Best Of :: Shopping & Services
With the hundreds of discount dens, bargain barns and 99-cent stores around the Valley, it takes a lot to get a seasoned bargain hunter to raise an eyebrow. But when you combine clean, intact men's, women's and children's clothing and footwear, plus housewares, with 50 to 75 percent off retail prices, the Dillard's Clearance Center can make even the cynical bargain shopper's eyes pop out of their sockets.
The Dillard's Clearance Center is the seasonal outlet for Dillard's department stores in the area. That means you're scoring the same merchandise for which you wouldn't allow yourself to pay full retail, the only drawback being you're buying corduroy pants and flannel shirts in April. But rest assured these garments aren't ripped or stained, like you might expect from other discount venues that sell returned goods.
This bargain bonanza does come at a cost. Unlike other Dillard's stores, this one doesn't feature elaborate visual displays. But at prices like these, you'd have to be a dummy to quibble over the lack of a few mannequins.
Most garage waiting rooms have all the appeal of, well, a garage waiting room. Call the decor Grease Monkey Hell: a few plastic chairs, an out-of-order pop machine, a table covered with old cam-shaft catalogues and a TV permanently tuned to Jenny Jones.
At the Car Repair Company (catchy name, guys!), purists can still read dog-eared issues of People if they're so inclined. But you'll find most stranded motorists ogling the owner's collection of cool car kitsch. In addition to several old gas pumps (including a 1940s Sinclair model with the famous dinosaur logo), there's a display case filled with vintage car toys like Hot Wheels, a Hasbro Amaze-A-Matic ("The fantastic car with a brain!"), a miniature Hooter's van and something called Hairy Hurdles. Car culture accouterments are represented by a miniature Ramada Inn travel bag, a 1960s Kodak Instamatic and a variety of old pop bottles. A battered traffic cone from a race-car driving school, vintage car magazines and the tail end of a hot pink Cadillac Fleetwood bring up the rear.
The only thing possibly missing from this remarkable roadside attraction? A tape loop of a kid whining, "Are we there yet?"
Looking for a lock-pick gun? Trying to peep at your boss's confidential mail but don't know where to pick up the CIA Flaps and Seals Manual? Got a hankering to brew up some marijuana beer but can't find the infamous how-to book (labels included)? Underground Mall is the spot for all that and a grip of other tools, toys, manuals and herbal pseudo-drugs that'll have you about one inch this side of a jail sentence.
On a recent spree, we scored issue #8 of Super Taboo (an animé-porn comic, $2.95), a pack of tobacco-free "Ecstasy" cigarettes (agonizingly awful-tasting, $5.95), and got the hard sell for (but didn't purchase) a rain-forest-derived hallucinatory herb called Salvia (sounds pretty cool, $32.95). And thanks to the sleaziest array of fetish videos imaginable (or, more accurately, unimaginable), kink fans will think they've died and gone to Al Goldstein's rec room.
For an even larger selection of subversive fun, check out Underground's catalogue, wherein you can find toys like the "Mind Molester," a 1" x 11/4" electronic chirping device you hide that chirps one second every five minutes 'til it's found ($29.99!); or try "Mega Sonic Nausea," which emits ultrahigh frequency sound waves that generate queasiness in all within earshot (a great way to clear a classroom, $99.99).
For the porn-inclined, foul-minded, criminal-hearted or just plain curious, the Underground Mall is a gold mine.
Did you long ago give up hope of ever finding a copy of preteen belter Lena Zavaroni's 1974 novelty disc "Ma! He's Making Eyes at Me"? Sorry, we got to Prickly Pair first and beat you to it.
Not only did we zone in on Zavaroni, we also carted off such hard-to-find goodies as a pre-Cher Sonny Bono 45, a Herman's Hermits EP, and a Beatles eight-track (still in the shrink!). Now closing in on its 20th anniversary, Prickly Pair isn't your average house of wax. Its huge inventory of singles (several hundred thousand vintage platters, plus heaps of newly minted jukebox 45s) is given special attention: The records are catalogued by artist and title on the store's computer system, and kept out of reach of customers, so they're always in order and accessible to fanatical collectors and casual listeners alike.
Clued-in counter helpers are glad to grab a stack of singles by any artist on your list, and will probably offer little-known details about the artist and tunes you're buying, besides. (Bet you didn't know that little Lena died of anorexia a couple of years back.)
Where is it written that a huge national bookstore chain is inherently inferior to a cramped, poorly stocked counterpart run by aging unicorn-huggers who can quote chapter and verse on J.R.R. Tolkien?
If it's in print, one of the army of friendly staffers at Borders will direct you to a section of the store devoted to that very same school of thought. And in the unlikely event Borders can't help you? Well, you can always schlep over to the aforementioned maverick bibliothèque and listen to a clerk bend your ear with an oral rendition of that "big business is bad" diatribe.
Us? We're bookin' to Borders.
Readers' Choice for Best Bookstore -- New Titles: Borders
Squeezed out of its longtime Mill Avenue digs last spring by the prospect of competition from a yet-to-be-announced national chain, this beloved independent bookstore didn't surrender. In fact, its second store is now thriving in its second location -- in a Tempe strip center just two doors from another used-book shop.
Like its defunct flagship store, the new offshoot hosts book clubs, travel talks, author signings, poetry corners, kids' story times, psychic readings and more. Gone are the musty old corners that inspired treasure hunts. But the larger spot offers bigger, blended collections of used and new books, a still-artsy greeting-card selection, an expanded children's corner, an adjacent cafe, and still-funky merchandise ranging from candles to kazoos.
Granted, national bookstore behemoths and their online cousins do offer convenience, selection and competitive pricing beyond Changing Hands' grasp. But you've got to hand it to this 26-year-old hometown fave: In addition to books, its shelves are stocked with soul, history and the guts to refuse to bow to the giants.
Readers' Choice for Best Bookstore -- Used: Bookman's
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.