Our hundred-dollar sofa looks like a million bucks, thanks to this treasure trove of high-end upholstery and curtain fabrics, tagged at below-bargain prices. Before we discovered Interior Fabric, we thought "mill outlet" and "fine fabrics" were mutually exclusive. Then we wandered the wide aisles of this textile paradise, fingering top-dollar damasks and finally affordable watered silks -- most at right around $10 a yard. As if scoring great deals on really quality fabric wasn't enough, there's the fun of asking the handsome help to cut samples for us.

We're planning to reupholster every piece of furniture in our home, just so we can keep heading back to this swell pile of well-organized, high-quality yard goods.

The most post-bang bang for your buck? Pregnancy tests at the dollar store. The 99-Cents Only Store, to be exact.

We used to think ourselves too good for single-price emporiums, but this enclave of "primarily name-brand consumable general merchandise" has opened our eyes to a whole new world of retail -- what with its bright lighting, clean aisles, and ever-changing variety of sausage and seafood. Even shoppers wary of perishables have to be impressed by 99-cent cans of albacore Chicken of the Sea. And come the holidays, office Secret Santas have a wealth of cheap gifts to choose from: Star Wars Episode I Intergalactic Body Wash, Kato Kaelin's unauthorized autobiography on audiocassette, and Hulk Hogan's hard-to-find album Hunkmania!

Should someone ever market taste, however, this place likely won't carry it.

The first time we walked into this central Phoenix bargain mecca, we were torn between the wall of pink plastic Hello Kitty goods and the table stacked with tastefully glazed Japanese pottery. But then it dawned on us that we can fill our basket with both, with cash to spare. This is no ordinary dollar store -- indeed, most items are actually marked $1.29. But we were struck more by the unusual merchandise than by the odd pricing. The majority of the stuff at Banzai is Japanese. So along with the typical household items you'd expect, there are also colorful, cartoony stationery and pen sets, beauty accessories like body scrubbing towels and eyelash curlers, and kitchen items galore, from sushi rice paddles to ginger graters.

Hello Kitty!

Bullet wounds, severed heads and pet puke come in all shapes and sizes at Easley's Costumes, a department store of disguises and surprises. Easley's carries so many odd accouterments, it's amazing it got them all in such a deceptively small building. Here you will find chicken feet, clown supplies, crowns and tiaras, theatrical makeup, and eight varieties of fake poop -- not to mention enough costumes and wigs to dress a small army of trick-or-treaters.

Or a large army. The place even sells plus-size costumes.

We don't know a ficus from a philodendron, but we do know that we can't visit this groovy garden center without leaving a good portion of our paycheck behind. Situated in and around a restored Craftsman bungalow in downtown Phoenix's historic Roosevelt District, Tara's Garden isn't just a heap of horticulture; it's a series of artfully crafted outdoor garden settings. Wonder how those date palms will look with your Adirondacks? Tara isn't selling hers off a shelf; she's got them "planted" around some patio furniture, so you can see how they'll look once you get them home. Not sure what to do with the succulents you just bought? Visit Tara's water garden for some tropical planting ideas. Inside, the house is bursting with ways to display your indoor plants, and with great gift ideas, dispensed by friendly, informative Tara herself. Who needs a green thumb when there's a cool old house grown over with leafy life? We rely on Tara's Garden to tell us what (and how, and where) to plant.

Alleviate the empty nest syndrome at The Flight of Phoenix, the pet project of Dale and Steve Madonick. Since 1996, the Flight folks have sought "to provide the finest in understanding and care for tropical birds." Services range from boarding and grooming to behavior modification, while the shop's finest feathered friends include macaws, caiques and parrots aplenty. A quick breakdown: Amazon parrots are "the world's best talking parrots and the best pet birds," cockatoos rank as "the most physically affectionate parrots," and African grays "the most intelligent conversationalist" . . .

