Those of you who bemoan the behemoth chain stores conveniently forget the many times Tower Records has saved your ass by having the record you were looking for at the last -- and we mean very last -- minute. Sure, when you're buying CDs for yourself, you can take your sweet time shopping around and getting a used copy of a Nick Cave album at half the list price. But when you're buying your little sister that copy of *NSYNC's first album, the cool, smaller shops won't have it. What if you have to give it to her today? Even last-minute Internet enablers like Amazon.com can't get it to you the same day and, let's face it, that's when the very last minute falls.

Tower's airy new location at the Desert Ridge Marketplace has 14,000 square feet of CDs, cassettes (yes, places still carry them), videos and DVDs, plus an array of current magazines and stereo equipment. If you want to buy a Puccini CD for your dad, or that Raffi CD for your mom that she enjoyed playing more than you did, chances are it's in stock. A recent last-minute inspection to fill holes in the ol' record collection found the store carrying a dozen Hole CDs -- and six by a blues guy with the unfortunate name of Dave Hole. Their prices ranged from $12.99 to $14.99, with imports hovering just below the $20 range, besting the everyday regular price of your mark-up mom-and-pop fave.

Heck, why stop there? Check Tower's Web site to see what they have in stock; you can pretend it's Amazon and special-order a title. So cross yourself, ask your mom-and-pop outlet's forgiveness, clutch that Ziggy Stardust 30th-anniversary set that no one else in town has, and go to bed without any supper.

Tracks in Wax
Who are the real music lovers? Some would say it's the MP3 people who obsessively download music from the Internet. This would be true if they actually listened to half the glut they burn, print labels for and file away. No, these are just people who want something for nothing -- and who are never going to listen to all that much Dave Brubeck. Truly obsessive music fans spend their lunch hours poring over catalogue books, looking for a Martin Denny or Marianne Faithfull album they might have missed, and then hunting it down.

Most hunts end here at Tracks in Wax, where Blue Book value goes out the window if an item's not exactly flying off the shelves. While the list of vinyl albums finding their way to CD continues to grow, it's never going to encompass this shop's inventory of waxworks. Where else can you get failed experiments like the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus or Chuck Berry's psychedelic dalliances at the Fillmore West with the Steve Miller Band? And both are priced according to desirability, at $5.99 and $15.99, respectively.

What of the countless soundtracks such as In Like Flynt and Out of Sight that have yet to make it to CD? Usual collector staples like the Beatles and the Stones are well-represented, with a large selection of 45 picture sleeves and 12-inches from around the world. Plus, the walls are lined with treasures you've never seen, except in grainy reproductions in a Goldmine magazine, priced at considerably less than the shaft prices that publication lists them for. Not in plain view are the thousands of 45s stashed in the back, listed in two yellow-and-green three-ring binders on the counter, which rarely exceed $5, even on an original label. Plus, you have knowledgeable owners Dennis and Donnie, who've been at this locale for ages and know the kind of stuff you've collected since you were a snot-nosed runt. With sections divided into jazz, punk, R&B, and male and female vocals, it'll take mere seconds to find what you're looking for, but you'll still inevitably be late coming back from your lunch break.

Best Reason To Relax And Enjoy Your Vacation

Angel Pet Nanny

We love to travel, but leaving behind our menagerie (four cats and an obstreperous Dalmatian) can make for tough times away. Or it used to, anyway, before we discovered Angel Pet Nanny. These bonded, insured, animal-loving pet sitters come to call as many times a day as you like while you're off traipsing, and nothing -- not even a doggy diaper or a bathtub full of baby alligators -- will scare them away. Proprietors Ginger and Lori will keep the company of most any kind of four-legged pet, and will spend at least 45 minutes per visit combing, petting, walking and bathing it. They'll also take in your mail, water your plants or scoop out the cat box -- all at no extra charge. They leave behind a meticulously detailed journal (a nanny diary, if you will) of your pet's every move and, if you want, will call you every day or leave you a daily voice mail update on your pet's well-being. We never leave home for more than a day without them.

If you love something, set it free; if it doesn't come back, hunt it down and have it stuffed at Ron's Taxidermy Studio. In the Valley for 20 years, Ron Cowper is a state and federally licensed master taxidermist with more than 30 years' experience. At Ron's, all work is guaranteed for life -- or for the remainder of death -- and his habitat scenes will make your kill look serene or ferocious (depending on the mood) while hanging on your mantelpiece or sitting next to your bed. Prices range from $150 for a fox half-mount to $3,500 for a life-size moose. But Ron's not limited to big game. So bring in your weasels, badgers, ducks, quails, fish, snakes and sparrows, and he'll make a trophy of what the cat dragged in. And yes, he can even make the famous jackalope. A word of warning: Never cut a deer's throat if you want the head mounted and, if possible, bring in your heads no more than two days after death.

