Searching through Big Lots for bargains is fun. You might come away with anything from a camping lantern to an end table to a bag of green-plastic army men, and you know it's all going to be nice and cheap. Each week, another shipment of shelf-filler rolls in, and it's time to go a-hunting through the gewgaws, tools, toys, food, school supplies, sports equipment and greeting cards. When you find that box of Cocoa Puffs marked down to $1 and see the expiration date is still a ways off, you know you've hit pay dirt. There's quite a selection of plastic plants and holiday decorations -- it's enough to transform any living room into a low-budget hell of candles, vinyl window stickers and cheesy statuettes. And Big Lots is one of precious few places in town that stocks Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, a fine candy more common in the Eastern half of the country.
4930 S. Kingshighway, St. Louis
St. Louis - South City
At one time, not especially long ago, the discovery of a well-stocked record store -- and let's continue to call them that, despite the waning of wax -- was cause for ecstatic celebration. Today, with the dizzyingly vast resources of megastores and the Internet, finding a CD is more a problem of superabundance than of scarcity: There's so much product, you need a guide -- or at least a MusicHound volume -- to negotiate the store's mazelike terrain. Vintage Vinyl, as its anachronistic name attests, came of age when records were harder to come by, when a search engine was the car motor that carried you from store to store in pursuit of a Dylan bootleg, an out-of-print Django Reinhardt LP or a Clash import with two must-have songs cruelly deleted from the American release by the heartless corporate bastards. What Vintage offered then and now wasn't breadth but depth -- deep knowledge of the music it carries. Other stores give steeper discounts or stock more titles in greater numbers, and Vintage can frustrate you with plastic dividers that offer the tantalizing promise of a Magic Markered artist name but lack a single accompanying CD. Vintage, however, inevitably provides surprise: the obscure, the experimental, the outlandish, the provocative material that would baffle the clerks at Borders and Best Buy. And even if what you eventually purchase is available on Amazon, clicking in isolation at your keyboard can't compete with strolling the funky aisles of Vintage, or listening to the store's DJ provide revelatory samples of music you'd never otherwise encounter, or chatting at the checkout about the relevant influences on and relative merits of Ryan Adams' new album. Best of all, if you come up empty at Vintage's Delmar location, St. Louis' other consistently superior record store, Streetside, beckons only a few blocks east.
6610 Delmar Blvd., University City
Delmar/ The Loop
Two winners here: Vintage Vinyl is the best place to buy used CDs, hands down. Their offerings, both at the flagship Delmar store and across the river in planet Granite (City), are so broad and varied that Vintage is the first place to stop if you're short on cash but long on musical desires. Unlike the majority of used-CD places stuffed to the gills with old copies of yesterday's flavor of the week (Britney's Oops, anyone? Howsabout some Green Day Dookie?), Vintage Vinyl's selection is so wide that one can waltz in and find heavenly surprises, the kind you can't believe someone would actually get rid of. You gotta go to the Record Exchange on Hampton for the best vinyl selection (The Vinyl Shack on Big Bend is also way up there), an old library converted into a workhorse of a store. What's best about the Hampton Exchange is the apparent balance of choices. It's all there for you: the dense, ridiculously expansive easy listening section; the hip-hop section, thick with DJ copies of every stupid funky 12-inch to come out in the past five years -- the city's best DJs seem to ditch their unwanted records here; a soundtrack section filled with both the duds (Urban Cowboy) and the winners (Midnight Cowboy); a great country section; a decent rock section. The Exchange is occasionally flawed in the pricing department because they stick too closely to the idiots in Goldmine magazine, the record-collector's bible, and you have to be careful to check condition (they're less discriminating than Vintage Vinyl or the Record Shack), but for sheer volume and adventure, the place is heaven on earth.
6610 Delmar Blvd., University City
Delmar/ The Loop
You can trust Billy Joe Faulkenberry with every teardrop of your antique crystal chandelier. Known as the "king of chandeliers," Faulkenberry is a middle-aged woman's ideal: He respects age, you see, and cherishes the most fragile beauty. He plays God in his little Cherokee workroom, making light stream from fixtures gone dark with the rot of time. He even fashions his own crystal chandeliers, brilliant massings of sparkling white light that could hang in the grandest entrance hall, subtle reminders of heaven. Not everything can be cosmic, though; when Faulkenberry comes back down to earth, he makes mirrors of old ceiling tin, turns salvaged wood "shabby chic" with distressed white paint, lacquers old dentists' cabinets for New York-style lofts. He has an eye for restoration in any form, a compulsion to take what's old and broken and make it fresh and pleasing again.
Perhaps it's the location, on Hanley south of Highway 40, easily accessible from just about anywhere (although it's still a bit of an exercise to squeeze onto the side street where you enter the office). More likely, though, it's the phalanx of friendly docs staffing the many examination rooms, minimizing wait times even on those days when dogs, cats and owners are packed like sardines in the waiting area. And there are lots of busy days at Millis Animal Hospital, owing to a huge and loyal clientele that entrusts its Fidos and Fluffies to these caring and professional vets.
