Best Old-School Liquor Store 2009 | Tops Liquor | Shopping & Services | Phoenix

We love a wide selection — particularly when it's of booze — but the last time we called one of those liquor mega-stores, looking for a particular brand, the guy on the phone sneered, "Look on our Web site," and practically hung up. We'd like our vodka tonic with a twist of customer service, please, so we vowed to stick with an old favorite — Tops. No, the place doesn't gleam, and we don't see coupons for it in the Sunday paper, but the last time we walked into Tops, a sweet young guy with onion on his breath put down his submarine sandwich and took the time to walk us to the vodka aisle and recommend his new favorite. He even searched the shelves 'til he found it and put it in our hands. Our friend was delighted with the gift of potato vodka, and we decided then and there that superstores just aren't all they're cracked up to be. For us, Tops is, well, tops.

From the funky vintage sign to its dusty catacombs of shelving, we dig the vibe at this downtown Chandler liquor store. But it's the vast selection of airplane-sized liquor bottles lining the wall behind the cashier's booth that caught our eye. The answer was a curt "no" when we asked to go back and peruse the hundreds of colorful mini-bottles ourselves, but quickly followed up with "everything you see on the shelves is back here." You want a tiny bottle of Hypnotic for 3 bucks? You got it. 10 mini Chivas Regals to hand out to the men at your bachelor party? Check. While you're there, if so inclined, you might want to wander down one of those gritty liquor-lined aisles to see the pockets of porn strategically placed throughout the store. Or not. Yeah, this place drips unapologetic charm.

Though he recently moved to classier digs in downtown Mesa (estimated square footage of the old store: 10), there are still much fancier cigar shops than Habanos Torres Cigar Factory. But how many other shops have a torcedore working on your smokes while you peruse the humidor? Timothy Torres, a fifth-generation Cuban cigar maker, knows how to roll, and he uses tobacco aged up to 30 years in his blends. If you don't like what he's got on the shelves, he'll also roll you a custom blend totalmente a mano on the spot. Businessmen, be warned: There are no gold-embossed bands on these bad boys. It's all about the smoke, so don't expect to impress anyone on the golf course. If you want a taste of Cuba, though, this is the place.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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