Synthetic Compound

Earlier this year, Gren Radcliff's toy store for big kids moved from a cubbyhole inside of The Firehouse art collective into a beautiful and more visible location inside of Pravus gallery. We don't want to tell Radcliff how to run his business (and no offense to the good people at The Firehouse), but we think the decision was a freaking amazing career move because now there's more room for all those designer toy critters. Our favorites are the customizable vinyl Munny figures that local and national creative types have dolled up into awesome art pieces. The store, which is open seven days a week, also features the occasional First Friday exhibit as well as a toy-of-the-month club.

Drawn to Comics

If the comic book mega-stores that dominate this category every year are the Superman and Batman of the retail universe, then this tiny, 550-square-foot shop in the heart of downtown Glendale is more like the Boy Wonder — puny in comparison, but with a lot of heart. Let's face it, X-Men freaks and Magik addicts want to buy comics from someone who knows the difference between The Green Lantern and The Green Arrow, and Drawn to Comics owner Ken Brown fits the bill. Here, kids get the kind of personalized service your grandpa got when he was saving two months' allowance to buy an issue of Captain Marvel. Brown personally greets every new visitor and hosts in-store gaming competitions three times a week. In addition to screen T-shirts, action figures, and 200-plus current titles, the shop has an awesome selection of back issues — some for less than a buck — and offers a 10 percent discount to students and military families.

Today's video games just aren't what they used to be. Million-dollar budgets and expectations for cinematic cut scenes in full rendered video have ruined the once-humble game. Can you imagine Pac-Man as a 70-hour epic MMORPG epic? What's wrong with just eating ghosts and, sometimes, a pretzel?

If you need a fix of nostalgia gaming, we can't recommend Arizona Arcade and Pinball Store enough. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and more are waiting for you to rediscover in Arizona Arcade's showroom. Whether you prefer a vertical arcade cabinet or an ultra-retro tabletop version, you can find it here. Don't worry, pinball wizards, they've got you covered too. Best of all, you can buy game cabinets to start building your own in-home arcade. Sure, they're a little pricey, but PS3s aren't exactly cheap, either.

If you're driving by Burton Barr Central Library and think, "By golly, I think I'll check out a first-run DVD tonight!" — uh, no. Barr's by far the largest repository of municipally owned intellectual property in the state, and the Phoenix library system's flagship is a victim of its own excess. Everybody knows it's the best, so it's not anymore, and the new-release section looks like a wheat field after a locust invasion.

On the other hand, we — and by we, we mean Maricopa County residents — are beneficiaries of Scottsdale's bounty. If you live in the county, you can get a Scottsdale library card. If you get a Scottsdale library card, you've just scored quality time with some highly desirable flicks. There are two ways to go about this: 1) Walk cold into any Scottsdale branch (Civic Center, Arabian, Palomino, or Mustang) and you're a lock to walk out with at least one new release; 2) create an online account and place holds on those new issues you're dying to check out, then pick 'em up a group at a time to save gas. For its relatively small size, Scottsdale purchases an insane number of movie titles — typically 50-plus copies for marquee releases — so the selection is fabulous, and you can conserve those precious slots on your Netflix queue for the rarer, cooler stuff that only Netflix stocks.

MADE Art Boutique

What makes a real city? For us, it's always been about the magazines. A good town can't have too many magazine racks. Our favorite local rack is found at one of our favorite local shops, MADE. The selection's not as big as the commercial bookstore departments, but don't let that fool you. The selection here makes the best bedside reading in town: Craft, Art Papers, Sculpture, Juxtapoz, Paste, Venus, Raw Vision, Ad Busters and, to be honest, our favorite: Heeb.

Intrigued? Then get yourself down to MADE for a look-see.

Changing Hands Bookstore

Bookstores may be a dime a dozen (the way novels used to be), but there's something priceless about Changing Hands Bookstore, the independently owned Tempe shop that's become a Valley destination for book lovers, shopaholics, and DIY types. Along with a stunning selection of new and used reads — many displayed with insightful comments from bibliophile employees — Changing Hands hosts more public speaking events and book-signings than any other bookstore in the Valley.

