Best Of 2000

The Rottweiler is massive, which makes moving his tortured body impossible. He is also aggressive, apparently trained as an attack dog, so any attempt to get near him is met with low growls of warning.

Ed Migneco, D.V.M., looks down into the cage where the animal lies, and he sighs.

"He's in a lot of pain," the vet says.

The dog was found on the street earlier in the week with four broken legs, a cut throat and sliced ears. He was brought here, to the building of a local animal-rescue operation, where he spent the last 24 hours hunched forward on his shoulders in an attempt to take weight off his broken back. Every move the Rottweiler makes, though, even his terrified glances up at the vet, cause him to scream in pain.

It is late afternoon, and this is Migneco's last task of the day. His wife, Mary, and their three daughters expected him home for dinner, but if he gets enough sedative and painkiller into the Rottweiler, he can transport the dog to his clinic, City Animal Hospital, where the damage can be better surveyed. Broken backs can be fixed, but this poor creature, with his hind end pushed up into the air and his head pressed against the floor, is in pretty bad shape.

"We'll have to get a muzzle on him," Migneco says, as the first trickle of sweat makes its way down the side of his face.

The dog has already bitten several people in the rescue group, so the vet folds a nylon lead into a small noose, slowly opens the cage door and, in a motion carefully choreographed to avoid the dog's violent reach, steps in. Immediately, the Rottweiler's head comes up, but a shot of pain sends it yelping back to the floor.

For the next 20 minutes, Migneco tries maneuvering the noose around the Rottweiler's muzzle, but the dog, despite his pain, thwarts each attempt. And with each small escape, Migneco increases his praise of the animal. "You're smart. You're a good dog. You're brave." Finally, with his sweat dripping down onto the Rottweiler's face, Migneco manages to slip the noose around the dog's nose. Gently, he pulls up, and it tightens. "Thatta boy."

The rest is easier. He's done this sort of thing countless times before on similar animals -- stray, scared, severely injured animals who made up a good portion of his practice over the years. Since taking over City Animal Hospital from Dr. Norbert Schmelzer in 1986, Migneco has made a point of treating those animals that a lot of other vets avoid when possible.

Fran Vinnacombe, for instance, started trapping feral cats in St. Louis city years ago but couldn't find any local vets to spay or neuter them. "He deals with feral animals, whereas a lot of other vets won't," Vinnacombe says. "He's wonderful. He's my hero."

Others, such as Michael Mullen, founder of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), say they couldn't work their own wonders without Migneco's help. PAWS is an organization that provides, in part, vet care for the pets of people who have HIV or the AIDS virus. PAWS now handles about 300 pets, but 10 years ago, when the group was created and Mullen solicited vets for discounted care, Migneco came forward immediately.

"He's devoted so much of his time and energy, it's unbelievable," Mullen says. "He gives us heavy discounts, he donates two full days a year for free vaccinations, and he'll take animals in the middle of the night. He's just done everything he possibly can."

Migneco also offers discounted or free rates to other not-for-profit groups that help animals, including Pound Pals, Feline Friends and a duck-rescue operation.

"My business has been very good to me," Migneco explains, "and I need to give something back. I have a whole file of unpaid bills, but I'd rather give away the care and know I did something good."

Besides, he adds, he didn't go into veterinary care to get rich. It was just always something he knew he would do. The son of a high-school principal, Migneco helped take care of the mice, rats and snakes his father brought home from the school science lab during summer breaks. One day, when Migneco was a high-school student himself, he walked into the neighborhood vet clinic, owned by Norbert Schmelzer, and asked for a part-time job. After the teen explained to Dr. Schmelzer his dream of going to veterinary school one day, Schmelzer told him to start work on Saturday. From that point on, he never looked back.

All through the years Migneco attended the University of Missouri, Schmelzer promised to keep the clinic open until the vet student graduated. Even though he was well into his 70s, Schmelzer kept his promise. In 1986, after Migneco graduated, he bought City Animal Hospital.

