We've heard of people growing fruit in the desert — yeah, like prickly pear. But bananas? Mangos? No way. Yes way, say the folks at Tropica Mango, a perennial favorite of Sunset magazine as well as local gardeners in the know. Located in the stretch of south Phoenix once reserved for flower and fruit farms and now replaced with cookie-cutter condominiums, Tropica Manga is a tropical paradise — or at least, the promise of one. Along with the advice to make your banana dreams come true.

Figs Home and Garden

Yes, this is a "home" and "garden" place, but for us, the porch is the embodiment of both home and garden. It's the inside, but outside. A space you can furnish like a room and treat like a garden at the same time. Figs, located in the Melrose District of central Phoenix, is packed with a mix of European and Asian furnishings, accessories, sculptures, art, and trinkets. It's stuff that's perfect for decking out your porch, from rustic (like a rooster welded out of scrap metal car parts) to lovely and sophisticated (like small mercury glass birds). In fact, this place has a strong avian orientation (a cage full of cheery finches greets you as you enter), but it's not just for the birds. Hit the porch, people, and relax.

Do you ever notice that your urge to garden is strongest when you've been out of town? On a recent trip to Los Angeles, we marveled at a friend's ginormous zucchini and lusted after his squash. "If he can do it, so can we!" we told ourselves, only to return home to a brown lawn and dying rosebushes. Even if we did water regularly, Phoenix is still a tough place to garden — but we have new hope since a friend gave us Dave Owens' Extreme Gardening, a book on sale at Whole Foods and designed just for us — desert gardeners.

This guy is a one-man show, a real garden hoe! He's got a line of products (also for sale at Whole Foods) and his Web site offers all sorts of handy tips, everything from buying worms (Oh, no! Do we have to?) to preventing weeds from growing in gravel. (We suppose that's what our lawn qualifies as, at this point.) And just in case, Owens also recommends some good landscapers.

Changing Hands Bookstore

Believe it or not, we work on the Best of Phoenix issue all year long. This time around, when we dug up our file of potential BOPs, as we call them, we noticed that most of the ideas had one thing in common: Changing Hands Bookstore.

We'd saved a notice about the store's outdoors program, which sends readers on hikes and birding expeditions with authors of appropriately themed books, and one about an event where store customers could pay a small fee for a one-on-one meeting with a book buyer, to get advice on a book idea or cover. We'd also saved a press release about an "Author in the Classroom" program — again, sponsored by the bookstore.

Changing Hands is the best friend a reader could have and a stellar example of what an independent bookstore can do for its community. Whether it's hosting a prom for Twilight's Stephenie Meyer or featuring Twilight jewelry made by a local artist, the store's management is constantly thinking of creative ways to tempt us.

As far as the bread and butter is concerned, the store's selection of new and used books is wide, and the staff will happily order whatever you need that they don't have — and if you can't afford a book, you can bring in something from your own collection to trade or sell.

Changing Hands' e-newsletter is one of the only ones we look forward to seeing in our in-box. Sign up for it and you'll see what we mean. Support your bookstore, people — like a good book, we don't ever want to see it end.

Book Gallery

Our holy grail since the early '80s was a copy — we'd have even settled for a dirty, torn, library discard copy — of Cornelia Otis Skinner's Dithers and Jitters. We despaired of ever finding this mid-century essay collection, but that's because we'd forgotten, somehow and however briefly, about the Book Gallery. We happen to have mentioned our long-held (and, okay, slightly peculiar) desire to one of the clerks one afternoon, and he quickly scribbled our name and number onto a piece of scrap paper. "Yeah, right," we thought to ourselves as we left with our usual stack of collectible reads (in this case a pair of first-edition Cherry Ames novels and a Dell Mapback of one of Maysie Greig's better titles). No more than a month later, and after scouring eBay for years and pining away for decades before that, we had in our hands this cherished tome, which, when we read it, turned out to be not so very entertaining. But we don't care, because it renewed our faith in Phoenix's best collectible book shop, where the service is unusually helpful and where the rarest books in town can be found. (And if they can't be found, someone who works there will get 'em!)

Thrifty Joe's Books & Music

When you're looking for a new copy of Lolita in Tehran or the latest Stephen King thriller, there are a dozen big-box bookstores waiting to suck up your hard-earned cash. But if you don't mind a good treasure hunt for your new-release book, Thrifty Joe's is the place to go. This used bookstore is less picked-over than the competition and is jam-packed with cheap golden oldies, like the Black Beauty sequel we'd been coveting since we were 10 years old. Newer fiction titles are harder to find. Thrifty Joe's buys books daily, though, so if you paw through the countertop stacks of new arrivals, you just might score a slightly dog-eared copy of that James Patterson novel. Amid the maze of small cubbies, there's also an extensive selection of self-help books and romance novels, an entire bookshelf dedicated to Star Wars and Star Trek, and rare treasures like VHS tapes and vinyl, from Coltrane to Zappa, averaging about $4 to $5 a pop.

Borders Books & Music

It pains us to give this award to a chain store, but we are here to serve you, dear reader, and the truth is that there's no greater magazine selection in town than at the Biltmore Borders. We could lose ourselves for hours (and we have) in this store's magazine rack — testament that the publishing industry may be dying, but it ain't dead yet. Borders covers the basics from fashion to sports to current affairs magazines, and piles on the extras — we counted half a dozen mags devoted to pregnant moms, and a whole section to knitting. Read 'em while they last.

Bookmans Entertainment Exchange

We stood at a magazine rack the other night, holding a $25 (we kid you not) design magazine in our sweaty hands, and had one thought: "Do they have this used at Bookmans?" If you've never been to the magazine section at one of the Bookmans locations in town, we suggest you drop this issue and head over. Bring your pocket change, because that's all you'll need to get yourself a pile of reading material. Sure, you might want to make sure you have the latest Time or Newsweek, but tell the truth: How far behind are you in your New Yorker reading? Cancel that subscription and scout the racks at Bookmans — we'll all but guarantee you'll find several months' worth of back issues, sold to the store by some other shlub who realized he'll never catch up on his own reading. A copy of Martha Stewart Living or Oprah's O will run you several dollars retail, but for a fraction of that, the girls can come home with you. Yeah, they may be a little long in the tooth, but we bet you won't notice the difference — have you ever noticed how repetitive magazines are getting, anyhow? Hey, no nasty comments about Best of Phoenix!

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a graphic novel must be worth a billion. That's why when we want more than 24 pages of comic action, we head to Samurai Comics. If you're the sort of troubled soul who prefers gritty, graphic novels like 30 Days of Night, Samurai's got you covered. Do you prefer a 50-plus volume manga series like Naruto or Fruits Basket? This store's got enough manga to make you sneeze speed lines. Just use your hand, okay? Nobody wants a copy of Berzerk with your bodily fluids all over the pages.

Ash Avenue Comics & Books

We're not sure there's a reason to leave the corner of Ash and University. There, you have access to great coffee, pizza, piercings, Casey Moore's, and one incredible comic shop: Ash Ave. Comics. If single issues or superheroes are your thing, look no further. Ash Ave. has enough plastic-sleeved action comics to justify your overflowing collection as a "financial investment." If you're looking for something in particular, talk to Ash Ave. and it'll order it for you faster than you can ask whether the Flash is faster than Superman.

Best Of Phoenix®

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