Renowned physicist Michio Kaku and bestselling author Stephenie Meyer are just two big names to make recent appearances. In addition, there's a multitude of other interesting events on the Changing Hands calendar, from writing workshops and crafting groups to toddler-parent yoga. Besides books, the gift section has a well-edited variety of quirky finds.

Who can resist a crisp new journal, some exotic incense, or maybe a goofy Blackbeard action figure? Every aisle here is full of temptation. And as a bonus, you can waltz right into Wildflower Bread Co. when you're ready to sip some espresso and ogle the goodies you just bought. We'd probably live at Changing Hands if we could, but then they might just put us to work.

Best Place to Buy a First-Edition Zane Grey

Pages

Considering this just-opened bookstore is in the middle of a brand-new shopping center in Cave Creek, we assumed we'd see a lot of soccer-mom reading, like Jodi Picoult and Mitch Albom. Boy, were we wrong! The husband-and-wife team that owns this friendly shop has carefully assembled some really interesting books, with a great representation of local authors and a respectable antiquarian selection. But we were most impressed to see the collection of Westerns by Zane Grey. It's a touch of old Carefree even in the middle of new Cave Creek — and though the books aren't cheap (some cost over $500), they're a dream come true for serious collectors. The rest of us, of course, are welcome to look, too.

Poisoned Pen

If Edgar Allan Poe were alive and a Phoenician, where would he buy his books? Probably at the Poisoned Pen, the Old Town Scottsdale home of all things mystery and fiction. More likely, Poe would set foot in the Poisoned Pen during a book tour. After all, many of the best mystery authors in the U.S. visit this cozy little shop for book-signings.

The Poisoned Pen boasts a competitive selection of fiction, from mainstream bestsellers to out-of-print titles and autographed first editions. It stocks a bevy of thrillers, historical fiction, sci-fi, and even a fair collection of nonfiction travel and food writing, too.

The Poisoned Pen indulges book nerds with a number of frivolities, including weekly book-signings, writing workshops, the "coffee and crime club," and book-discussion nights. Even if you're not up for the coffee and crime club, you might want to peek inside. There's something delightful and old world about this little bookstore's stone exterior, corner location, and book-shelved walls.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but it's the cunning and the cocksure who score the cool stuff at this long-lived literary offload. The boldest treasure hunters leave nothing to chance, camping out the night before as if they were trying to score tickets to a Led Zep reunion concert.

All to purchase books. Used books. Perhaps the death of literacy has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps there are more people than you'd think champing at the bit to help the needy. Or, perhaps, among the 600,000-plus items for sale at very nice prices, there are scads of smokin' deals and rarities lying around waiting to be discovered.

Nah, couldn't be that.

The 53rd annual edition of the VNSA is scheduled for February 14 and 15 at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

Heard Museum

If you're an eBay PowerSeller, you'll scoff at this modest sale. The number 30,000 — that's the total quantity of items typically up for grabs — will make you chortle softly. Poor saps, you'll say to yourself, thinking of those potential book buyers who choose to thumb through books, read prefaces and inscriptions, feel the heft of the tomes in their hand, and generally lollygag their way through the selection process. "Thirty thousand books," you sniff. "Hmph! They'd have to add another zero to get me there."

Good! Stay home, you resale vulture! There's more to life than first editions and publishing gaffes!

We go to this low-key annual affair 'cause we like books. We like choosing them. We like reading them. When we've finished the last line, we like placing them on a shelf and feeling a small ping! of joy when we encounter them again in the future. People who get the ping! will understand the Market. When the sale opens, you just kinda, well, walk through a door — which isn't jammed with pushing, shoving people — take a few steps to a long table filled with books, which isn't overly crowded, and start looking.

It's pretty revolutionary. You should try it.

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