Changing Hands Bookstore
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Changing Hands offers the best in book shopping, hands down. That's partly because it has such an amazing selection of new and used books. (Last time we were there, we bought the latest Augusten Burroughs at a discount and a 100-year-old sex manual for two bucks where else could we have scored both of these titles in one place?) But it's also because the people who work there unlike most of the chain stores around town clearly love books as much as we do. Want proof? Look no further than the helpful "employee pick" notes the clerks tuck into books, or the smiley and well-informed assistance they offer to book nerds like us. Not to mention the nice balance of famous and up-and-coming authors who read from their books at Changing Hands none of this "only best-selling authors" nonsense at our favorite bookshop (although you'll find your share of those, as well). If you don't find us browsing the stacks here, look for us next door at the adjoining Wildflower Bread Company, where we love to make a pit stop. And hey, one more thing: We hate cheesy chains as much as the next guy, but we wouldn't mind seeing another Changing Hands maybe in downtown Phoenix?
All About Books and Comics
Are your "Spidey senses" tingling? Okay, you didn't need superpowers to guess that AABC would be our pick. After 25 years of serving comic book junkies, this eight-time Best of Phoenix winner is still hailed as a geek's wet dream. The shelves are stuffed with more than a million back issues, from golden age originals like The Avengers and Green Lantern to the modern cult classic Sandman. While waiting for the next installment of Witchblade, you can stock up for your party, which, in this case, means a couple of 20-sided dice, some Magic: The Gathering cards and a plastic model of the buxom Lady Death to keep you company. Forget Internet dating this is the best place for a true geek-to-geek hookup. "Where did you meet Mommy?" "Our eyes met over a rare copy of Uncanny X-Men #247, son, and I knew she was the one for me." With any luck, their kind will multiply like Tribbles, producing an endless supply of customers for AABC.
Bookmans Entertainment Exchange
For many video-game enthusiasts, the main topic of conversation lately on bulletin boards and AIM exchanges is the next-gen console war among the PlayStation 3, the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360. That means only one thing for those of us who don't give a crap: Cash-hungry kiddies everywhere will be throwing their old games and systems into hock to save up $600 for a PS3. That is to say, this fall and winter will be a prime time to stock up on all those games you've been meaning to play but couldn't afford or find before. So whether you're looking for that elusive copy of Zombies Ate My Neighbors or Chrono Trigger, or looking to beef up your current-gen Xbox collection with a minimal amount of damage to your wallet, Bookman's offers more button-mashing for less, and that's always good news for the hard-wired gamer set.
You may have seen Missy Keast doing her signing story time on the first Thursday morning of the month at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, but did you know she's now got her own series of signing videos for kids? Signing is all the rage right now don't worry, studies have shown your baby will still talk, but she will be able to better communicate with you earlier, through sign. And there's no better way for you and your baby to learn sign with apologies to the singsongy folks who bring us the nationally syndicated "Signing Time!" than with the "Signs for Intelligence" series. As the name implies, it's a smarter choice. Keast, who has two young children of her own, carefully leads the viewer through a series of signs ranging from the alphabet to simple vocabulary words. And she's got way better hair than that "Signing Time!" woman.
Sophie doesn't like to get her bangs cut, and don't even talk to Annabelle about her tangles. Sometimes, a parent is the worst person for the job when it comes to kid grooming. That's why we head to Snip-its when Sophie can't see, or Annabelle's locks are approaching the dread stage. Okay, so really, if we were nice, we'd comb our kids' hair out first, but we leave the nice part to the Snip-its stylists, who ply our kids with candy and specially created Snip-it kid videos (sounds creepy, but trust us, once you see your kid go into that TV daze, you'll be begging for a punch card at the front desk). Speaking of the front desk, when you check out, your kid gets to put a card in a special machine and claim a prize. The prize is free, unlike the irresistible hair accessories and other small toys, but the price you'll pay is worth it for a well-groomed, happy kid. Now, if someone would just open a salon where you could get your newborn's nails clipped.
