Every few weeks, Tarnished Treasures' owners hit the road to comb estate sales and confer with junk dealers all over the country, returning to restock their collection of the highest quality, most original used furniture, hardware and knickknacks in the Valley. The beat-up look is in, and interior designers -- as well as boutique owners -- line up at the door when a new shipment arrives.

Recent trips to Tarnished Treasures have yielded a perfectly preserved set of deco armchairs and couch, hand-painted armoires, enormous Mary Tyler Moore-esque letters of the alphabet and, for the more adventurous decorator, long, skinny, low metal folding tables with patterns punched in the top -- used to cool corpses in the 1920s.

Call ahead because hours change weekly. And happy hunting!

You've seen those folks who do balloon animals at fairs or restaurants to keep the kids happy? Elaine Klein is a novice, yet a virtuoso. Unlike most twisters whose inflated rubber repertoires are limited to air-filled poodles and squeaky sombreros, Elaine interviews kids (or adults) before pulling something out of her . . . imagination.

The lady knows how to work a room. While visiting a Scottsdale restaurant recently, we witnessed a 12-year-old birthday girl modeling one of Elaine's breathtaking creations -- a four-foot-tall hot pink balloon showgirl headdress that matched her outfit.

And this fantastic elastic haberdasher has another specialty: Playing off VeggieTales, a popular Christian video series, Elaine will entertain at private birthday parties with balloon-themed fun centering on such characters as Larry the Cucumber, Bob the Tomato and Junior Asparagus.

We mean it in the best possible way when we say: MissElaineous, you really blow!

Pop Culture Classics doesn't specialize in sports memorabilia. It's an equal-opportunity kitsch paradise, with mint-condition pop esoterica like Doctor Who comic books, UNICEF Barbie dolls, Superman costumes, Chewbacca masks and even a KISS makeup kit that includes autographed stamps of approval from Gene Simmons and Co.

But the shop's sports section makes up in quality -- or, at the very least, weirdness -- what it lacks in sheer volume. In addition to a smart collection of sports cards, you'll find sealed boxes of Jake's Flakes (Jake Plummer's premature stab at cereal immortality), Frosted Mini-Wheats celebrating Grant Hill, and a whacked-out array of action figures, from David Cone to Charles Barkley to soccer legend Diego Maradona.

If you buy the right combination of Hall of Fame action figures, you can even set up your own dream batting match-up. Recommended choice: Rogers Hornsby facing the hard-throwing -- and hard-drinking -- Grover Cleveland Alexander. Miniature whiskey flask not included.

Three Dog Bakery
We suppose it was inevitable. Late one afternoon last spring, we espied Ralphie the Pug, Ranger the Rottweiler, Ginger the Pomeranian and Lizzie the Golden Retriever mingling easily in a corridor at Biltmore Fashion Park. Neither the dogs nor their masters seemed to have much familiarity with the meaner streets of our great metropolis. Both pups and humans were well-groomed, spiffy, comfortable in their skins -- or fur. Every Thursday (except during the hot summer months) from 6 to 8 p.m., up to 80 canines crowd into this puppified shop on the venerable mall's north side to gobble their treats -- some of which seem more fitting for the two-legged animals. And they say it's a dog's world. So it is.

Blue Dragon and its small team of dutiful tattooists -- along with "John the Piercist" -- bestow upon their customers the most presentable cornucopia of full-color tats and unpredictable piercings found just about anywhere. Blue Dragon's artists are renowned for their abilities, sought after by Phoenicians and even out-of-towners. Tattoos are done meticulously with fanciful flares, with imagery ranging from tribal to urban, insects to Celtics, daggers to demons and girls to monsters.

In the event you should walk out of Blue Dragon one night with your forearm bejeweled with a sizable flame-hued horned nymph that you'll never be able to justify to your significant other, take heart in the fact that the tat will, at least, be a lovely one. Averaging $80 to $90 a scrawl, tattoos at the Blue Dragon won't cost you a limb or two, either.

