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

It calls itself a bookshop, but Book Gallery is really more like a classy library where all the books are for sale. Rare and out-of-print treasures are neatly organized on towering mahogany shelves surrounded by comfy chairs and tables just like you'd find in Dad's study.

The pricier, more rare titles are locked away in tidy glass cases, but the friendly, laid-back staffers (who'll never shush you, like in a real library, and who seem to know everything about each of the books and their authors) will be glad to let you handle these gems -- ancient, autographed hardcovers and wonderfully preserved first editions, some still in their dust jackets! It helps that Book Gallery stays open late -- we need as much time as possible to wander its roomy aisles in search of centuries-old best sellers.

Is it just us, or is there something a little creepy, a little Stepford Wives-ish, about scrapbooking? And since when is the word "scrapbook" a verb? If you love paper but hate scrapbooking, try AlteRnaTe: A Hands-On Paper Place. Not only does AlteRnaTe carry a wide selection of papers to drool over, including handmade, origami and hand-printed, it invites you to share in the paper love.

Once you've made your purchases, you can sit down at the fully stocked $5-an-hour "paper bar" and stamp, cut, punch, rip and paste 'til the trees are gone. Whether you're making one big Valentine or 20 party invites, you'll end up with something totally your own, and best of all, you don't have to store all those rubber stamps and interesting scraps of paper in your own damn house. Hours are unusual, so check the Web site before you go. We hold no responsibility for paper cuts.

The Headquarters has everything you're looking for in a head shop: great smoking accessories, including plenty of rolling papers, alongside the requisite tee shirts and incense. Our favorite piece of merchandise, on a recent visit, was what we feel compelled to refer to as the Old Glory bong -- a hand-blown glass one with white stars on a blue background, stretching into red and white stripes. Gives new meaning to the term "flag burning."

We had to pull an all-nighter, but our 14-page manifesto on how to unleash global anarchy is finally done. All that remains now is to run off a few dozen reproductions and use some guerrilla-distribution tactics (i.e., handing it out in front of the public library). We've only got a 10-spot, so a place where we can get more toner for our tenner would be appreciated. It's a Friday night, so an after-dark visit to Americopy is in order, since the mom-and-pop copy shop's normal bargain-basement price of 41/2 cents per page drops a penny. Low-cost but high-quality color copies are available for 89 cents when we want to print out a Photoshop-enhanced picture of Dubya for the next protest, or put it on a tee shirt for $13.

Even though it's located in the heart of tweak city (read: west Mesa), the copycat customers are a good mix of street kids copying their punk fanzines and Sunday-school teachers copying their lesson plans for the week. Maybe they'd like to read our plan for changing the world.

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