Chandler Fashion Center
The key to a pleasurable mall trip with the kids? Baby steps. Don't try to tackle the whole place. Save that for a day you've got a sitter, or give up entirely and shop online in the middle of the night, like we do. If the A/C and bright colors of the mall beckon, head to Chandler Fashion Center and follow our simple instructions for a great time: Enter through the Barnes & Noble. Immediately stop at the Starbucks inside. Fortified, you can find yourself waylaid for quite a while in the children's section, and if you work it right, you can grab yourself a book or magazine from the adult aisles. Or let Junior hand you something fun to read. The children's section here even features a small wooden stage perfect for cuddling up to read or clearing off to perform. From B&N, you'll be led directly to the small playground, limited to toddlers and open enough to guarantee you can watch your kid the whole time (other local malls' indoor playgrounds include closed slides; you'll drive yourself nuts making sure Junior's okay). Do be careful there are no escapes into the elevator the playground's one design flaw. The best part? You can go to Build a Bear or the candy store if you choose, but neither is visible from the playground itself, ensuring that the parent gets to make that call. We're pretty certain the mall planners didn't do that on purpose, but we're grateful nonetheless.
The other day, our kindergartner announced she was in pre-production on a play, and desperately needed material for costumes. We know from experience that even a trip to JoAnn's can result in a bill over $20, for gauze and sequins that might never leave the bag. So we satisfied our thespian's thirst for threads with a trip to SAS. For $6.71, we left with a bag packed with multicolored gems, lavender lace, ribbon, and even a few couldn't-resists for mom. Don't forget the play's the thing!
Kidstop
Our 5-year-old is obsessed with Calico Critters. If you've never heard of them, skip this category, and consider yourself lucky. These little pieces of fur-covered plastic are the bane of our current existence, and they're damn hard to find, which is why we're so lucky to have Kidstop, which stocks them in several varieties from the Calico Critters Marmalade Bears to the Calico Critters Pigglywink Pig Family, complete with their homes and furniture. Sure, those learning-centric toy stores are all good and you can find plenty of that stuff at Kidstop but the reality of child rearing is that sometimes, you need a Groovy Girl or an Ork Waghar (we have girls, so honestly, we don't know what that is, but Kidstop has it and it looks scary and totally not the type of thing one of those creepy parenting magazines would tell you to buy your child) to really make the kid's day. And who are we fooling? Isn't that what parenthood and, certainly, grandparenthood is all about?
Walking through the door of Bears & More is like taking a trip back in time to an era long before Nintendo and Bratz dolls. Hundreds of lovable teddies perch on the shelves, each one with its own distinct personality. And we're not talking blue-light specials here. These are high-quality mohair collectibles from industry names including Canterbury, Steiff, and Cooperstown. You can even customize your teddy without having to visit one of those mall shops where they cram the bear's ass with stuffing and staple it shut. Just choose a cuddly plush toy and spruce it up with a pink parlor dress or a fireman's uniform from the wide selection of outfits. The shop provides instructions on how to hand-make your own basic teddy if you're handy with a needle and thread although we'll just leave that one to the pros.
There are three categories that baby gifts fall into: essential, practical, and just plain cute. Crismon's Baby Boutique has it all. For new mothers, there are comfy gliders to rock you and your infant to sleep. Grandparents-to-be will want to check out the store's huge furniture inventory, from shaker-style pine changing tables to a black mission crib with smart green plaid linens. Mom will love the practicality of baby furniture as a gift, and the new Nana and Pop can subtly influence the room's decor. For the bundle of joy, there are pastel layettes, a nice selection of onesies for comfort, and christening outfits that haven't changed in more than a century. Yup, those long white wedding dresses or knickers and frilly button-up tops are still chic for baby's first big day. We think the best gift at Crismon's is the toddler-size rocker. As soon as baby's old enough to hold her head up or crawl, she'll love the custom-painted, cute-as-a-button chair personalized with her picture.

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