It's certainly not the biggest, and, judging from a few visits, it's certainly not the busiest. Local photo professionals tend to gravitate to Schiller's and City Photo, and camera-store chains, discount and big-box stores suck in the rest of the picture-taking crowd. If you do more than point and click but you're not necessarily a pro, go where employees won't make you feel like a boob. That's why we like O.J. Photo Supply Inc., located in a small storefront on Olive Boulevard in University City. The business, founded in 1970 by Oscar Johnson, has that cluttered, homey feel of a neighborhood hardware store. The shelves are packed with lots of used working equipment (need an 8mm film projector to play Dad's old vacation flicks?). Of course, they stock a full range of new cameras and supplies. They also do testing and repairs. Love your old piece-of-crap camera, but it's just not working right? The folks at O.J. will diagnose the problem, quote a repair price (and stick to it) and, best of all, won't try to talk you into buying something new. These guys really love cameras.
Everyone's swirling around the ballroom floor, and you're in the corner drinking steadily. Your new Parisian beau wants to scale the Eiffel Tower, and you can't even make it to le metro
. Painful shoes are sexy for about five minutes, until you realize the pain's made you cranky and all you want to do is soak your feet in Epsom salts. But try finding a wearable alternative in the leather-and-chains world of shoe design. Sole Survivor, aptly named, may be your best hope: Sensible European shoes, with soles resilient enough that you won't feel every pea you tread upon. Pretty colors, like lavender and Delft blue, so you don't feel orthopedic. And design that lets the shoe fit your foot, instead of some Procrustes of a salesman shoveling your fat footsie into a narrow coffin and pronouncing it perfect.
Pat McGlynn remembers the time Mickey Mantle came in for a bottle of scotch. "He was in town for an autograph show. That was before he quit drinking," explains McGlynn, 38. Other celebs have found their way to the unassuming liquor store just south of -- what else? -- Busch Stadium. Eddie Van Halen stopped by for a case of Jack Daniel's, and Blues players Curtis Joseph and Brendan Shanahan once pulled up in a limo to grab a couple cold sixes of Labatt's. Happily, there was a place to quench those thirsts. Open daily, Stadium is the only late-night liquor store left in the downtown area. But it's the blue-collar crowd that makes up Stadium Liquor's customer base, working stiffs who may appreciate that beer, liquor, snacks and cigs are sold without a scratched-up sheet of bulletproof glass between customer and clerk. The staff -- Sal, Hadji, Guido and Mr. V. -- are constantly fetching 12-packs from the expansive cooler in the back or loading up the booze wagon. "We deliver. That's the key," says McGlynn. The half-barrels go out almost as soon as they come in -- to picnics, weddings, rugby clubs and softball games. Stadium also delivers to downtown hotels. Mardi Gras, however, is a humongous sales day; this year, the booze wagon delivered 150 half-barrels to house parties in Soulard alone. No wonder Stadium Liquor is the No. 1 independent seller of Anheuser-Busch beers in the city.
1129 S. Broadway, St. Louis
St. Louis - Soulard
Last year, Movies Unlimited, Maplewood's palace of video excess, carried St. Louis' Best Exploitation Video selection. This year, they take it all, and they've earned it. Depthwise, they've exponentially expanded their selection of disreputable Americana, from the trash classicism of Russ Meyer and H.G. Lewis to the proverbial ruby in the goat's ass, Lemora, Lady Dracula. Breadthwise, they're investing heavily in a Eurotrash aesthetic that links art- and grindhouse, with full auteur runs near-complete (Jos Mojica Marins) and in development (Alejandro Jodorowsky, Walerian Borowczyk), along with choice bits such as Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. Also: new releases, full range of titles in all genres, etc., NO HIPSTER BULLSHIT, and they ordered a copy of Fando y Lis on recommendation. Given St. Louis' history with decent video outlets, you should be renting here now.
7215 Manchester Road, Maplewood
The Neon Lady herself, proprietor LaDean Harlow, is a blond, pretty, talkative widow whose husband was bitten by a brown recluse spider right after they bought their dream home. Harlow just kept going, surrounded by Anheuser-Busch steins and trays, chrome deco telephones and toasters, old metal coolers and lunchboxes, Betty Boop figurines and Mickey Mouse glasses and Osterizer blenders with their rippled Michelin-man bases. What you won't see is the Neon Lady's ghost, Bubba. "When I first moved in, doors would fly open so often I finally had to bolt 'em," Harlow recalls. "I thought it was a lady ghost at first, but after a couple years I found out that in 1946, a guy hung himself a little bit to the right of the first-floor lighting fixture because his family did not join him here right after the war." Bubba's contemporary mission? To make sure Harlow's customers rejoin their own families by enjoying all the classic American stuff the earlier generations grew up with.
Along with the usual touristy St. Louis keychains, postcards and paperweights, you'll find some unusual stuff here. Where else could you find a tile trivet with images of the Arena or Coral Court Motel for $16? There's also Lewis and Clark barbecue sauce, a made-in-Missouri product. Along with dolls, Civil War books and die-cast soldiers, you can buy a mini seven-piece child's ceramic tea set for $13. Thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, books on how to play marbles and marbles galore, copper cookie cutters, and balsa-wood plane kits that sell for $4.95 are also available. There's plenty of 1904 World's Fair memorabilia available for purchase, as well as books by local authors relating to St. Louis and its history. Videotapes such as Meet Me in St. Louis
can also be purchased. The store features some beautiful antique reproduction glassware, but do be careful. A sign declares that it's store policy for you to pay 50 percent of the purchase price of anything you break.