This north Phoenix skin-schlepping emporium, which has operated at various Valley locations since the late '40s, has also transformed many a member of the family Ursidae into lifelike trophies over the years, including grizzlies, brown bears, and Kodiaks.
One example of their artistry was a particularly fearsome-looking Arizona black bear that became a terrifying hunter's trophy placed on a makeshift rock setting. It's so lifelike we're a little scared it could come back alive at any moment and take a swipe at us like some psychotic version of Gentle Ben.
It's located in the Strip Mall Time Forgot probably not for long, given the hipster encroachment from the north (Postino, et al.) and east (The Vig). There's a drugstore a friend refers to as That Scary Drugstore and Secret Post Office (it's true, there's a post office in the back, very old-school) and a coffee shop actually called The Coffee Lady, who got pushed out at 40th and Campbell when La Grande Orange set up shop.
Okay, back to dolls and bears and surprises. We had come to love this shop even before the aforementioned 5-year-old happened last Christmas to ask the mall Santa for "a bear with a suitcase with clothes from other countries." (Don't ever let your kid see a toy catalogue, unless you intend to earmark and save it.)
We were completely stumped. No amount of Internet research yielded an answer. In a panic, we called Dolls Bears, and of course the proprietor, Mark Besler, had the answer. "Yes, that's Muffy Vander Bear," he said. "And that ensemble would run you several hundred dollars; it's from FAO Schwartz." He waited patiently for us to put ourselves back together, then said, simply, "Come in. I'll take care of you."
That he did. He sold us Muffy and several sets of clothing, for well under $100, advising that we find a little suitcase elsewhere. (We scored one at Cost Plus.) Our kindergartener was thrilled, and so were we.
Who knew? Those creepy dolls staring at us have the right to have an attitude. Dolls Bears & Surprises sells high end collectible dolls including Madame Alexander, Effanbee and Goetz, as well as our beloved Muffy. And, it turns out, Mark Besler's not just a salesman, he's an artist. There's a whole page on his Web site showcasing the glass eyes he puts in collectible dolls, and more than once we've watched him repair an antique teddy bear. We hope he's in business for a long time Muffy is already looking a little the worse for wear.
On a recent visit, we noticed a sign in the window warning that no new repairs will be taken 'til 2008. Hang in there, Muffy.
In between numerous prototypes and double-sized display models of his company's toys hang different awards he's received from Wizard magazine and the Comic Buyer's Guide, as well as clippings from Variety about himself. McFarlane is also a fan of both rock and jocks, so photos of the Spawn creator with folks like Yankees slugger Jason Giambi and Kiss are mixed with sports memorabilia and signed guitars. McFarlane just opened a second store over in the Westgate City Center in Glendale, and while it'll be more of a retail-type deal, we're hoping he'll be showing off more of his personal goodies.
There's also a huge selection of outdoor toys like cool pirate-themed kites and a sit-on skateboard for ages 3-16. The best part? Kidstop's "toy specialists" are brimming with toy-buying advice for parents and grandparents, rather than pointing them towards Aisle 5's video games with a blank look like the pizza-faced teens do at the big box toy stores.
Too obvious? Oh, okay, party-pooper (hey, that's not a bad idea for a onesie message, either!), check out the wide variety of super-soft, super-luxurious (read: super-pricey; but hey, baby's worth it) chenille blankets (our favorite brand is Little Giraffe), or a set of custom burp cloths in trendy chocolate brown. A few years ago, our favorite baby gift to give was a set of multi-hued socks, all decked out to look like little Mary Janes. We still love 'em, but we noticed Petite Chateau sells the next big thing, a set designed to look like itty-bitty tennies. Almost as cute as baby herself!
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.
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.