Best Of 2002

As the music superstores advertise sale after sale after sale, you wonder how they stay in business what with everything being "up to 78 percent off, this weekend only!" Maybe it's because their prices were 78 percent too high to begin with. Anyway, if you're in the market for a guitar or an amp or just a new effect pedal, look no further than the Ron Busch Guitar Studio. Ron Busch, proprietor and self-proclaimed Guitar Man, may not slash his prices every week, but that's because he's keeping them within reason from the get-go. His labyrinth of a store is packed with a large collection of truly weird and vintage gear, some of it new and some of it used. Looking for a Mosrite copy by Dillon with a Bigsby tremolo and a decent price? He's got it. Want that Dimebag Darrel Washburn signature model, replete with lightning-bolt paint job and $1400 price tag? He's got that, too. From the amp in a briefcase to the blue vinyl padded bass amp, Ron Busch has the unusual items you just can't find in those cookie-cutter chain stores. And with his knowledgeable staff and low- to no-pressure sales technique, you can take your time playing around with your choice before you decide to buy it. And you know you will, because where else are you gonna find a blue Vox Phantom copy with a lipstick pickup?

If paradise has a thrift store, chances are, it looks a lot like the Miriam Switching Post: a big but not overwhelming room filled with immaculately preserved sofas that don't smell like cat pee once you bring them home; housewares that range from quaintly funky to hysterically kitschy to straight-up elegant; polite, helpful staff members who will line up a reliable delivery service for you, no problem; and an affiliation with a child-related charity (hey, no sales tax!) that wipes away any vestige of consumerist guilt. Voilà: the perfect shopping experience. Once people discover this place, they're loath to tell even their closest friends about it: What if the word gets out and the prices go up? What if all the good stuff gets snatched up by Cherokee rip-off artists? We feel a little traitorous for letting the cat out of the bag, but because we've already landed the Couch of Our Dreams -- a pristine white-on-white damask-upholstered two-piece sectional that obviously spent the last 50 years or so under a plastic slipcover, a Platonic ideal of a couch that we would have paid for three times over, except we didn't have to -- we'll finally give the Switching Post the props it so richly deserves.
If a series of tornadoes had ripped through the locally owned video stores of the lower Midwest sometime around 1986, and if you had gathered the debris, loosely alphabetized it and crammed it into the backroom of a low-rent Cherokee Street storefront, you'd have Southside Video and VCR Rental. Anchored by predictably extensive action ("Bud Spencer as ... Flatfoot") and horror sections, the stock leans heavily toward a sort of cinematic superfluity; ponder the existence of Sleepaway Camp III and despair. Naturally, we gravitate to the video nasties. The "Mature" section, home to far too many Girls Of tapes, also contains a bunch of long-out-of-print Private Screenings titles and some choice Nazi softcore, whereas the "Adult" section comprises mostly docuhorror videos in the Faces/Traces/Phases of Death vein. One thing though: Unless you live in one of the ZIP codes that fall within their "area," your money's no good here. On a recent visit, the management was utterly flummoxed by our application for membership and seemed genuinely relieved by the petition's withdrawal. When you come for Last Orgy of the Third Reich, you'd better come with fake ID and three references to back it up.
Those of us with fast-paced lifestyles need to keep up with fashion trends but are too busy and broke to bounce to Chicago, New York or Milan each season. What's a hardworking gal to do? Face it: St. Louis is a fashion cowtown -- it's sometimes tough to find stylish, hip clothes, accessories and shoes here. Ziezo, though, has what we need. Located in the Loop, Ziezo caters to those who have outgrown the Delia's catalog -- from delicate Betsey Johnson dresses to sexy Miss Sixty style to simple, elegant French Connection and Velvet T-shirts. The place offers goods to suit almost any need, and although many of the lines it carries can be found at Urban Outfitters and Neiman Marcus, Ziezo's often less expensive, especially during the 40 percent-off postseason sales. And because it's a small boutique with only a few of each item, no need to worry about coordinating with half the club at your outfit's debut. You probably won't find something for Friday's job interview, but you'll definitely discover something extraordinary for Saturday's momentous date, a night on the town.

