Bizarre Guitar & Drum

Anyone who's ever stepped foot in a big-box guitar store knows what a hellscape the place can be. Imagine it: dozens of wannabe shredders workshopping their pinch harmonics while uninterested sales people consider what they might have to do to make a commission. Bizarre Guitar isn't like that at all. Filled to the brim with vintage gear, new axes, amps, and best of all, a chill staff, the shop feels homey and stress-free. Whether you're browsing for a stomp box, picking up strings, or even looking to trade up for something new, the locally owned Bizarre Guitar makes it clear that instrument stores don't have to suck — the corporate competition doesn't even come close.

Stinkweeds

Kimber Lanning's record store has been around for 30 years, and it's easy to see why. Stinkweeds is all about curation. It kinda has to be, given how small the CenPho shop is. But damn if they don't make every square foot worth it — particularly when it comes to CDs. You'll find a well-stocked selection of locally made albums and EPs, as well as super-specific small releases from choice labels that you might have to dig around for elsewhere. That the shop is picky about its staffers is also a plus. Both manager Lindsay Cates and longtime employee Dario Miranda have great taste (both are musicians, too), and you'll be rewarded for being a return customer with killer recommendations.

No record shop in town does it quite like Zia Record Exchange. That's partly because nobody rivals the sheer square footage the local chain's shops cover, and also because pretty much every record store in town was founded by somebody who used to work at Zia. Hard to compete with the big kahuna. Really though, Zia carries everything from silly gag gifts and stocking stuffers to Criterion Collection films, and a bananas array of preowned items like action figures, musical instruments, and gaming gear. But the store really shines when it comes to vinyl. Where else can you ogle a Beatles butcher cover, spend hours digging through crates of dollar records, and pick up the latest DJ Khaled LP? Nowhere but Zia.

Arizona State Fairgrounds

Some people wait all year long for Christmas. Or their birthday, the NBA playoffs, the beginning of elk season — we've all got our thing. For Phoenix bibliophiles, that's the VNSA used book sale, which is traditionally held the second weekend in February at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. "Book sale" doesn't begin to cover it: Each year, VNSA offers up hundreds of thousands of books, CDs, DVDs, games, sheet music, magazines, and much more at ridiculously low prices to thousands of shoppers, some of whom travel across the country and even the world to attend. Bring a backpack, bring a suitcase, bring a trash bin (we've seen people do it), and start filling it with enough reading material to get you through to the next sale. And best of all, VNSA is a nonprofit organization, which means that going overboard on purchases just sends that much more money to local charities. Everybody wins.

Since 1974, Changing Hands has been synonymous with Phoenix's book culture. Currently operating two shops, one in Tempe, the other in central Phoenix just off the light rail, Changing Hands has more going for it than the best and most diverse selection of literature in Phoenix (though it certainly has that). What truly sets the shops apart from other book nooks is a dedication to community. Whether hosting family workshops, book club discussions, or lively author Q&As and signings, Changing Hands makes it clear that people who read together grow together, and Phoenix is better for that commitment and inquisitive spirit.

Small? Yes. A good selection just the same? Also yes. Among the loud banter and busking of Mill Avenue, you'll spot the hanging sign for Old Town Books just south of Fifth Street. That is, if you don't first spot the small, mobile bookshelves wheeled out onto the sidewalk, or the imaginative window display they have going on. Owner Chris Smith has run the bookshop since 1984, and settled into the Mill Avenue storefront in 1987. The narrow bookstore has all the same sections as a larger shop, so you'll find titles delicately crammed in any shelf space available, along with copy paper boxes filled with books along the edge of the floor. Those interested in Arizona, Native American, and Old West history will find a good mixture of titles on the north shelves, while others can look for the vintage, first-edition, and out-of-print books the shop has to offer. Oh, and one more thing: It's cash only.

A sister bookshop to the Arcadia location, Book Gallery is set in quaint downtown Mesa in what used to be a movie theater — and you can tell, too. This spacious bookstore has a main floor, and the back of the shop splits off into an upstairs and downstairs area. The store is packed with books on tall wooden shelves equipped with rolling ladders and decorated with posters, author images, and just cool stuff overall. Toward the back and up the short staircase, you'll find a fiction section with books in hardcover and paperback, and many with little bookmarks sticking out the top reading "Signed." Around the corner is a whole wall of Western-themed novels and pulpy paperbacks. Of course, there are plenty of nonfiction books about the American West and its history, covering every figure from Teddy Roosevelt to Quanah Parker to Kit Carson. You can also smell that this old bookstore has been around for 30 years, but in a good way.

Ash Avenue Comics & Books

Don't listen to the print media naysayers: Now is a great time for comic books — maybe the best time. More diverse comics are being printed than ever before, and the quality's never been better. Doubt it? Stroll into Ash Ave Comics & Books in Tempe. The neighborhood mainstay has all the big names — check out the Wonder Woman and Spider-Man titles if you dug those silver-screen blockbusters — but also a heady selection of underground, autobiographical, sci-fi, horror, and left-of-center fare. Owner Drew Sully has a distinct grasp on it all — he's the kind of guy who can clue you in on obscure Marvel trivia as well as dive into Japanese manga and Alan Moore's legendary run on Swamp Thing via the Ash Ave Comics Book Club, which meets monthly.

Anyone can toss together some flowers. The staff at Camelback Flowershop goes above and beyond, blending locally sourced plants (along with flowers from small producers in California, Oregon, and Washington) with an aesthetic that subtly mixes natural beauty with a modern, industrial touch. It's a low-stress spot, too, with arrangements casually — but always artfully — displayed and same-day delivery of bouquets, gift boxes, succulents, home goods, and art. But owner Teresa Wilson's design sense isn't restricted to the shop: By offering classes and workshops, Wilson offers you a chance to extend her thoughtful touch to your own home.

There's an oasis in the middle of Phoenix. As you enter, the scent of hundreds of colorful flowers will flood your nose, and it will feel like the temperature of the air around you drops several degrees. And no, you aren't losing it. Those are the calls of macaw parrots cutting through the air. This is Dig It Gardens. In addition to gorgeous flora (and even some fauna) blooming from every corner of this plant haven, Dig It features the best selection of native desert plants in the city. Add in the expertise of the owners and staff, and even the most novice horticulturist will be cultivating their own green thumb in no time.

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