The Brownie Connection
Sure, flowers are pretty, but they wilt. Wouldn't you rather have a little nosh? For a long time, we ignored the offerings of the Brownie Connection, turned off by the boring packaging. But now we must admit we've learned, you can't judge a brownie by its cover. When a friend finally shoved one (okay, several) of these under our noses, we gobbled the cream cheese, nut and cookie varieties, as well as the plain brownie, then raced for the milk, mumbling our approval through a sugary haze.

Unlike flowers, old brownies never die. At least, not for three months. Just make sure you wrap them tightly and store them in the freezer.

Greta the Weimaraner greets you at the door of the store that bears her name, and she'll follow you around as you browse through a fab collection of dog and cat gear you won't find at PETsMART. There are gift sets of pink and blue baby items for girl puppies and boy puppies, gift baskets of pet bath items, pink velvet dog dresses, Hawaiian-print dog shirts, several lines of premium dog foods, toys, collars, bowls, cat houses, pet carriers that look like designer handbags, and animal-themed art on the walls. Greta's is the place to buy a gift when you and your dog-child get invited to a canine birthday party or puppy shower. It's not the place to bring anyone who thinks there's something wrong with a dog napping on the sofa while wearing a leather collar with his/her name spelled out in rhinestone letters.
Moon Valley Nurseries
Our pick for the most spectacular tree found in the Valley is the jacaranda, with its spectacular summer show of vivid lilac-blue trumpet-shaped flowers. Many Valley nurseries carry them, but the best selection of jacarandas and all other varieties is at Moon Valley Nurseries. Palms, citrus and desert favorites like paloverde are here by the thousands -- visiting a Moon Valley location is like hiking through a national forest. Owner/founder Les Blake started it all by selling Christmas trees 10 years ago and now is said to own more than a million trees. For those of you who can kill almost anything in nature, the nursery says even you should be able to grow a mesquite or Ficus nitida tree. Even more fun than selecting your trees is watching the Moon Valley crews plant them -- we're convinced these guys could dig to the center of the Earth within five minutes.
Desert Gardens Nursery
Granted, it's tough to top Desert Botanical Garden's annual spring and fall plant sales for snagging rare cactuses and euphorbia, but where do you find 'em the other 50 weeks of the year? We go to Desert Gardens Nursery, on Cave Creek Road just north of the 101. This blooming oasis, lovingly tended by a helpful and personable man named Chris Brecht, carries the sort of scarce succulents that are usually available only to wholesalers and landscape architects. In addition to healthy specimens of Sonoran staples like saguaros, totem poles, and Mexican fence posts, Desert Gardens stocks harder-to-find stuff like cardons (the Mexican cousin of the saguaro), the fat and sassy nasty boy named Trichocereus terscheckii (a.k.a. the Argentine saguaro), Joshua trees, Mexican White Thorns, Argentine Toothpicks, and Aloe vanbelini (which resembles something out of an H.R. Giger nightmare). On a recent visit, we also marveled at an eight-foot-tall Blue Monstrosus, humongous agaves and aloes such as Kalanchoe beharensis, and one of the largest barrel cactuses we've seen in our entire cactus-loving lives. And if Chris doesn't have something on hand -- like, say, a Hildewintera aureispina or a Queen of the Night -- he can probably get you one.
We admit it: We live in a house overflowing with rococo kitsch, the sort of stuff you'd find in a brothel that had been decorated by Charles Nelson Reilly. Velveteen draperies; gilded urn lamps; claw-foot everything. And until recently, we thought we had the edge on cool home furnishings, because we shop weekly at The Garden Party, a mini-museum of great furniture, wall art, and gewgaws from several recent eras. That is, until we spotted the visual-merchandising manager from a giant chain of department stores at The Garden Party the other day, pawing through this hip shop's 11 big dealer booths in search of stuff for his stores. If this guy knows about our fave shop, we must be onto something. We just hope we get there before he does, because missing out might mean not owning, for example, the giant plaster cherub we brought home from a recent Garden Party visit. Our flawless 1930s sofa, covered in rich burgundy suede, set us back a whopping $200, and the 1950s salon hairdryer we bought for our sister (who put it in place of her ratty old Barcalounger) cost half as much. Garden Party's several dealers offer a cross section of stuff from all eras of cool, from inexpensive Bakelite jewelry to Melmac dishware; higher-end furnishings to shabby chic fixer-uppers. We go often, especially now that we know that those in the know (read: display queens) are in on our best secret. You can be, too.
Weathered Wonders
Your garden needs one of David Bruce's birdhouses. Bruce makes each of his avian abodes by hand, in a shop in the back of his central Phoenix store, from old wood, doorknobs, pieces of tin, and whatever else he scavenges from abandoned buildings and alleys. Some are made in the manner of English cottages, others like Spanish mission churches, and still others sport the minimal lines of mid-century modern ranch houses. Birds seldom get to occupy these dwellings, though. These houses are objets d'art, too nice to mess up with wren poop. Bruce also makes garden furniture, and dog and cat houses. He says he has customers who have dozens of his birdhouses in their gardens and homes, and they still come into his shop to buy more. "For some people, these birdhouses are like Lay's potato chips," he says. "They can't buy just one."
Pratt's Pet Store
Need a pair of great tits? They're birds, pervert, and just one of dozens of varieties we found at Pratt's, a family-owned and operated business that started as a feed store back in 1936 but is now, as the staff tee shirts say, "the Unofficial Glendale Zoo." As the outskirts of town have shifted, so has Pratt's marketing emphasis. Instead of feed, Pratt's now specializes in birds, poultry, exotic reptiles, and small mammals. The pleasant employees solve problems ("My tortoise is constipated!"), sex finches, and catch piglets for kids to pet. There are horse troughs chirping with fuzzy goslings, ducklings, and four-for-eight-bucks bantam chicks. Pratt's also carries veterinary medication, offers a Saturday vet clinic, and stocks food and supplies for any vertebrate imaginable.