Rag-O-Rama is a nice, easy solution for layabouts like us; Goodwill and St. Vincent De Paul, the Value Village and Amvets yield nada anymore in the way of fashion uncoveries, and even if they did, we prefer our dander familiar and our detergent less chemical-smelling. We love the idea of scrounging the back-alley thrifts for a fashion jackpot, but we are sick of it. Rag-O-Rama meets us halfway: Weed out the tweed, please, and all the Dockers and argyle, and we'll do the rest -- and pay you the extra seven or eight bucks for the effort, the detergent and the good taste. These days, the used-clothing business has evolved so much that many of the gems that a few years back could easily be bought for a buck are now scoured over by professional eBayers, used-clothes collectors, the occasional Japanese gold prospector -- the prime booty has been eaten up, and one step up on the food chain, Rag-O-Rama burps it out. So, sure, Rag-O-Rama's ilk is partially to blame for the dearth of true-blue thrifts, but love it or not, that's the marketplace, and it's all fair game, cheapskates. R-O-R knows what the kids want and know that Mommy'll pay for it. We shan't ignore two other Lou pleasures: Pixie 9 on Cherokee, which has incredible taste, and the Haberdashery on Grand, which often yields gold.
Sure, there are the obvious ones: South Grand, the Loop, the Galleria and Cherokee Street. But smack-dab in the middle, and conveniently located for all, is Forest Park. The Art Museum's Museum Shop offers vast tasteful options in jewelry, art books, cards, kids' toys and even teapots, lamps and bowls. Exhibition products, many of them designed in-house, also sell fast. You loved the van Gogh exhibit? Commemorate it by drinking mocha latte from a van Gogh mug on a starry night while wearing your van Gogh T-shirt

At the Zootique, stuffed animals, games, puzzles and educational books await. Dongola the Hippo and Ruwaba the Rhino need someone to cuddle with. Board games such as Funky Monkey and Rainforest Roundup both amuse and educate. The little ones will want to handle everything in the store and will no doubt beg for this or that toy. When confronted with those pleading eyes, just remember: Golden Garden Spider replicas are not so much a toy as a learning experience (but don't tell Junior that).

The Missouri Historical Society's Louisiana Purchase Shop has the monopoly on gifts with a local connection, from the popular Monopoly, St. Louis style, to oh-so-cute historical-figure dolls -- Meriwether Lewis and Kate Chopin, for example -- in period attire. Culinary enthusiasts may want to serve their guests using reproductions of Madame Chouteau's china, from the egg cup priced at $22 to the $162 fish platter. Also, something new and truly unique: reproductions of prehistoric pottery, copied from finds at Cahokia Mounds.

And you can make a day of it and walk through the park from one to the next to the next.

Anorexia gave upholstery a bad name, but there's something to be said for the comforts of amplitude. In 1950, Jay Luttrell rented a little yellow building in Brentwood and started his upholstery business. Four decades later, his son Woody, the fifth-youngest, took over. Woody started delivering and pulling weeds when he was twelve, got a kick out of working the staple gun and fell into the craft when college bored him. Now he's run the place long enough to see the trends cycle: Decorative nails are back, and so are fancy braid and gimps and rope, not to mention leather. "It breathes," he explains, "and it holds up." Woody likes the variety of his work -- "Every day a different chair, and not too many chairs are alike" -- and he likes the people he meets. Bob Costas the other day; baseball catcher Ted Simmons before that. "We did furniture for the governor's mansion," he says, "but I can't remember which governor." The trick to quality? Caring what's underneath. "Nine times out of ten, in a bad job, the burlap's not on properly or the springs aren't tied right, and it's collapsed from underneath, which makes everything look bad," Luttrell says. "My first four years, about all I got to do was tie springs."
The "do not disturb" signs on the doorknobs of Westin Hotel rooms perfectly express your state of mind: I can't come to the door just this minute. I'm in heaven. In two sturdy Cupple's Station workhorse warehouses, across from the endangered Busch Stadium, sits the newly renovated Westin, a modern hotel designed in the style of some of the most state-of-the-art in the world. Its hallways are architecturally wondrous, filled with the work of some of St. Louis' most respected artists, and the décor is simple and clean. Unlike most hotels, in which the décor of the lobbies and hallways is so depressingly bland and inoffensive that it's virtually invisible, the actual trek through the Westin is a joy. But the real treat is upstairs, in the room. For $129 a night, you get a spalike bathroom, cordless phones, lighted makeup mirrors and marble, marble and more marble. Quick -- jump into bed. The cotton sheets have such a high thread count that they feel like silk. The pillows are filled with down; the comforters are mushy. Falling into bed is like floating in a cloud. One problem, though: Once in, it's hard to get out. Seriously. But it's worth it, especially if you're an insomniac. An amazing night's sleep is worth a hundred and some change.

