BEST OFF-THE-WALL GIFT SHOP 2004 | Great Arizona Puppet Theater | Shopping & Services | Phoenix
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 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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