Pratt's newest acquisition: PetSpa. You know those machines outside Bashas' where you fill water jugs for a quarter a gallon? Well, for $14.95, you can stick your pooch in a similar contraption, this one with 36 shower heads and three cycles -- very Astro Jetson.

Auntie Em's Miniatures
There are a couple of small signs just inside the front door of Auntie Em's that read, in both English and Spanish, "Parents: Please watch your children. Expensive toys." The placards don't lie, Mom, as this downtown Glendale curio shop is crammed with a plethora of pricey playthings dating back to the 1940s -- things that've been placed in glass cases to keep them away from Junior's greasy paws. In addition to the antique pedal cabs and miniature accessories also in stock at the store, this costly collection of classics runs the gamut from the more recently retro action figures (Transformers, Voltron, Star Wars) to the days long before you were bugging Daddy-o to buy some gaudy tie-in product seen in a recent cartoon. There are also quaint throwbacks ranging from cast-iron cops on Harley-Davidsons to 1960s-era Hot Wheels, as well as original Aurora models of movie monsters dating back to when Ike was in office. Play it again, Em!
The Book Connection is an odd little business, a shop just steps away from the ultimate independent bookstore (in these parts, anyway), Changing Hands. But there it is, tiny in comparison, with rows of used books and a few Melissa and Doug puzzles in the window.

Melissa and Doug toys are one of life's true joys. They're almost all made of wood, by some crunchy northeasterners (probably named Melissa and Doug) who realized that if one more plastic Polly Pocket doll moved into our house, we were going to have to move out. The toys are relatively inexpensive -- you can score a cool puzzle for $10, even an enormous castle with a king and queen for under $100. And you can find just about every Melissa and Doug toy we've ever seen -- a bigger selection, even, than in the toy department at you-know-where -- at the Book Connection.

The best part: Follow the rows of books to the back of the store, and it opens onto an oasis of toys. Shelves full of Melissa and Doug toys for sale, and just about every toy available to try. Our kids have held many concerts on the tiny pianos, thrown parties in the dollhouses -- and made good use of the (real) bathroom in the back, all undisturbed by the friendly staff.

Scottsdale Fashion Square
To be honest, our perfect shopping trip to Scottsdale Fashion Square consists of stops at the new Anthropologie and the expanded Sephora, then a long, long stop in Neiman Marcus, followed by cocktails in the bar at Kona Grill. Ah, but we digress.

This is a trip for the kids, and so there will be none of the above. But you'll still have a great time.

Okay, listen carefully, before we regret giving up our secrets. Begin by parking in the Nordstrom parking lot just off Goldwater Boulevard, and enter the west side of the store. Take the elevator to the third floor, and browse the children's shoe aisle as you keep the toddlers moving toward the mall. You can mix the order from here, but the perfect trip -- all found on the third-floor stretch just outside Nordstrom -- includes:

• A stop at See's for free samples for you and the kids.

• A pass through Sanrio, better known as the "Hello Kitty Store," where you can satisfy a little girl's desire for plastic crap for just a couple of dollars. And sometimes they're giving out free stickers.

• A long stay at Pottery Barn Kids, where you can purchase a set of vintage-looking, kid-size kitchen appliances (stove and fridge) for $449, or let the kids play with them for as long as you want, for free. PBK also has the best bathroom on the "strip."

• Additional shopping forays at Baby Gap, Gap Kids, Gymboree, Baby Style, The Children's Place, and -- the big kahuna -- The Disney Store.

Then we like to stop for a soft pretzel (or bag of pretzel pieces) and lemonade at the pretzel stand and enjoy them at the kid-size tables and chairs before heading into what our kids have dubbed "The Princess Playground." Really, it's one of those Westcor specials you find at malls all over town. This one is small, but has its own bathroom. (It's been a long time since PBK.)

If you decide to drop some dough in the Nordstrom kids' shoe department on the way out, you can be guaranteed balloons for everyone. And just think of the shoes you'll buy yourself when you come back alone.

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