Best Place To Find Jesus For Under 10 Bucks

Autom

The Autom store is not only a great place to stock up on anointing oil, monastery incense, rosaries and crucifixes, but smart shoppers find the real bargains with proper direction. What Would Jesus Do? He'd bypass the shelves bursting with virgins and saints and head to the back of the store. There, a cart holds large brown paper grab bags, for $3 each, and announces that 5 percent of the bags contain cash. On a recent purchase, we got lucky for a buck, as well as inundated with almost enough Jesus merchandise to redeem the entire staff. While we were purchasing the Jesus Playing Soccer figurine, the clerk accidentally broke Jesus from the porcelain playing field. This broken Jesus would be repaired, then sent to the way-back, we were told, the secret Jesus outlet portion of Autom cluttered with a hodgepodge of holiness at rock-bottom prices.
Bead Museum
Before visiting this "permanent safe haven for beads," our knowledge of beads was limited to two facts: 1) beads have holes in them; and 2) beads are easy to lose. We had no idea that an entire subculture is devoted to promoting the "appreciation of the historical and cultural significance of beads . . . from ancient, ethnic and contemporary cultures by means of collection, documentation, preservation and display."

Let there be no doubt: These people take their beads seriously. Exhibits include "The Shape of Beads to Come," "Learning Bead Lingo," and the undoubtedly divisive "Common Bead Names and Misnomers," while the museum's calendar features appearances by guest artists and an extensive array of classes and workshops. Almost 50 courses are offered this fall alone, ranging from the introductory "Basic Beading" to the advanced "Wedding Series," in which the expert beadhead crafts a necklace, earrings and headband to wear at her own wedding.

And the bead goes on. . . . The museum store is a truly international experience, peddling Chinese glass beads, Japanese seed beads, handmade Peruvian animal beads, German glass beads, Czech seed beads and Navajo-made jewelry.

Okay, so they're not exactly weeds, but master gardeners we are not. Outside the Glendale Main Library, nearly 1,000 different plant varieties grow on four acres. This collection of rare and unusual flora focuses on native and adapted plants that can be used in xeriscape design, including 600 varieties of low-water-use plants. The shrubs, trees, cactuses and sprouts are sectioned into handy categories, such as Cacti of Mexico and South America, Agaves of North and Central America, Berry Walk, and Medicinal Garden. (Suggestion: Add a "smokables" section.) Next to each plant is a sign listing its number, common name and scientific name -- sometimes even a book title for further reference.

As well-organized as this garden may be, some of these plants are practically begging for further categorization. Such as? 007's favorite plant: goldeneye. Plant that most sounds like a recreational drug: euphorbia. Plant most likely to sign for $252 million: Texas ranger. You get the idea.

Gifts Anon carries merchandise for every incarnation of the anonymously recovered, from sparkly "NO CAINE NO PAIN" bumper stickers to kids' books. Look especially for Gangs and Drugs from the "Tookie Speaks Out Against Violence" series -- Tookie being Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the Crips, who currently sits on death row, writing children's books in which he introduces the young to terms like "sherm" (PCP), "weed" (marijuana), "slinging drugs" and the dangers of "set-tripping." Self-help books in English and Spanish line the shelves, and behind the counter are coins for every anniversary (beginning with 24 hours) as well as videos such as Rush, 28 Days and Groundhog Day.

Also, with each purchase you are allowed to pull a "positive thought" from a fishbowl by the cash register.

Our monthly visit to cranky Aunt Betty on the west side always necessitated a calming visit to one of the better day spas in the tonier part of town. That is, until we discovered Savant, a full-service salon with all the comforts provided by better-known beauty stops. Now we save ourselves a drive to Scottsdale by dropping in at Savant's new 2,400-square-foot west-side digs (they've been teasing and curling and toning for 15 years), where we're given the full spa treatment and released, fully recovered from Auntie's sour attitude and prune Danish. We get a haircut, a massage and a manicure, and if we wanted to, we could also get a dye job, a pedicure, and a waxing. Savant's long list of treatments includes facials, glycolic peels, scalp treatments and expert makeup consultations. We're tempted to look into aroma wraps and salt rubs, and we may yet. Because even though Aunt Betty is gone now, we're still making monthly visits to Savant.

SAS Fabric by the Pound
Few things excite us like the phrase "by the pound." Imagine walls of fabric -- piles and shelves of it -- everything from leather to lamé, stacked, hung and rolled into every nook and cranny of SAS's orderless shelves, sans any recognizable categorical system. True, you can't go in looking for something specific unless you have three hours to search every shelf, but if you're a crafty type looking for inspiration for your next project, just walk into SAS and you will be instantly transformed into the most creative person you know. Besides the fabric at rock-bottom prices, they have buttons by the cupful that are older than your mom, as well as scraps, trim, notions, ersatz jewels and our favorite: the famous aisle of grommets. SAS is a costumer's delight, a craftmaker's paradise, a stitcher's wet dream . . . but a warning: It also can be an OCD sufferer's version of the seventh level of hell.

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