Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2014: Borders

Once upon a time, there was a city. It was not the largest city, or the smallest. It was not the richest or the poorest. But this city had a reputation, nonetheless. It was known throughout the land as dry and inhospitable -- heated to unimaginable temperatures for several months of the year, ruled by a witch of a governor and a cruel sheriff, a cultural wasteland. The people of this city knew the truth. Yes, upper management could be rough, and at first the landscape wasn't easy on the eyes, but past the strip malls and the cookie cutter subdivisions, a wonderful metropolis burgeoned: bartenders poured the craftiest of cocktails, world-class chefs cooked, there were sports teams to cheer for, boutiques to shop at, and clubs where you could dance the night away.

Once a year, the kind-hearted souls at the city's alternative newsweekly gathered the finest of what the place had to offer, presenting it in the hallowed pages of a book called the "Best of Phoenix." This year's edition features "Tales of the City" -- true stories told and legends explained.

Our chapter on shopping begins with an essay by Tempe-based writer Elizabeth Maria Naranjo.

See also: Read all of the Best of Phoenix 2014 essays

See also: Best of Phoenix 2014

Once upon a time in Phoenix, after getting fired from my first job in town, I was browsing the aisles of a nearby bookstore (a frequent pastime since losing my job) when I decided that I might as well apply there.

This was in the fall of 2000 -- before a mortgage and before children -- so the paltry wages of a bookstore barista didn't faze me.

I'd moved to Phoenix that June, lured in part by a teenage dream of traveling to cities unknown, settling for several months or perhaps a few years, and then moving on. I was 24 and had lived amid the snow-dusted peaks of Utah, lightning storms in southeastern Texas, the temperate calm of central California, and frosty winters in Boise, Idaho. But I'd never lived in the desert. My employer, Sonora Quest Laboratories, promised me a job anywhere in the Valley, so I packed the essentials -- mostly books and CDs, but also my tattered box of old writing -- shoved them in my car and headed south.

Childhood images of driving through northern Arizona burned in my memory -- the way twilight washed purple over the mountains. I knew Phoenix would be different, but the plainness of the sun-baked land was still a shock. Bare mountains framed a valley on fire, too hot to sustain anything but sparse, weedy growth. Medians displayed dirt and rock; crushed gravel replaced grass in yards dotted with spiny cacti. I thought, This is a land stripped to its bones.

The inside view was worse. My roommate and his fiancée were renovating, and the house was in various stages of construction and disrepair. Shortly after I'd moved in, the air conditioning failed, and three days later, I escaped to a nearby restaurant and began circling the classifieds.

One ad described a house with a pool at the base of Piestewa Peak that the owner, Joanna, would love to see used and reasonable rent that included two home-cooked Greek meals a week. It sounded lovely, and it was. I unpacked my boxes of books and CDs and tried to make Phoenix feel like home, if only another temporary one.

By the end of September, I'd been through two breakups. One was with my job, because for some unsound reason, I'd chosen a 9-to-5 position in Maryvale, thinking the commute wouldn't be too bad. The other breakup was with a man I'd dated over the summer. He'd taken me to my first Diamondbacks game and whisked me away to Las Vegas to meet his family -- I was crushed when the relationship ended.

I'd also discovered I didn't like Greek food.

Mired in depression, I spent my days sleeping until noon, eating canned soup, and hanging out at the Borders bookstore across from Paradise Valley Mall. In the evenings, I laid by the pool smoking cigarettes and reading, often until midnight. I hated the lonely call of the mourning doves. I wondered whether anywhere would ever feel like home. And I began to suspect that my Gypsy ways were mere posturing for wanting to belong and thinking that belonging is a tangible thing that can be found with a road atlas.

The closest I came to comfort was in the bookstore. That welcoming space held what was both familiar and cherished -- books and music, wrapped in the warm scent of spiced chai and vanilla mochas and set to the tune of whirring espresso machines, rustling pages, and clicking keyboards. I'd been out of work for weeks. I needed a job. Why not here, I thought. Surely I'd meet like-minded people, those with whom I had more in common than the laboratory assistants paying their way through nursing school.

Maybe I'd even meet some real writers.

I filled out an application and was hired for the cafe. I remember sitting in the lounge, swirling my new Borders lanyard and watching videos about the varieties of coffee beans and how to properly froth a latte. Over the next several weeks, I would perfect the art of steaming milk and merrily reap the benefits of my employee discount.

I'd also meet a real writer, although I couldn't find the courage to speak to her. A fellow barista who knew of my literary ambitions told me the lady in the music department had published a few magazine articles. "You should go talk to her," he said. "Maybe she can give you some pointers."

I did approach her once, pretending to browse through the Pink Floyd titles (I owned them all) and framing my awestruck questions. But when she smiled and said, "Can I help you?" I lost my nerve, mumbled something, and slunk back to the cafe.

Still, being surrounded by book lovers and poetry readings inspired me -- instead of staying up every night reading, sometimes I'd write stories. I might feel brilliant one night and inadequate the next, but I always felt motivated.

I was young and impulsive, beholden to no one's best interests, not even my own. In November, my mother said she would visit for Thanksgiving and asked whether I could take some time off of work? I couldn't, so I quit. There would always be another job.

Now, Borders no longer exists, and neither does that impulsive young woman. I likely would have been a temporary resident of Phoenix, fleeing for the next city, when I realized I'd once again failed to outrun myself. But in June 2002, I had a girl, and my drifting desire to find a place I belonged became a fierce need to claim a homeland. I began to see Phoenix differently, appreciating its beauty -- regal saguaros posted like sentries on the hills, teddy bear cholla bursting with soft-colored spines. Like motherhood, strange new worlds can bloom before you, and you wonder how you ever lived without them.

I eventually bought a home in Tempe, down the street from a wonderful bookstore called Changing Hands. I spend a lot of time there, browsing the aisles and adding to my treasured book collection. The store even has a train table my son can play with. And, like me, it's a permanent resident.

About the writer Elizabeth Maria Naranjo has had short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction published in Literary Mama, SLAB Literary Magazine, Hospital Drive, the Portland Review, Babble, and Bartleby Snopes. Her debut novel, The Fourth Wall, was released in June by WiDo Publishing and is available online and in print. Links to Naranjo's work can be found on her website,

About the artist Born in England, Jennifer Campbell did most of her growing up in Phoenix. She attended Arizona State University, where she received a BFA in intermedia. She specializes in children's book illustration, self-publishing Yeti Leaves Home with local author Troy Harris. Jennifer enjoys exploring the fragile qualities of watercolors, creating whimsical worlds with the stroke of a brush. Discover more of Campbell's work at

See also: Legend City: Best of Phoenix 2014

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