Most every smoker has his or her favorite marijuana strain, but for a little while in early 2015, something special was going on with a type of cannabis called Afghan Kush. Tight, fragrant buds, lots of red hairs. It was said to be an indica, which it must have been due to the full-brain feeling — not a strain for getting much work done. Great for sleep, pain, and TV. The strain was locally grown or perhaps came from California or Colorado. Several dispensaries in town carried it. When they did, it sold out quickly. By mid-spring, it was all gone.

"Got any Afghan Kush?" we'd ask repeatedly at the places that previously carried it.

"No," would come the response, always with a knowing smile.

"Do you have anything like Afghan Kush?"

"No, there's nothing like it," budtenders at two different dispensaries said.

So far, so true. Harvest time can't be too far away, though.

Found at various Arizona dispensaries

Contrary to popular belief, the worst thing about edibles is not that they might work too well, causing you to curl in a corner whimpering for eight hours like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. No, the worst thing about edibles is when they don't work. Paying serious green for a buzz that never arrives is something no true cannabist wants to do.

Bhang chocolate bars solve that problem. They start with Venezuelan criollo cacao from the company's California headquarters and then infuse it with hash oil and sell it at Harvest and other dispensaries. They look like Kit-Kats imprinted with Bhang logos and marijuana leaves. Bhang bars have a consistency in effect that others lack, and it's easy to get the dosing right. Pick single, double, or triple strength — whatever's right for your own needs; each is packed with a respective one, two, or three grams of hash oil — and decide how many of the four connected chocolate bars inside each wrapper to eat. Apart from some gummi candies that are sprayed with hash oil instead of made with infused oil throughout, no other edible contains as few calories for its potency, local budtenders say. Flavors include dark chocolate, milk chocolate, cookies and cream, and others we haven't tried yet.

Novices beware: These are the real deal. You don't want to end up like Dowd, so go cautiously at first. Ripping open the silvery inner sleeve, you won't find a golden ticket. But satisfying and delicious, covered in chocolate and a miracle or two — that's Bhang medicated chocolates.

Finding the perfect present is hard enough. But getting a gift for someone who seeks out the scientific and, more important, the strange? That's a special skill on its own. Lucky for buyers of the bizarre, Curious Nature caters to lovers of the creepy and crawly. The downtown boutique offers everything from framed insects and animal bones to taxidermy and wet specimens, as well as classes to learn how to make these creations yourself. If you aren't quite on board with accessorizing your home with anatomy, the emporium also sells stones, minerals, tillandsias, books, jewelry, posters, candles — even a few pampering products to keep your skin and facial hair in check. Admit it. You're curious now, aren't you?

We visited Al's with a neophyte beader this summer and came away with a single word: wow. Organized as though Martha Stewart herself had masterminded it, and completely covered in nothing but strings of beads of every make and color, Al's is so clearly the best bead store that it's enough to turn even the least-interested-in-beading crafter into a happy dabbler. Al's offers variety, selection, and quality, with a wide range of materials to both hobbyists and professional jewelers. The personable staff is wise enough to leave shoppers mostly alone to browse and get creative, and knowledgeable enough to confer on both materials and technique needed for pretty much every jewelry design. Glass cases housing silver and precious stones and tables of bead-filled bowls are surrounded by walls neatly arranged by material (everything from glass to jade to semi-precious stuff — and, oh, the turquoise!), color, and size. Al's can compete with any Garment District supply shop or gemstone-fair dealer, offering rare materials like watermelon tourmaline or simpler pieces made of paper or colored glass. Al's real secret weapon is Lisa, a beader who can answer any question you've got about beading ("Can I thread this on wire?") and will gently steer you away from mistakes she's made herself ("Don't mix crystals with those mountain-stone beads — trust me!"). The only problem with Al's is coming up with reasons not to go back there every single day.