From the beginning of his professional career, Migneco saw how desperately nonprofit groups needed help. "I just couldn't say no."

By far his biggest charity client these days is Stray Rescue of St. Louis, which has dropped off hundreds of dogs -- mangy, parasite-infected, starving strays -- at City Animal Hospital over the years.

"He allows me to turn his clinic into a MASH unit," says Randy Grim, executive director of Stray Rescue. "But he'll come to my home; he'll come to our building. He always says yes. He has saved hundreds of dogs' lives, and without him, we wouldn't be able to give these dogs a second chance."

Grim's organization rescued the Rottweiler that Migneco rushes to the clinic later that evening. He and Grim carry the heavily sedated giant into the building, where the vet immediately takes X-rays of his spinal cord. They don't look good. Some of the discs are compressed; others have spaces between them that shouldn't be there. Migneco has never seen this sort of damage before, so he pulls out Radiographic Interpretation for the Small Animal Clinician and begins poring over the pages.

This is a part of his job that Migneco hates -- the panic and dread of not knowing. In 1992, six years after graduating from the University of Missouri, his fear of not knowing pushed him to spend two years studying for special certification with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. But even earning the highly esteemed title of board-certified diplomate in small-animal practice didn't quell his need to know more, so every year Migneco voluntarily takes at least 50 hours of continuing education. "I don't want to miss that next case just because I didn't go to a seminar where I might have learned about it," he says.

And it doesn't matter if the animal is a stray, though at least then Migneco doesn't have to deal with the other difficult part of his job -- helping owners of pets grapple with emotionally wrenching news. If, for instance, a dog has advanced cancer, Migneco's job includes helping the owners decide whether to have this member of their family euthanized. "It has to be their decision," Migneco says. "And no matter what they decide, even if I disagree, I have to make them feel they are doing the right thing."

In the Rottweiler's case, though, the tables are slightly turned. Migneco explains to Grim that the dog probably has a rare condition called wobbler's disease, which would require specialized surgery with no guarantee of success, a long recovery and an even longer period of physical therapy. Because the dog has a history of attacking people, though, physical therapy may not be possible. The dog could never be trusted not to attack.

But Grim doesn't know what to do. Of the hundreds of dogs his organizations has rescued, not one has ever been euthanized. "It's not the dog's fault," Grim says, tears welling up in his eyes. "He's a really sweet dog. It's just pain and fear that makes him aggressive."

Migneco nods his head slowly as Grim weighs his options and paces back and forth across the room, saying, "I don't want to do the wrong thing. I can't make a decision like this. I just can't."

Grim leaves the examination room to stand by the Rottweiler, still sedated on the X-ray table in the back of the clinic. Migneco walks over to the illuminated pictures of the dog's fractured spine and shakes his head. If only he knew more.

No, it's not the dog's fault that he was beaten and tortured and then dumped on the street. And he understand's Grim's devotion to animals just like this. But the odds of a successful surgery are slim, and such an aggressive dog cannot be physically rehabilitated. It would be painfully crippled for the rest of its life, and if it attacked someone, especially a child, sometime in the future, who would be to blame?

From the back of the clinic, Migneco hears Grim crying. The vet looks down at the floor, then up at the ceiling, then down to the floor again.

"I need to make this decision for him," he finally says. "I need to take this off his shoulders."

So he leaves the room and heads toward the back of the clinic, the end of another long day.