The question isn't "Do they talk?" The question is "What do they talk about?" Even for non-bird lovers, the store's Web site is both educational (where else would we have learned that the hyacinth macaw is "the most bird money can buy"?) and entertaining (photos of birds lounging on La-Z-Boys).

We stopped into this just-opened, ultra-hip shop in search of shabby chic furnishings, and found stacks of it, some of which we whisked away to our own shabby home. What we didn't count on was meeting the artist-in-residence, an English bull terrier named Tarquin who peddles his paintings between naps in one corner of the store. Each of Tarquin's paw-painted pieces is a vivid, multi-hued op-art masterpiece in red and blue and yellow acrylic. Proceeds from the sale of each canine composition go to Maricopa County Animal Control, and each work comes gilt-framed and ready to hang.

Trot on over to Bullies, where you can meet the artist, buy one of his paintings, and maybe score a cool end table as well.

BEST PLACE TO BUY A GIFT FOR SOMEONE FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE

Russian Market

Times are tough in Russia these days, especially with newly self-anointed czar Vladimir considering a surname change from Putin to Lenin. So if you're friends with a Russki, a pick-me-up is in order. Matryoshka dolls are especially delightful, especially the comical versions available at Russian Market, with droll renditions of cowboy-hat-wearing Dubya or the more traditional babushka-clad female figure. If they're not down with tchotchkes, share a bottle of Russian Merlot (or any of the other 34 wines stocked by the grocer) along with some caviar.

Next, pick out a Russian greeting card from two doors down at European Gifts, drop a C-note for a porcelain tea set direct from the motherland, followed by a haircut at Eduard's Barber Shop and dinner at Restaurant Samarkand (both across the street). Despite the Eastern-bloc feel to this area, avoid asking anyone about his or her background, or you'll risk getting the evil eye and being accused of trying to dig up some kind of Mafia connection. Others might simply riff on the stereotype. "We're all in the Mafia; Russians are everywhere here," quips one heavily accented twentysomething as he cuts hair at Eduard's. "We're thinking of changing the name of this area to 19th Avenue and Russia."

Who knew? Phoenix has its own Little Russia.

Looking for some political party favors? Get your hands on the "Axis of Evil II" finger puppet set, packing tiny versions of Bush, Ashcroft, Cheney and Rumsfeld. The first "Axis of Evil" set -- more global, just as terrifying -- partners Dubya with Saddam, Kim Jong-il and Khamenei. Shopping for kids? More inspiring (and less frightening) finger puppets include "The Revolutionaries" -- Che, Gandhi, Mandela and Trotsky -- and "Great Artists" (Monet, Kahlo, van Gogh and Dal’), as well as Composers, Philosophers and Psychologists (Freud, Jung, Anne Freud and the couch). The shop's full-size puppets are equally original: We spotted a scarab beetle, meerkat, lemur, cobra, pteranodon and a plumed phoenix -- plus a pimpin' poodle in a leopard-skin suit, black boots and red shades. In addition to hawking tee shirts, tabletop stages, and puppet paintings by local artist John Yaeger, GAPT houses puppet displays and, for the near future, the Puppeteers of America Bookstore. Titles range from practical -- Stage Fright: Health & Safety in the Theater -- to fanciful -- The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers.

It takes more than a great selection of new and used books to get this honor. If that weren't the case, we could easily nominate Amazon.com. What truly sets Changing Hands apart from its competitors both real and virtual is the close-knit community it's nurtured. Aside from thoughtfully arranged shelves and tables of compelling reads (like the variety of titles recently featured on National Public Radio), book lovers flock here for writing workshops, book groups, kids' events, and seminars on everything from fine art to spirituality. Readings by emerging local fiction writers and poets are showcased right along with appearances by prominent national authors.

Even the store's eclectic gift selection -- aromatherapy candles, bookmarks, note cards and the like -- is tailored to the culture of reading, writing and relaxation. With the adjoining Wildflower Bread Company's cafe menu and casual vibe, there's added reason to visit -- and even less reason to go home.

Readers' Choice: Barnes & Noble

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