He's a cheap pickup, just a $35.99 lifetime commitment, but the dogface puffer has plenty of competition at Beldt's Aquarium, a longtime North County institution tucked in a corner of a Hazelwood shopping center. Beldt's is where your Uncle Bob bought that tiny arawana that grew into the giant that ate Cousin Bobby. The retail store features more than 275 tanks stocked with salt- and freshwater creatures, including baby barracuda, lionfish, pillow starfish, red oscars, crabs, anemones, horned cowfish, foot-long plecostamuses and three-eyed glow-in-the-dark goldfish that sing Don Giovanni. (Amazingly, during our recent visit, we couldn't find a single floater!) Beldt's also features a small selection of reptiles, amphibians and birds, and behind the retail store is a sprawling tropical-fish wholesale business, one of the biggest in the nation. A visit to Beldt's is an easy way to sedate a six-year-old wall-bouncer -- Look, Ma, look at this one! -- but beware: It's awfully hard to resist the urge to buy a 1,000-gallon tank and stock it with piranhas.

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- seems like the RFT is too damn lazy to do anything other than stroll across Delmar and extol the virtues of the neighborhood tat emporium. But for this year's contest, we did some scientific shopping. Armed with a custom-tat concept that's been buzzing around the brainpan for two or three years -- a leering, semi-anatomically-correct heart framed by a horseshoe of black thorns -- we shopped three tat shops: Trader Bob's on Jefferson Avenue, Craig's Tattoos on Lemay Ferry Road and Iron Age. We tossed them the idea, then judged the three proposals. The best was Drew Arno's work at Iron Age; he took the concept and really made it fly, creating a face for the heart that was part leering joker, part glowering death's-head. This in front of a flaming background that could charbroil a Kansas City strip to perfection. Arno's design also walked the line between old-school flash and modern preferences for tribal and Asian influences. Clearly the boy got into the work.
Walgreens has drive-thrus for drugs, to make it more convenient for the stricken to get their medicine. So it makes sense that alcohol, a drug, should also be sold with equal convenience. The good news is, there are a number of great places to buy drink while driving. Compared with your average supermarket hassles -- aggressive parkers, runaway carts, weirdos in long lines, ambivalent cashiers -- the appropriately named Fly-By Liquors is a godsend: a regular liquor store with the added bonus of a drive-up window. Fly-By's outdoor menu board -- merely functional, not fancy and backlit -- features some of the most popular items and their prices (though any booze in the store is fair game). For the Friday-evening weary and worn, the standard six-pack of cans or bottles of Bud or Bud Light will run you around five dollars. If you feel like stepping out, the board also suggests Michelob, Tequiza and even Doc's Hard Lemon -- for the undecided yet discriminating palate.

No more opening your car door, crawling through the automatic doors and exposing yourself to bright florescence; simply drive up, ring a bell, pay the man and get your booze -- and an angel gets its wings. Life is good when you can pick up beer, Red Bull, vodka, smokes and ice barefoot and return to the crib, sit down and get lazy. Plus, there's never a line, a luxury always worth paying for.