and Dunbar. A knowledgeable furniture aficionado who's always tracking down new troves of tables, chairs, sofas and dressers, proprietor David Sheflin specializes in works by wizards like George Nelson, Hans Wegner, Edward Wormley, Charles and Ray Eames, Warren McArthur and, every so often, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hidden between the big names are one-chair wonders and other little-known designers whose works cause design neophytes and jaded connoisseurs alike to tilt their heads in curiosity. Just don't make the mistake of asking, "Did anyone design this?" As Sheflin will be quick to point out, "Furniture does not design itself. Someone designed everything."

So maybe money can't buy good taste, but at least you'll have a running start at acquiring some -- for a price -- at Showcase at the Peak. With two ever-expanding locations, this emporium specializes in exotic imported furniture and home accessories from far-flung places around the globe. Though many of the things Showcase at the Peak carries are new, made-to-look-centuries-old items, they still reflect a sophisticated sensibility carefully developed and nurtured by quick bucks acquired from successful day trading.

You, too, can be the proud owner of a Moroccan Berber-made goatskin lamp festooned with intricate designs of henna paste. And won't your neighbors be green with envy when you show them that pair of six-foot, carved-and-gilded Mexican candlesticks you bought here by mortgaging your first-born? The last time we spied on Showcase's inventory, we literally stumbled over, among other treasures, Balinese woodcarvings, Italian majolica pottery, primitive Moroccan ceramics, inlaid mosaic (zillig) tile tables and hand-painted Moroccan tea tables.

From Japanese tansu and antique Tibetan chests to a turn-of-the-century Chinese shrine that looks like a puppet theater, Showcase always seems to have a constant stream of items guaranteed to add a certain élan to that poorhouse you'll be decorating after you shop here.

No, we're not going to tell you where to hook up with a Girl Scout wanna-be -- or even a bakery that sells triple-fudge cookie confections. What we're talking about here are old Kodak Brownie cameras and other vintage photographic equipment lusted after by seriously insatiable shutterbugs.

Zoom in on Collectible Cameras, a picture-perfect repository of photographic equipment dating back almost to the dawn of the daguerreotype. The north Phoenix showroom carries literally hundreds of old twin reflex cameras in mint condition, early 35mm single lens reflex models by all the top manufacturers and vintage field cameras (including an old beauty we spotted made of cherry wood). Primordial point-and-shoots, old Speedgrafix (you know, the kind of camera that crime-scene photographers used to pop off in the 1940s), lenses by the load, medium format studio cameras -- Collectible Cameras even handles old enlargers and light meters you'd swear were used by Ansel Adams. And if you happen to find a vintage Leica lurking in your linen closet, this place also buys cameras.

Say "Cheese!" -- and check out the store's Web site at www.ritzcam.com for a complete list of inventory and current prices.

Drooling over that sleek 'n' slinky postmodern design look that permeates the pages of haute decorating mags like Elle Decor and Metropolitan Home? You know, the kind in those glossy spreads showing futuristic furniture that looks like it's straight out of a 1960s Euro-hip sci-fi thriller?

If you're the young, urban hipster type with wheelbarrows of cash, a generous trust fund and/or a discriminating decorating mindset backed up with a viable credit card, Ferraras is the place to make your scene.

Once specializing in accessories, this award-winning design studio has changed course, concentrating now (in addition to designing hot residential and commercial environments) on high-end contemporary furniture and lighting from Italy, the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S. It's the perfect stop for furniture shopping when you have boodles of bucks and need some tasteful direction for creating the ultimate po-mo pad du jour.

Marcello and Ursula will dig it the most.

Cryogenics? Why freeze the dear departed when Dr. Don can turn a photo of your late loved one into a commemorative fridge magnet? Yes, a fridge magnet, complete with the name of the deceased and a brief message and/or dates of time on Earth.

Untraditional? Perhaps. A funeral crowd-pleaser? You bet!

Cost of these postmortem mementos is about 70 cents apiece when purchased in lots of 1,000; prices vary according to style and number of magnets ordered. Remembrance pins are also available at a lesser price.

Until someone comes up with a tee shirt emblazoned with GRANDMA WENT TO HEAVEN AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STINKIN' TEE SHIRT, we can't think of a cooler -- or more useful -- way to remember someone who's no longer with us.

With Tower Records no longer a player in the video rentals game, Movies on Central wins in a walk.

And after a stroll through the store's compact-but-tasty inventory of rarely seen titles, you'll understand how this video boutique has nurtured a Valleywide clientele drawn to tapes not to be found in the Valley anywhere else under one roof.

In addition to all the usual cult-movie suspects (Russ Meyer, John Waters, Gregg Araki), Movies on Central fills in the video cracks with film-festival indies, foreign titles, documentaries and an exemplary collection of classics and musicals.

Oh, and did we mention they take reservations?

Readers' Choice: Blockbuster

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