Brand X

There's a screen-printed shirt inside Brand X on Mill Avenue that says "Custom T-Shirts Are the New Mix Tapes." We have to agree. In an era where it's all too easy to pop out a personalized mixtape or Photoshopped greeting card, getting a T-shirt printed still seems like a genuinely thoughtful gesture. No one does them better than the hip perfectionists at Brand X, who seem to treat every job as if were their last, creating screen-printed art that'll impress the most discriminating T-shirt aficionados. From house offerings that are much better than the vintage-look stuff you'll find online — like Brand X's series of light-rail shirts, a clever take on the ubiquitous transit-themed souvenirs you'll see in London and New York — to their ability to perfectly print any pixilated image you hand them, Brand X is well on its way to becoming a local institution.

If you enjoy being a girl, this trendy clothing boutique in downtown Mesa is a must-visit. Step in the door and you're instantly transported to a frilly wonderland of pink. Everything is under $50, and though you won't find brand names like Guess or Bebe here, you can score a designer look without the huge price tag. On recent visits, we've spotted glamorous faux-crocodile belts, ruffled sundresses, sparkly hair flowers, and nail polish in glam shades of silver, neon blue and hot pink. The kids' side is even more girly, if that's possible. There's not a faded denim skirt or baby T in sight that isn't splashed with rhinestones, bows, or, yes, more pink. Contagious may ruffle a few tomboy feathers, but for girly girls, it's a sweet find.

Yes, Loveland — a new little boutique in that strip center at Mill and Baseline that we've always thought looks a little bit like the set for The Music Man — has adorable children's clothing. Appliqued T's, handmade tutus, teeny-tiny kiddy luggage and barrettes, and a few choice toys. But the real appeal for us was the women's section — where we found an equally cute selection of tanks, dresses, and even diaper bags. We were actually able to check out the merch, even with our kid in tow, because — get this — Loveland has a lovely little windowed room with a gate, with toys and a big television and movies. Brilliant! We can shop long after the little one's 30-second attention span has run. Next time we make plans to go shopping, we're skipping the babysitter and bringing the kids along to Loveland to spend our sitter money.

So many decisions, so little time, so much advice from possibly shoddy sources. What's a parent to do? Pick up a copy of Raising Arizona Kids. From schools to camps to where to throw your kid's birthday party, the monthly parenting magazine has your back. RAK recently celebrated its 20th anniversary — a feat in the journalism business — and has become a staple in pediatricians' offices Valleywide. Editor Karen Barr would probably prefer you buy a subscription. We highly recommend you do, as much for the insightful articles by local writers like Vicki Louk Balint and Debra Rich Gettleman as the annual guides that make you feel like a member of the best parenting club in town. Anyhow, you don't want to get caught stealing a copy from the doctor's office. Not in front of your kid.

Burton Barr Central Library

Arizona legislators (and governor!), take note. We're got a living, breathing example of just how much good a little bit of public money can do for students. Housed in a beautiful new center in the Burton Barr Central Library, designed by the library's original architect, Will Bruder, College Depot houses two full-time college counselors, 25 computers, a conference room, and a series of workshops on every college entrance exam imaginable. It's everything that you need (short of cold, hard cash and bedding) to get yourself to college — whether you speak Spanish or English and are 16 or 60. Oh, and it's free. Deborah Dillon, director of education programs, came up with the idea and spent three years raising $1 million to fund it. She got a $550,000 grant from the city of Phoenix; the rest came from various charitable organizations. Talk about a power player. With a central location in the library — already an after-school hub, with a teen center — College Depot has the chance to become a major force of change for low-income and Latino students in the Valley. This is a place to come use the Internet when you don't have a computer at home, or get help deciphering the bureaucratic blather on a financial aid application when your parents don't speak English. (Or, for that matter, when they do.) It's a program we hope others will study closely.

Healthy Baby Happy Earth

If you're a mom who's serious about her eco-conscious rep, the recycling bin and the Prius aren't going to cut it. To really reduce your carbon footprint, head to Healthy Baby Happy Earth for all the environmentally friendly infant goodies you can possibly desire. The boutique stocks organic baby clothes colored using safe dyes, washable cloth diapers, and bottles that won't leach those dreadful BPA chemicals into baby's tummy-wummy. Earth-conscious mamas can even rent a breast pump here — which sounds a little creepy, but we're assured they're sterilized and safe. To top it all off, Healthy Baby Happy Earth is located in a 100-year-old historic home, making it recycled from the outside in.

Kid to kid

Those in the know are aware — painfully, at times — that kids outgrow their clothes at a far faster rate than they wear them out. We're talking about clothes, but also about toys, books, and furniture. So what to do with all the leftovers (other than give them to Goodwill, stash them in the garage, pile them up outside for bulk-trash pickup, or — eek! — have another baby and call 'em hand-me-downs)? Another option: This well-stocked, easy-to-navigate north Phoenix store is a winner for both people itching to get rid of some things (and maybe make a bit of money while doing so) and those who need this or that, and at an eminently fair price. No garbage here. Kid to Kid is a godsend for parents on a budget who are nevertheless seeking first-rate merchandise for their little ones — and have their own treasure troves to pass along.

Smilin' Jack's Pedal Cars

Remember pedal cars, those miniature metal machines that were foot-powered and looked exactly like Dad's classic Thunderbird? Take a trip back to the good old days at Smilin' Jack's and you'll find plenty of the real thing — vintage-style pedal cars with chrome accents and fins as well as its modern cousin, Big Wheels. Jack's also carries a large stock of autographed baseballs and other sports memorabilia, rare Hot Wheels miniatures, classic red wagons and vintage model cars from as early as the 1940s. The best part about Smilin' Jack's? The social norm that said these goodies are strictly for dudes has broken down since their heyday, so dangerous girls can get in on neighborhood pedal car drag races instead of trying to put Barbie's head in an Easy-Bake oven.

Auntie Em's Miniatures

The shelves of today's toy stores are stocked with plastic cell phones and dolls that make a Van Buren Street hooker look elegant. That's why we adore Auntie Em's, where old-fashioned dollhouses and fully clothed dolls reign supreme. The feminine yin to Smilin' Jack's Pedal Cars' yang, Auntie Em's carries everything a girl needs to build and decorate her own miniature world, from teensy tables and beds to accessories such as a sleeping cat and a white picket fence to make her dream home complete. Every summer, the shop hosts a series of Dollhouse Camps where little princesses can build custom five-room bungalows for about a hundred bucks. All she'll need afterwards is tiny designer furniture, a matchbox-size sports car, and a miniature husband to pay for it all.

Retro Ranch

This funky store is stocked with a whole lot more than your typical coterie of furniture, barware, and velvet Elvis paintings. The owner's eagle eye has scored an eclectic selection of clothing so enticing it would make Carrie Bradshaw — and Sarah Jessica Parker — jealous. Cheery '50s skirts, prom dresses, '70s skiing sweaters, and straw handbags are waiting to be snapped up. Label-lovers and luxury hounds know which racks stock the fancy stuff, with finds that regularly include cashmere coats, mink stoles, and Lilly Pulitzer dresses. We love the recession pricing, like a men's Yves Saint Laurent velvet blazer for under $50, or sparkling rhinestone earrings for a mere $15. And for $20, who doesn't need another 1940s black leather handbag? Yup, that's pretty fabulous.

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