Paraphernalia Boutique

Dude, where's the best place in Phoenix to pick up a hookah (besides Van Buren)? Paraphernalia Boutique, a charming little store with burglar bars on the windows and every possible accessory to help you get your smoke on. In addition to the expected stash of incense and shisha, Paraphernalia stocks measuring scales, rolling papers, vials, art-glass water pipes — even a Mr. Potato Head bong, if you've got an extra eight hundred bucks lying around. And should you feel the need for detox after using your "tobacco smoking paraphernalia," there's a range of fast-cleanse products to clear your system. Really, the only things missing here are bags of Cheetos and a copy of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; but we're pretty sure if you're headed to Paraphernalia in the first place, you've already got those at home.

Best Place to Stop and Smell the Patchouli

Hippie Gypsy

Hippie Gypsy

If you're looking for hard-to-find incense, follow your nose to Hippie Gypsy. The hookah and head shop carries a huge variety of smelly sticks, cones, and oil for your olfactory pleasure — or obfuscation. The store carries traditional scents like sandalwood, strawberry, jasmine, and vanilla, along with perpetually potent incense, like Nag Champa and patchouli. The latter scent is a hippie favorite and fills the air inside the store. The smell also wafts onto Mill Avenue, so if you miss Hippie Gypsy's psychedelic orange signs, just follow your nose toward that big whiff of earthy spice.

Harper's Nursery

If you don't know your asarina from your elephant's foot, the über-friendly staff at Harper's Nursery is happy to help out. This family-owned nursery's been around since the victory gardens of WWII, and it's got it all: a garden club, discount days, landscape design services, garden accessories and gifts, an antique shop, open air markets with live music, and a monthly newsletter with seasonal information, garden tips, news, and events. The Scottsdale location even has a coffee bar! Who knew a nursery could be about so much more than plants?

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.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of