-- Melinda Roth

Let's do this one by negative example. Not long ago, we were in one of the large chain stores in the area, looking for a book to read on vacation. The choice -- Stefan Kanfer's Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. We approached the information desk and asked whether there was a biography section in the store. The clerk said there wasn't, but what were we looking for? "That new biography of Groucho Marx," we said. Long pause. "So, is he a historical figure?" the clerk stammered. Before we could snap out of our state of shock and reply that, no, he was a hysterical figure, the thought occurred: "Should have gone to Left Bank." It's a mistake we won't make twice. Besides having a fine, knowledgeable staff (which, we're betting, knows Duck Soup from Chicken Soup for the Soul), Left Bank Books is the last of the great independent local bookstores, which means shopping there is as much a statement as it is a pleasurable experience. The fact that they've survived in the era of superstores and dotcoms says that Left Bank offers something special -- something tangible in terms of having the book you want at a price you can afford, sure, but also something less tangible and less common these days -- they know their customers, and their customers know them. Isn't that how it's supposed to be?
If the Book House didn't have a sign in front of it, it would just look like an interesting, large old house. And when you step inside, you see that it still basically is an interesting, large old house. None of the walls, interior or exterior, appears to have been removed or moved, yet this place is no longer a residence but a three-story used-book store, with every available inch of space covered by bookshelves and books. The Book House is everything a bookstore should be, with winding staircase, readily attainable solitude in the stacks and the occasional cat. And books. There's a swell selection of forgotten, amusing and cheap used books, but, again, the kicker is the building itself. The 1865 manse is all creaky staircases, narrow passages and rooms both tiny and big lovingly plugged up with books. To enter the poetry section, you have to bend down and get inside a roof dormer! The "Bargain Basement" is a cool cellar lined with books that are $10 a bag, a bulk-buying bookworm's delight. I'm sure that more than a few bibliophiles have spent their first visit here thinking in amazement that this is their home fantasy library come to life. "Why can't I make my house look like this?" they think. ("Because my spouse would divorce me," the inner voice replies.) During the winter holidays, the Book House hosts a party that takes their inexpensive prices down a notch further and offers cookies and punch to all comers. Sure, you'll find what you want at Barnes & Noble or Borders, but the prefab environments there are a mockery of the old, romantic character that is the Book House. There is no substitute.
The Clayton Borders, formerly Library Ltd., offers a huge selection of children's titles, from educational books on dinosaurs, the human skeleton and Japanese for Children to Dr. Seuss, Stuart Little and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The real draw is the giant storybook castle that surrounds the children's area, with a series of funhouse mirrors housed inside a turret. There are other entertaining diversions, such as a wooden train set and a easel with sticky felt characters, as well as miniature tables and chairs that encourage kids to sit down and stay a while. The music selection is extensive, with tapes and CDs featuring everything from Mozart for babies to Schoolhouse Rock. Too bad this location, on a prime spot of Clayton real estate, is slated to close in September 2001 as Borders moves to the Brentwood Town Center, across the street from the Brentwood Promenade. For fans of the castle, more bad news: Although the design of the new store is still in the works, the castle probably won't be part of it.
Now, your comic-store regulars come in three kinds: the superhero and barely-clad-female connoisseur; the customer who prefers an "alternative" (don't you hate that word?) to the aforementioned well-trod paths; and the patron of the arts with the wisdom to recognize the value of both aisles of the beloved comics emporium. Admittedly, the Fantasy Shop chain does seem to lean more toward the superhero fan than the alternative reader, but that's cool, because the writing of nearly all comics is so crappy that, from that standpoint, there really isn't much alternative anyway. After Watchmen, what else is there? OK, fine, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Eightball, Frank -- they're all real good, but Darkchylde and Impulse and Cry for