Best Place to Look at Art While You're Getting a Pedicure

Mood Swings

Mood Swings Salon and Gallery
Art, schmart. We were just looking to get our toenails pruned.

So imagine our surprise when we sat back for our 7 p.m. pedicure session at this full-service salon, only to be startled by the sound of live guitar music. We opened our eyes and saw a table with punch and cookies, then noticed the abstract oil paintings on the walls.

We were in the middle of an art opening.

Turns out, Mood Swings plays host to local artists. The art -- for sale, naturally -- hangs on the très chic brick walls, and every two months, on a Thursday evening, Mood Swings hosts an opening, complete with live music by a salon employee.

Cultural enrichment and a foot rub -- what could be better?

Sorry you did it? Tattoos go on more easily than they come off -- but they do come off. And a consortium of community groups in Mesa will help you remove them if you're willing to put up with a little pain and a few hours of community service.

Started by the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, the tattoo-removal program was designed to get rid of gang tattoos as a first step toward getting people out of gangs. But program officials will bend the rules if you can make a good case for it -- and if you're willing to do the volunteer work required of all participants.

Area doctors, the Boys and Girls Club, Mesa General Hospital, Mesa Fire Department and others donate their time and equipment to make the procedure free, quite a savings since a typical tattoo costs $1,200 to remove. The laser removal -- which sounds and feels like rubber bands snapping at your skin -- takes several sessions, can be painful and in some cases leaves scarring.

But it will leave you with a clean slate.

Just because barbers spend on average three hours a year running their fingers through your hair doesn't mean they have to know how much you make or what you paid for your house. Rule of thumb, if your mother doesn't know something, why should your hair stylist?

That's why the silent scissors of Yury Yakobuv are such a godsend. Unlike snooty unisex salon stylists, this masterful mane man isn't interested in who cut your hair last. Show up with gum in your hair and he probably wouldn't bat an eye. He just lets you watch Ricki Lake or The Price Is Right or whatever's on his portable TV while he administers the comb dipped into blue antiseptic "Barbicide," the talcum on the neck, the hot foam shave, the razor around the ears, all the things you go to a barber for except conversation. You could be a regular for years and still never know what former Soviet republic he's from. He'd probably tell you if you asked, but it's more fun seeing how few words you'll need to part with beyond "short back and sides."

That oughta be on his business card -- "More Yakobuv, less yaks."

Finally, someone who understands a woman's deep, biological need for a new pair of shoes.

"A woman can spend three and a half hours upstairs [in women's clothing] and nothing's working, but they know they can come down and buy a new pair of shoes and they're happy," says Betty Di Marco, a sales associate at Dillard's in Paradise Valley Mall. "It's like a fix."

She's the best professional sole sister we've ever seen, and we've seen a lot.

So how does Di Marco do it? After fitting strangers' hoofs for five years at Dillard's and seven at a boutique in Boca Raton, Florida, she can judge your shoe size just by looking. She knows -- even if you don't -- whether you walk on the outside or inside of your foot, or have extra long toes (yuck) or have a pronated (forward-leaning) foot.

Fashionwise, same deal. You want white sandals, low heel but "look at my red toenails" sexy? She can pluck the stockroom clean without even scanning the displays.

Her advice for finding a good shoe salesperson?

If someone lays three boxes at your feet and doesn't open them, take your shoe fetish elsewhere. "That's a big clue. They just don't care," says Di Marco. "Of course, the shoes won't fit; they haven't looked at your feet. That's just a clerk."

We may not know feet like she does, but we've got Di Marco sized up. No clerk, she.

For service, inventory and professionalism, J. Stephens wins this one in a walk.

Small but well-stocked, Stephens carries the usual well-heeled brands. More important, however, it offers that fading American ideal: service.

We know of one fellow who went to buy a pair of new shoes and wound up with free replacements for the year-old but well-walked ones he was wearing. The cordial salesman spied the eroded inside heel of the right hoof, said, "That shouldn't have worn like that," and sent it back to the company. No fuss, all gratis and unrequested.

Al Bundy, eat your heart out.

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