Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
We think this classy museum emporium is just about the best place to buy anything, but it's unparalleled in the area of greeting cards, thanks to the exquisite eye of Janice Bartczak, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts' Director of Retail Operations (a fancy-schmancy name for head buyer). No Hallmark here. Rather, Bartczak stocks The Store with an assortment of single and boxed cards by makers such as KOCO NY; Peaceable Kingdom Press of Berkeley, California; Galison of New York; Knock Knock of Venice, California; Borealis Press of Surry, Maine; and Designfold of New York. And in the event that you dislike the cards on hand -- highly doubtful -- The Store also sells a DIY card-making kit. Even we jaded media types aren't immune to The Store's charms; on a recent visit, we succumbed to the allure of a set of Opera Notes cards by Galison featuring to-die-for illustrations by artist John Martinez.
Borders Books & Music
It's kind of sad to admit that we really researched this, but indeed, we did -- that's how hooked we are on magazines. The god of glossies still hasn't answered our prayer for an independent, can't-miss newsstand downtown, so for now, we schlep to the crown jewel of Mill Avenue's chain-store lineup for our fix. Quite simply, there are just more racks here, period, which means that every category is robust. More news and fashion, more sports, music, and queer-friendly titles, plus a cheeky selection of indie and foreign mags with amusing names like Artichoke, Swindle, Theme, and Anthem. The more, the merrier. Because as any true magazine junkie knows, it's all about quality and quantity.
Changing Hands Bookstore
The kind folks at Changing Hands are so helpful. They publish a monthly newsletter, complete with a full listing of the events held at the store, which include costumed storytelling for kids, grown-up authors like Scott Simon and Hillary Clinton, and a variety of writing classes. Ask a staff member for a book, and it's in your hands before you realize she's left and returned. Need a card, or a gift? They've got it, along with irresistible store tee shirts that read "Fictional Character" and "Will Work for Books."

So we weren't surprised when, on a recent trip to the store, an employee helpfully suggested that we rename the Best of Phoenix award for Best Bookstore to "The Changing Hands Best Bookstore Award," recognizing that CH has certainly won its share of BOPs over the years.

Good idea, we said, as we struggled to the cash register with our stack of new and used books. But usually, when you do that, the award is given to someone else. Why would we give Changing Hands the Changing Hands Award? Leave the "Best of" business to us. We'll leave the book business to Changing Hands. And the "Best of" for Best Bookstore. Again.

The Antiquarian Shop
With the passing of George Chamberlain in January, Arizona lost its dean of booksellers. The erudite Mr. Chamberlain held court in the same location for 40 years, and now his daughter Ann Chamberlain Maroe has relocated from Oregon and her own bookshop to continue her father's legacy. There are many Valley bookshops where one can pick up a copy of any current best seller or last year's Stephen King novel, but the Antiquarian Shop is a real bookstore for dead-serious bibliophiles. Here you'll find George Washington's autograph and a copy of Cicero's Cato Major printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1773. The shop also handles the work of the modern masters with first editions of all the greats, including Hemingway and Steinbeck. Many rare-book stores specialize in specific areas like history or the sciences, but the Antiquarian Shop offers the best it can find in all fields with an emphasis on condition. If it's $2.98 cover prices you're seeking, then head to the bargain tables at Borders; but if you want to hold history in your hands, this is the place to go more than once upon a time.
Here in the Valley, the comic book landscape seems to be dominated by ginormous Atomic-powered retail establishments that are "All About Books and Comics." These titans of the sequential art set draw teenagers and other socially maladjusted hooligans from Tempe to Tolleson into their establishments with the latest multi-paneled, four-color adventures from a cadre of superheroes, or exclusive signing sessions with big-name artists like Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. Meanwhile, Moryha and Mike Banks -- owners of Samurai Comics -- have survived and thrived in the shadow of these comic colossi over the past three years. Operating their smallish shop out of a cramped strip mall a few doors down from Gay Denny's, the couple has developed a cultlike group of regulars who've graced their shop looking for the newest from major publishers like DC, as well as harder-to-find titles like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Eightball. The Bankses often book well-attended appearances by such obscure small-press artists as James Kochalka (author of the zany sketch diary American Elf) and Craig Thompson (who's penned such graphic novels as Blankets).

Business has been so good, Moryha and Mike are in the process of opening a new location at 107th Avenue and Indian School Road. Looks like the underdogs sometimes win out in the end after all.

Burton Barr Central Library
When you get right down to it, you have to be pretty cheap these days to want to actually rent the video or DVD rather than buy it. After you rent the damn thing and bring it back late, it'll cost you about the same amount of scratch it would have if you'd bought it new from the beginning. (This considering what we now know about Blockbuster's wack-assed "no late fees" policy.) And anyway, Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, and even the mom-and-pops all stock pretty much the same old crap. Wanna see The Ring Two or xXx: State of the Union starring Ice Cube? Those other guys have got 'em by the score. But if you're interested in the collected shorts of Fatty Arbuckle, or Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, or anything the least bit obscure, Burton Barr's first-floor video shelves, stocked with hundreds of classic and foreign films, are for you. Your inner cheapskate will be satisfied as well, 'cause "rentals" are free, so long as you have your library card handy.
Biltmore Fashion Park
Sometimes, the whole mall scene in the Valley gets depressing, with the search for originality. Let's face it: That platter you got at Pottery Barn might be super-cute, but it's sitting on the Crate & Barrel dining room table of several thousand other super-cute shoppers. That's why we love Haus. When the owners moved from the street to the mall last year, we were deeply suspicious. But a recent trip thrilled us -- Haus is better than ever, Jonathan Adler's designs firmly in place, and even if you don't have any cash, a Haus call is worth it for a look-see. Our favorite addition is Hot Haus, a budding floral operation run out of one corner of the store. Now you can find something to stick in that Jonathan Adler vase.
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.

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