Dawn? Come on! There's a world of shitty comics out there that thoroughly obfuscates the rare treasures. Submitted for your highly subjective approval, here are the two big reasons the Fantasy Shop chain must claim the mantle as the best comic-book store(s) around: (1) Convenience. There are Fantasy Shops in Maplewood, Kirkwood, Hazelwood, Affton, St. Charles and Fairview Heights, Ill. So when you're out on the weekend tooling around, there's a fair chance you'll be near one. They're doing their part to spread the glory of comics to the masses and to absorb the extra hormonal energy of youth that might otherwise be used for evil. (2) The Big Back-Issue Extravaganza: If there is a God, then it must be she who brings a little piece of heaven to earth when the St. Chuck Fantasy Shop megalocation sells off literally tons of comics for 25 cents per -- yes, we're not kidding, 25 cents per comic -- for all kinds of new and old goodies annually. This feeding frenzy of fanboys is spread out over several days, and there is so damn much bargain goin' on that shoppers have been known to pass out from pleasure and/or drop their life savings on old issues of Green Arrow. Righteous.
Among the reasons comics get so little respect are their ephemeral packaging and serial publication. Although few comics are printed on the cheap newsprint of old -- which quickly yellows and crumbles -- even when slicked up by glossy paper and card-stock covers with holograms and die-cuts and spot varnishes, comic books, despite their misleading name, aren't really books: They're magazines, and usually small ones at that, and those who don't fetishize and obsessively collect such periodicals tend to toss 'em like last week's People or Newsweek. Worse, most comic-book stories are told over the course of many (sometimes very many) issues, and unless you faithfully make a weekly visit to the comic shop, chances are you'll miss an issue, resulting in an unpluggable plot hole. Fortunately, during the last 15 years or so, publishers have begun collecting extended narratives into trade paperbacks and even hardcovers, making easily accessible what once required absurd diligence. Of course, the other reason comics get so little respect is their juvenile content, and no amount of gussied-up packaging can disguise the puerile nature of most superhero "story arcs." But stroll into Star Clipper Comics & Games and you'll find dozens, even hundreds, of volumes on its walls, and most are not just adolescent power fantasies. Try Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde, his harrowing journalistic account of the Bosnian war. Or Tony Millionaire's darkly antic Maakies. Or Chris Ware's gorgeously designed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth with its eye-popping unfolding dust jacket. Or Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell or Daniel Clowes' David Boring or Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken or ... well, you get the picture. Now go get the words and pictures.
There have never been as many options for buying music as there are today. You can buy it at Wal-Mart, on the Web -- heck, if you don't mind limiting yourself to the Britneys and 'N Syncs of the world, you can buy music at McDonald's these days. But chances are, if you really love music, you wanna go where there are other people who do, too. In terms of St. Louis record stores, that means Vintage Vinyl. Some of the large chain stores might be able to outdistance Vintage in the size of their stock, but no other store can match it for its vibe -- the live DJ, the knowledgeable (and opinionated) staff, and, not unimportant, a customer base that keeps them on their toes. People who know music count on Vintage to have something in stock that will intrigue them, and the Delmar institution seldom, if ever, disappoints.
Record-store clerks behave like members of an exclusive club -- one in which inclusion is guaranteed to those for whom "customer service" means "funeral for a shopper." Record-store clerks start as uncorrupted rock fans with musical notes in their eyes. Before long, though, a cancerous cynicism grows inside, usurping the sanguine innocence. It's like Buddy Holly doing a Dorian Gray descent into Sid Vicious. Record-store employees have seen and heard it all. They no longer wish to face the music -- it's become the dissonance of too many questions, too many people's ignorance of the very music they seek (an aggravating paradox) and too many times giving directions to people who don't reveal their starting point. They make fun of customers. They take lunches longer than Woodstock. And those are the nice clerks. Customer service has been retired with the turntable, and most employee talk is off-the-record.

