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.

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.

We were so happy to see This Little Piggy come home to the Biltmore, where it belongs, rather than tucked away at the Borgata in Scottsdale -- a place we always, frankly, forget is there.

Piggy's new (old) location is sweet, with two huge rooms packed with toys and kid accessories. But our favorite part of this Santa Barbara-based children's boutique is the clothing. You can find unique items (like a batiked tee, a takeoff on Hello Kitty with a familiar cat and the saying, "Hello Gorgeous") or go for the old standbys from This Little Piggy's own clothing line. We love the roomy, comfy cotton rompers, dresses and tees, with sweet images of pagodas, alligators and, of course, pig faces.

It's enough to make us squeal with glee at the shopping opportunities that await.

Our Number 1 rule for buying used clothing: Shop in the neighborhood of the people you aspire to dress like. For us, that's north central Phoenix, particularly when it comes to the fashion sense of that 'hood's little people. We hit Urban Baby Exchange, and we weren't disappointed. For less than $25, we scored two Baby Lulu outfits -- a feat unlikely even at Nordstrom's best sale. Urban Baby Exchange isn't large, but every item in it -- from the shoes to the blankets, and a few pieces of baby gear -- has been lovingly chosen, and carefully preserved.

It's north central all the way, baby!

The selection of kids' and infants' shoes at Bearly Kidding -- especially the dress shoes -- is to die for. Perhaps even better, you won't be left to your own devices. A member of BK's knowledgeable staff is always at the ready to measure your muffin's foot and dispense sound advice about style and fit. So pick out some stylish loafers for your little man or slip your tootsie's tootsies into a pair of sassy sandals from Pom D'Api, Shoe Be Doo, or Mod 8, and let Bearly Kidding do the rest.
The wonderful assortment of books and fun-but-educational toys in this gift shop is the most thoughtful part of the Arizona Museum for Youth. We particularly appreciated the cuddly staffers at the gift shop who, unlike the museum guards, were friendly and encouraged our kids to browse and touch toys. We understand the need to protect precious art, certainly, but why put precious art in a children's museum? There are few places in the world where kids don't have to hear, "Don't touch! Stay back! Keep your socks on!"

Okay, lecture over. The museum shop, which has its own entrance, had great bargain gifts, like a grab bag (who doesn't like a grab bag?) including funny sunglasses and a pencil for just $2, and craft projects with beads and clay that will let kids make their own art. Then open your own children's museum.

We swear, we don't want any more kids, but a walk through Baby Bliss makes the thought of procreation -- or at least, the notion of another baby shower -- very tempting. The small shop adjacent to Domestic Bliss (a home store that makes you want to nest like crazy) is crammed full of only the sweetest, cutest, most awwwww-inspiring clothing and accessories for baby and mom. We saw the tiniest ribbon-trimmed tutu in the palest blue, cotton pantsuits in the season's trendiest Neapolitan ice cream shades, and a collection of vintage-inspired time pieces featuring youngsters frolicking 'round the clock. We settled on a pair of pink baby socks trimmed with black to look like Mary Jane shoes, wondering if our 4-year-old would be able to cram her toes into them (she was, but barely) and trying to decide which sheet set we'd buy for the crib, if we do decide to descend into Baby Bliss once more.
When the producers of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation needed props for a curious caper titled "King Baby" that aired back in February, they went to Mike Sally and his adult baby/diaper lover (AB/DL) business, And, yes, the folks at CSI had plenty of other options for their episode about the murder of a grown man who had a secret chamber full of oversize baby paraphernalia. But they went with Sally -- out of a few dozen adult baby furniture makers around the country -- to provide them with a custom-made $1,200 crib, a high-end $600 high chair with lots of extra room in the seat, a $500 playpen, and other accouterments. Sally also sells big baby accessories, like "fun, simple and sophisticated" crib bedding, and rocking horses "built to last." Goo-goo.
Eames and Bertoia and Starck, oh my! Yeah, this is dangerous territory if you love modern furniture. We can barely contain our drool when the gorgeous, glossy Design Within Reach catalogue arrives in the mail, so visiting this spacious new retail showroom -- which brings gleaming Mies van der Rohe chairs and glowing Noguchi lamps into three dazzling dimensions -- throws us into ecstatic bouts of pipe-dreaming. Purists can scorn the fact that none of this is actual vintage -- DWR deals in newly manufactured pieces based on mostly mid-century designs -- but we can't imagine that the late Eero Saarinen himself would've begrudged us for wanting a Womb Chair that's fresh from the factory.



Jackie Mercandetti
The super-cool home decor at IKEA is so inexpensive that shopping there is almost like shopping for free. Or at least like having a perennial 50-percent-off coupon. Because where else are you going to get such a shiny lacquered bookcase for under $100? Where in the world but IKEA can anyone come away with a pine Tansu coffee table that's ultra-hip and doesn't have to be budgeted for? Okay, so all those $4 lamps and $5 wicker baskets add up, but we're okay with it, because we can smother any buyer's remorse with a hot sandwich from IKEA's deluxe snack bar. Like everything else in this Danish Modern mecca, we haven't found a lower price on a meatball that tastes better than IKEA's. So look for us in the pop-together chrome lighting department, and make ours a meatball to go.

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