The origins of the Sam Light Loan & Mercantile Co. are a little murky. The sign painted on the outside wall reads, "50 years at this location," but that's outdated by a decade, and the Light family's involvement in the pawn trade goes back even further. Sam Light, a Russian emigré, started business as a tailor when he came to St. Louis in the 1920s. In the early '30s a pawnbroker friend encouraged Light to start making loans to his customers -- it was the Depression, after all. By 1943, when Light moved the store to its current location at the corner of Olive Street and Jefferson Avenue, the tailoring business was gone. Light's grandson, Ronnie Light, is the third-generation proprietor of this classic downtown pawn shop (and of the family's second store in Maplewood), overseeing an extensive selection of cheap, cheap, cheap electronics, jewelry, sporting goods, records and assorted uncategorizables.
If you've attended an opening at the Elliot Smith gallery, dined at Remy's or Big Sky or wandered through one of the hipper establishments in downtown's loft-district oasis of chic, you've seen Greg Swenson's work. Swenson grew up in Champaign-Urbana and studied illustration in Chicago before moving back, broke, to central Illinois. A few days before Mother's Day, out of a job and in need of money, he stopped in at a mom-and-pop florist and offered to sweep the floors. "The guy liked what he saw and decided he could utilize my art background," Swenson says. "I learned the old-school way of doing things, saw a lot of the old styles from the '40s, the '50s." That was nineteen years ago. For the past half-decade, Swenson, who moved here in the early '90s, has toiled at Ladue Florist. While his colleagues continue in the old-school vein, Swenson's style has veered toward the cutting edge. To those accustomed to traditional floral arrangements, his work will come as a revelation. His creations are sculptural in nature, often involving branches he lashes together to form a three-dimensional armature in which he arranges flowers and greenery. The result is always unique, the effect stunning. "It's mostly letting the flowers tell you what you're doing," Swenson explains, plying his craft with the most basic of tools -- a folding knife, a pair of scissors, a pruner, his bare hands. "Not twelve roses sitting in a vase that you're expecting to see. Inspiration comes from driving down the road and seeing a vine climbing up a fence and thinking: How can I show that to somebody? You're going to notice the colors, the shapes, how they're massed together." He also likes to get a sense for the recipient's personality, so be prepared to open up if you call with an order. It only makes sense: Your relationship with your florist is a pretty personal deal. "You get to know a lot of things about your clients," Swenson confirms. "You hear about all their triumphs, and when they fight. The bad stuff too -- who's double-timing on their wife. When somebody dies, you help them through that too."
9776 Clayton Road, St. Louis
Botanicals on the Park is the place to buy grown-up gifts for people who don't equate stylish housewares with matching Big Gulp cups, don't think a plastic grocery bag is the best carrier for picnic supplies and don't snatch their salt and pepper shakers from fast-food restaurants. Botanicals stocks martini sets and shakers, handmade Romanian wine glasses, beaded wine covers, napkin rings, decorative pillows, stylish nightlights, scented candles, pretty soaps and, yes, salt and pepper shakers -- but ones that are shaped like fish. They're also well-known for holiday-themed gifts: St. Patty's Day shamrocks, collectible Santas and miniature haunted houses. With such a wide gift selection, there's something for every budget. The store also has a respectable gift-card selection, as well as a florist. As we overheard one store customer say during a recent excursion, "They sure got everything."
After an exhaustive online and real-world scouring of music stores, as well as a small, informal poll of local musicians, the year's search for the Best Musical Instrument Store yielded the Ron Busch Guitar Studio, which won last year's Best Place to Stretch Your Musical Dollar award. It all makes sense when you examine the facts: You don't have a million-selling album but you do need a dependable guitar that matches your unique musical stylings (acid noisecore), and maybe a nice amp for the "practice space" (a.k.a. your mother's basement). Ron Busch has a ton of mildly used guitars ranging from the downright cheap (Samick, anyone?) to the pricey (the finer Gibsons), and in between are a big fat bell curve of Kramers, Jacksons and Ibanezes to arm this city's working bands. Despite the ritzy Clayton digs, Ron Busch Guitar Studio is the workingman's shop for guitars, effects, amps and oddball keyboards. Remember to put Ron in the liner notes of your platinum album.
With hundreds of titles and the most eclectic assortment of magazines in the St. Louis area, World News easily eclipses any other news peddler in town. Tired of the local daily seed catalogue? World News stocks more than a dozen American Sunday newspapers, plus daily editions of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Weary of U.S. press? World News offers a diverse selection of foreign publications, ranging from the Times of London and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to Al-Ahram and La Gazzetta dello Sport. Its biggest appeal: A deep selection of specialty titles, including gardening and home-improvement publications, magazines about art and photography, politics, collectibles and some out-of-town city magazines. Where else will you find the latest editions of Buddhadharma (a quarterly guide for Zen practitioners), Asian Hotties and the Psychoanalytical Review? World News is located in the heart of Clayton's commercial center; there's also a smaller satellite location at West Port Plaza.
World News Ltd.