At Wherehouse Music in South County, Jim Lovins not only faces the music, he shakes its hand. With his announcer-bordering-on-carnival-barker voice and self-charging energy, Lovins is proof that youth is wasted on the young. He evokes one of his idols -- perhaps Henry Mancini or Duke Ellington addressing his orchestra -- when he offers, "You're only as good as the people around you." He points out that he trained the staff, not so much to take credit as to explain the jarring friendliness.

With his cheery paunch and doughnut of hair, Lovins is not your -- well, actually he is -- your father's record-store clerk. In a samplified atmosphere of dance, rock and pop, where some employees are younger than disco, Lovins, 61, sticks out like a trumpet solo. But he unites the disparate worlds of music and courtesy, which he happens to think go together better than rhythm & blues, a style Lovins knows plenty about, along with jazz, classical and soundtracks. He drops little nuggets: That Quincy Jones credits Mancini with bringing jazz to TV on Peter Gunn. That John Barry didn't write the James Bond theme; it was only his arrangement (this is still up for debate, although Monty Norman is credited). Those facts he gathered on his own, but Lovins keeps an open ear. "I learn from the customer," he says without a drop of condescension. "You might say something now that I never knew, and I'll retain it." He takes mental notes, he says, keeping an ear open for tips on music he hasn't heard. His passion has jazzed up the inventory. "We try to get stuff here that you won't find anywhere else," he says.

Lovins' newest career (he spent years in the grocery business; are peach crates the common thread?) began at the ill-fated Blockbuster Music -- same building -- when word got out that a classical expert was needed. Back then, used CDs weren't something you could find in many of the big chains. In fact, he admits, "There are still people who won't buy used. They don't want it; they want new. I like used CDs, because I can buy more."

Lovins buys new music to complement his vintage favorites. He gestures over to a wall. "I like Kiss. We won that Kiss plaque. I won it," he humbly clarifies. "We all competed against each other. I happened to sell one or two more. I guess I was just lucky." Gene Simmons and Jim Lovins aren't that different. One paints his face; the other draws customers.

-- Jordan Oakes

Record collecting started out as a hobby for Jean Haffner and ended up as a career. The owner of the Record Exchange grew up in the Texas Panhandle town of Canyon, where his next-door neighbor was Buddy Knox, the rockabilly artist who recorded the hit single "Party Doll." Haffner never got over the infatuation with rock & roll that he acquired as a teenager. His record collecting became a full-time occupation for him 25 years ago. His store, which is now located in a huge former public-library building at the corner of Eichelberger and Hampton, deals exclusively in used records in every conceivable format: cassettes, LPs, CDs, even eight-track tapes. He says he offers one of the largest inventories in the country, with the used CDs a particular bargain. Haffner says he decided to devote his whole life to his musical interests after the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. So the giant used-record store in South St. Louis is sort of a tribute to the King.
It seems at this point pointless to declare oneself in the matter of analog vs. digital culture. Compact discs, whose sole salutary aspect is their compactness, provide an efficient, durable information-delivery system. But as recording media go, they're about as cool as dictation cassettes. Long-playing record albums, on the other hand, are pretty boss. In the basement of Euclid Records Vinyl Shack is the Jazz Hole, in which are records, a lot of records. In fact, the place is that rarest of spaces: a site of commerce so suffused with the goodness of its product that capital flows overhead without disturbing the vibe below. And what grooves. For all the Leonard Feather Presents ... and Jazz Goes to University, there are, within reach, records of a revolutionary character. A recent visit turned up a promo copy of the Arista Freedom Sampler, containing radio-friendly (sure) cuts from Charles Tolliver and Marion Brown; some Nat Hentoff-produced Cecil Taylor sessions; scads of Base Record reissues of ESP-Disk sides and a few Get Back editions of same; and an inexplicable three copies of the second volume of Sam Rivers' Wildflower compilations. Or you could just download your music. How cool.
Out in the wastelands of suburbia, where it's hard to distinguish the latest big-box retail development from the newest church, you can go to places they call music stores. Young clerks with pierced body parts are waiting there to serve you. Everything is on sale -- or will soon be. There are closeouts, limited-time offers, special service deals and a general aura of consumer hysteria. When you do make a purchase, it's a pact for life. They will take your name and number and soon thereafter you will be sent an endless stream of invitations and catalogs. If all this hype makes you vaguely depressed and anxious, there is an alternative. Huelsing Music has been supplying musicians with the tools of their trade since 1976. That's when jazz guitarist Paul Huelsing bought the store, which the original owner opened in the mid-1950s. Besides a large selection of guitars and other stringed instruments, Huesling offers a full range of accessories. The stores backs its sales with service and offers lessons to fledgling guitarists. Mainly, though, it's an asylum from mass-marketing madness. Check it out, buy a set of strings and browse in peace.