BEST PLACE TO BUY YOUR BADASS FRIEND A BABY GIFT

Garage

Garage
Okay, so your favorite late-night party girl sidekick got herself knocked up, and she's not ready to go all Earth-mama yet. Don't worry, we're not headed for a discussion about, um, a shmashmortion or anything. (Apologies to readers who haven't yet seen Knocked Up.)

We're just saying, it's cool to stay yourself — yeah, you may have to give up the Marlboro Lights and the G&Ts, but there's no reason to relinquish your style to Captain Kangaroo. If a rocking horse won't knock her socks off, try the version offered at Garage: a pink and purple motorcycle. From the vintage-looking Bomb Pop T to the rhinestoned pacifiers to the candy-filled kaleidoscopes, every item in the shop is creative and irresistible and just a little edgy, with clothing lines including Diaper Dude, Space Baby, Nolita Pocket, and Marc Jacobs' line, "Little Marc." We loved the service, too.

When we admired some tiny socks, and asked if they made them for our kindergartener, owner Katie Wilson said she didn't carry them, but then insisted on calling another kiddy boutique to see if they did. We were in love.

This little boutique has clothes and gifts so stylish, you'll be wishing they made them in your size — and maybe you'll even consider popping a kid out yourself, just for the schwag.

Birthday parties are one of the little joys of childhood, and one of the big pains in the butt of parenthood. The pressure to find just the right gift — one that little Lily will ooh and ahh over in front of all her friends — is tough. We've all been there — watching little Logan open the remote control speedster, only to announce loudly, "Mom, look, this is just like the one I have at home!"

Avoid the birthday blues with Learning Express. Yes, it's a big national chain, which is exactly why we're recommending it. Do you really want to drive across town to buy your fifth birthday gift of the month, or would you rather shop at one of Learning Express' four convenient Valley locations?

We're never disappointed here: The selection includes Groovy Girls dolls, Klutz art books and those elusive Webkins. Per the name, there are plenty of science experiments and other IQ-building projects, but we've found plenty of guilty pleasures, like a cute pink poodle in a purse and those charms you poke through the holes in the kids' Crocs.

You'll still have to deal with the post-party sugar rush, but at least with Learning Express, the gift is in the bag.

BEST PLACE TO BUY YOUR BEST GIRLFRIEND A BIRTHDAY GIFT

Frances

Frances
So your BFF's the big 4-0? Get over to Frances, ASAP. We've said it before and we'll say it again — this is the shop we'd open if we could open a shop, only the owner has way better taste. So we're content to browse the super-cute tables, packed with body products, garden supplies, jewelry, and a mix of new and vintage clothes. Make sure you check out the back room, but don't take that butterfly-covered coat we've been eyeing, or any of the vintage cowboy boots. We love Frances so much, we've had to put ourselves on a budget, which is why a girlfriend's birthday is the perfect opportunity to shop. No joke — we were at a friend's 40th not long ago, and at least half the packages on the gift table bore the telltale Frances label. Guess there are some benefits to getting old...

BEST PLACE TO FIND WHAT SHOULD BE ON MILL AVENUE

University Square

In recent years, developers by the dozen have sunk serious sums into Mill Avenue and downtown Tempe with the hope that ASU kids and other hipsters will spend their hours and (more importantly) their dollars at its ultra-corporate chain stores, restaurants, and nightspots.

Too bad for them that the gnarliest place around these parts ain't even on Mill Avenue at all, but rather an unpretentious strip mall at Ash Avenue and University Drive.

This countercultural complex of cool boasts an array of independently owned alt-friendly business offering satisfaction for all your senses. Pick up the latest issues of X-Men and Spider-Man at Ash Avenue Comics & Books, followed by a search through the bins of Eastside Records for used vinyl, or a hunt for secondhand chic at the Buffalo Exchange. If you're hungry, Otto's Pizza has plenty of fresh slices and subs for noshing, and El Pollo Supremo serves up inexpensive dishes of delicious mesquite charbroiled chicken and sirloin strips with warm corn tortillas. Wet Paint Art Supply has plenty of pigment for artistic types, while the Headquarters has all your... er, tobacco-smoking supplies, HTC has a piercing studio on the premises, and Cowtown Skateboard features equipment fit for tricking.

To quote Wet Paint owner Jesika Jordan, "Fuck Mill Avenue, Ash Avenue's where it's at." Word.

Burton Barr Central Library
Smack in the center of the first floor at our biggest library sits a stunning collection of foreign and American classic films in both DVD and VHS format that rivals that of any retail store we've ever frequented. Literally hundreds of movies are available to anyone with a library card, the time (they have to be returned within a week), and the curiosity to watch them. The masters — Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, and (we can't resist) Charlie Chaplin — are awaiting you. If you don't know who these fellas are, you're missing out.