4 S. Central Ave., Clayton
Don't misunderstand us: A-1 Books is a legitimate used book store, wherein yesterday's bestsellers mingle with the usual coffee-table books about the Civil War and whatnot. But there's also an "adult" side to the store that, we imagine, pays most of the bills. And there you'll find, amid all the generically athletic neo-smut, an exhaustive archive of the postwar male American id as catalogued and promoted by one Hugh Hefner. A-1's vintage Playboy collection is, well, A-1. It goes all the way back to 1954 (an issue from that year will set you back $600). Early '70s editions go for a more reasonable $20 or so. The collection, which dates back to the store's early days in the skin-mag trade, draws aficionados from all over the nation. "Once or twice a year, somebody will come in from out of town," confirms manager Bryan Webber, clearly unimpressed. "Usually we find out they're sellers on eBay or something."
It's tempting to recommend Euclid Records, which consolidated its two locations into one grand Webster Groves store this past year; the result is a very nice store for the record geek. But, ultimately, Vintage Vinyl reigns supreme -- and it has actually gotten better in the past year with new releases and collector-type merchandise. In a world where any release is available with the click of a mouse, Vintage Vinyl is, and has been since its inception nearly 25 years ago, the go-to place for both the music fanatic and faddist alike. The jerks who work here aren't as jerky as they used to be, and collectively these few dozen know as much about music as all the combined academics at the city's universities. Ask for an opinion at Vintage Vinyl, and you'll get one and more.
6610 Delmar Blvd., University City
Delmar/ The Loop
For the true record hound, there is nothing like walking into a record store and inhaling the unmistakable smell of aged vinyl. A heady blend of countless basements, peach crates, dorm rooms, over-the-garage-apartments, wood-paneled dens, living rooms, sensimilla residue and human hands, long-play records carry the aroma of past lives, late nights and lonely hearts within their grooves. Euclid Records' new location is the Amsterdam for vinyl junkies: Row after row of perfectly aged LPs from the entire spectrum of recorded sound unfold in all directions. Sure, a front corner of the room is reserved for the rich man's 8-track (or "compact disc," if you will), but when faced with the choice between an aluminum simulacrum of Big Black's Headache EP and a slightly scuffed radio-station copy of the real thing, with the play list card still attached to the jacket (denoting six plays the first week, two the next and then never again), only a damn fool would shell out for a fake when it's a mere $8 for a piece of history. Right now, today, Euclid Records is the finest source for vinyl in town: When they open their still-under-construction 45 room, they will become the ultimate record store on the eastern side of the state. Oh, happy day.
601 E. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
Year in, year out, same thing. Vintage Vinyl on Delmar rules this category. And with good reason -- the store may not have as many used CDs as other stores, but what they have counts. The staff won't take just anything, and while that may suck when you're trying to get beer money out of your Kenny Rogers CDs, it pays off when you have a Saturday afternoon to spend sifting through the racks. Much of your work has already been done for you. You're not going to find multiple copies of mid-'90s Sonic Youth or the Beatles BBC sessions that everybody bought, got tired of and sold back. What you do find will be worth your time. But you'd better get it when you see it. Chances are, if you let it sit till tomorrow, it'll be gone. If you have the time, flip through the $4.99 rack near the front for unexpected treasures.
6610 Delmar Blvd., University City
Delmar/ The Loop
News flash: There are no awesome video stores in St. Louis. None. Zippo. Zilch. Sure, there are the Lackluster and Hollywood chains, plus the promising Farrago cine-café on Washington Avenue. But if you're talking bang for the buck, how can you beat free movies for a whole week? That's the deal at the Schlafly. New releases do not carry the day at this ultra-comfy, stylish CWE biblio outpost. Instead, the selection's mostly a smorgasbord of oldies but goodies from the last quarter-century. That includes John Candy comedies and Richard Gere romances -- for many, just the kind of easily digestible entertainment a veg-out night mandates -- but also top-tier commercial movies like Pleasantville and High Fidelity. Always wanted to see Network but never felt it worth the $4 risk? Thanks to Schlafly, such concerns are rendered moot. Even if it takes you eight days to return it, the monetary punishment for lateness is a buck a day. Next time you're in the mood for a Friday-night nesting session, make it a Schlafly night -- beer optional.
You're feeling surly about W.'s wars. You've got a hankering to indulge your inner Otto Dix and show folks the brutality of it all. Alas, you're out of phthalo green to create that perfect putrescence effect. And some alizarin crimson sure would help bloody things up. Of course, Otto, you could run to one of those hobby-shop chains -- many stock oil paints and other supplies. But you're a great artist, so you jump on your scooter and race to Artmart, where you know you'll find what you need. Once you step inside, it'll be hard to stay surly; for artists and would-be artists, Artmart is the ultimate candy store, offering a mind-numbing selection. We counted more than three dozen straight-edges and T-squares. We couldn't count high enough to take inventory of the canvases, sketch pads, paints, pens, pencils and brushes. Plus, we got distracted: Artmart also has a large section devoted to kids, where we dawdled around the finger paints, stickers, hobby kits, paint-by-number sets and the Kooky Krayon Machine. Keep in mind, Otto, that when your masterpiece is complete, Artmart offers a framing department and a large selection of pre-cut frames. And if you're a student, you qualify for a discount.