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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.
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.
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.
It's north central all the way, baby!
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.