Unless you forget to return your items on time, the price is right. So forget the old Chevy Chase flick or Animal House for the umpteenth time, and give La Dolce Vita or The Rules of the Game a gander, courtesy of one of our greatest institutions, the public library.

Stinkweeds
Kimber Lanning continues to run our favorite CD shop in Phoenix. No, you probably won't find Barry Manilow's greatest hits in this small outpost of indie music. That's what Borders is for. Or even, dare we breathe it, amazon.com. Stinkweeds is where you go if you want to stretch your taste, and Lanning and her staff are up to the task, offering an edgy selection of rock, pop, hip-hop, freak folk, and more (check out the listening stations to hear what's hot). The latest by The New Pornographers? Now that, we bet they have. It's probably playing in the store right now.
Bookmans Entertainment Exchange
Our music collection is taking over our home ever since we discovered Bookmans. The mammoth store is just as cozy as our favorite ma-and-pa bookshops, thanks to friendly, little reading-and-relaxing nooks scattered all over the store, but we find ourselves lately heading straight for the colossal CD department, where gently used music of every stripe can be found, sampled, and (much to the chagrin of our groaning CD shelves at home) purchased.

Prices range from $3 to $10 on most single discs from a full range of musical styles. We snagged a CD reissue of Dean Martin's Christmas with Dino, the new Skinny Puppy, and a collection of Sesame Street songs covered by rock singers, all for less than $20. Listening stations make for no-risk shopping, and free Wi-Fi access means that, while we're scouting out that B-52's box set, we won't have to miss a single incoming e-mail.

We usually sneak over to the DVD and special-purchase collectible music sections while we're at Bookmans, because they, too, are overflowing with amazing finds at incredible prices. Probably, we should take advantage of Bookmans' generous trade-in policy by swapping some of our less-favorite CDs, but with prices like these, we'd just as soon hand over a handful of dimes for a lot of cool music.

BEST RECORD STORE FOR OUT-OF-PRINT AND RARE RECORDS

Memory Lane Records

Memory Lane Records
Forget eBay. Vinyl junkies who want that rare record — in mint condition and at a fair price — need to stroll down Memory Lane.

Looking for a quadraphonic, 180-gram vinyl pressing of Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams for your cowboy cousin? It's here. Gotta get that double-LP picture-disc import of Iron Maiden's Matter of Life and Death for your metalhead man? They've got it.

Need a copy of ex-model Twiggy's 1971 LP The Boy Friend for, uh, some reason? They've got that, too.

Memory Lane's stock is 100,000 records strong, encompassing every genre, including sports and punk (big cred for carrying an Italian import picture-disc of influential U.K. hardcore punks Discharge's 1981 Never Again EP). But discerning collectors will really appreciate the store's grading system, which is informed and accurate, unlike many sellers on eBay.

Memory Lane's grade scale for the condition of its records ranges from G ("Good," which means there is audible damage to the record) to M ("Mint," which means the record is still factory-sealed), and the grades are honest — if there's a tear or a promo stamp on the cover, they say so.

And the prices can be criminally low ($14 for a mint condition, German import of Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door; $15 for a mint condition, red vinyl Italian import of garage greats the 13th Floor Elevators' Easter Everywhere).

With its comprehensive stock, detailed grading system, and bargain prices, it's no wonder Memory Lane's been in business more than 22 years.

Rockzone Records
It's not easy for vinyl-focused shops to stay afloat these digital days. Just look at Mesa's mainstay Rockaway Records, which closed up shop after 22 years. No worries, because Rockaway's longtime owner simply sold the inventory to new management, who, in early 2007, quietly reopened the store in south Tempe.

The significantly larger space boasts an expanded inventory of vinyl goodness, including rock, pop, jazz, blues, collectibles and a section devoted to local music.

A number of Rockaway's familiar faces are happy to help you navigate the stacks of used CDs, DVDs, and video games, and when you buy any used CD, a staff member will run the disc through an industrial-strength cleaner that removes all dust and most scratches, thus guaranteeing a skip-free ride home.

Our favorite day to shop at Rock Zone? Sunday.

Vinyl Sundays features 15 percent off any record as well as $1 records slashed to a measly 75 cents.

Attention, vinyl nerds and compact disc geeks. You now have another outlet for your music-collecting obsession whenever musician James Fella performs a music space or a house gig in downtown Phoenix and Tempe. Fella, a member of Soft Shoulder, Tent/City and various solo and group noise projects, sells hand-picked LPs, seven-inch records, cassette tapes, and CDs wherever he plays. The selection ranges from the mainstream, such as Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd, to the experimental, like Iowa noise rockers Raccoo-oo-oon, The Flying Luttenbachers avant-garde project, and NYC-based hardcore jazz ensemble Zs. Fella also stays busy as founder of independent label Gilgongo Records, which specializing in releasing creative, improvisational music to the masses. You can also shoot Fella a line to reserve desired albums online.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of