We're not sure whether you know this, but knitting, the stereotypical pastime of grandmas everywhere, is a fairly difficult hobby to take up. You need needles. You need yarn. You need to know how to twist the needles and yarn together to make scarves or mittens or utter trainwrecks of aspirational crafts projects. It's all fairly intimidating, but not at Jessica Knits. The North Scottsdale store is part multi-colored (and sometimes sparkly) yarn mountain and part clubhouse. With workshops on everything from how to knit mittens and socks, how to crochet slippers, and how to craft felted knickknacks, there's plenty of reason to haul up the 101. New to the world of knitting? Jessica offers beginner classes and one-on-one sessions that'll have you purling like a pro.

If only for its in-house Blick Brand art supplies (Colored pencil sets! French easels! Tracing paper pads!), we would love Blick. But the friendly, knowledgeable staff provides us arty types with another reason to love this longtime friend to creative people. We find everything from canvas to archival papers to camel-hair brushes at this 104-year-old bastion of better art supplies. Four dozen different types of watercolor paper! Thirty-two different lesson plans for art teachers! We don't know what Awagami Shin Inbe colored paper is, but the fact that Blick (and only Blick) carries it means we want some! Don't miss the clearance aisle, a magic markdown store all its own.

All About Books and Comics

All About Books and Comics has been a go-to for Valley readers and collectors for over 30 years, so when Marsha and Alan Giroux faced a serious rent hike at their Central Avenue location, they turned to Kickstarter to finance a move around the corner to West Camelback Road. That the campaign quickly blew past its $33,000 goal by more than $4,000 says a lot about the relationship the Giroux have cultivated with their customers, who show up for current superhero books, indie titles, action figures, and other toys. Moving the store's massive catalog of back issues (more than a million comics in stock) was no easy feat, but it was hardly surprising to see loyal comic fans show up to help out for store credit. Few shops can boast that kind of dedication.

Readers Choice: Ash Ave Comics & Books

Changing Hands Bookstore

In the past 40-plus years, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe has become a cultural institution. And it didn't take long for CHB's sister store in Phoenix to join its ranks. It's been there less than two years, and now we don't know what we did without the Central Phoenix spot for book-buying, author-signing, class-taking, and coffee/beer/wine drinking. This year, Changing Hands brought in such authors as Jimmy Carter and Diane Keaton, expanded its workshop offerings, and hosted events such as the Arizona Republic's super-popular book club and New Times' panel in search of the great Arizona novel. Customer service at both stores is high, and if they don't have the book you're looking for, they're happy to order it. Don't ever change, Changing Hands. You've got us booked, er, hooked.

Readers Choice: Changing Hands Bookstore

You can measure the worth of a good bookstore — especially a used bookstore — by the way it smells. If the powerful, comforting smell of aged paper and musty hardcovers doesn't immediately overwhelm you upon entering, you might as well just turn around and leave. If we had it our way, we'd bottle the smell of The Bookshop. With its tall wooden shelves completely filled with everything from beloved classics to the newest releases, corners perfect for curling up and reading a book from start to finish, and old Persian rugs that make the shop feel homey, this space just north of the bustling intersection at 16th Street and Bethany Home Road is basically the definition of cozy.

Our Holy Grail list of hard-to-find books is a short one, but it includes a couple of impossible items. Where, we wondered, would we ever find a first-edition copy of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages, with the dust jacket, for less than a hundred clams? The Internet was no help. And would we ever cross off our list the rag-bound Ozma of Oz we'd been coveting for decades? We couldn't afford to go to our graves without these two titles, but we also couldn't afford to pay what most sellers (when they had copies, which was rare) were asking. Thanks to the courteous and intelligent antiquarians at By the Book, we can now die happy. Not only do we have these two rare titles in our collection now, but we also have the knowledge that, right here in our own town, we have a bookshop that will relentlessly search for what we covet until they find it. And we'll be able to afford it, because they listen when we talk book budgets. Filled with rare and unusual titles, this tidy Camelback storefront also buys book collections, offers free search services, and sends out a cool catalog several times a year. Hard-to-find, out-of-print, and rare books are By the Book.

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