Best Of 2004

After you've strolled through the inauspicious storefront doorway and up a flight of stairs into Ron Busch's Guitar Studio, the sheer square footage devoted to guitars, amps and assorted other musical paraphernalia can feel intimidating. You heard about this place through one of its charmingly bad local TV advertisements, but you wonder where to begin. Just then you're greeted by the mustachioed guy from the ad, Ron Busch himself. Now you start to feel a little more at ease. He seems to be able to tell by your black T-shirt, jeans and haircut that you're looking for an electric guitar (preferably one that sounds good distorted). Busch offers you a Les Paul clone. You try it but don't like it -- it's hard to play because the neck is too thick. Busch sees the problem and brings you a black-and-white Fender Telecaster, with which you immediately fall in love...until you see the price tag. But then Busch pitches what seems to be an unreal deal, and throws in an amp, a case and a strap. You walk out of Ron Busch Guitar Studio with a guitar in your hand and a spring in your step.
Praise be: The Lou's most superlative gift shop does not rely on overpriced glass beads, creepy animal tchotchkes or T-shirts you can't wear around Grandma. Catholic Supply of St. Louis has a more divine mission, but it's open to saints and sinners alike (no alarm sounded when we walked in the door, at least). Sure, this cavernous south-city shop is a wonderland for those who're tight with J.P. II, but even non-Catholics can appreciate the aesthetics of an ornate, orthodox prayer box or a pressed-tin nativity scene. We also love this giftery for its vast supply of the downright odd: Check out the Jesus Sports Statues, which depict the robe-and-sandaled Son of God (along with a couple of totally unfazed youngsters) on the football field, the basketball court, even the slopes. And there's a patron saint for everything (jugglers, hardware stores, disappointing children), plus books for everyone from the toddler set (God Made Puppies) to the intelligentsia (Tolstoy's Walk in the Light and 23 Tales). Keep an open mind: Learn something about your own religion, or just get a better handle on others'. Either way, happy hunting!
"Nature doesn't grow in fabric colors," says Catherine Thoele, manager at Kirkwood Florist. "We always say, 'Don't get all matchy!'" You ought to listen to her, plaid couch be damned. Thoele has been in the floral industry for more than 30 years and holds a degree in art history, not to mention experience in architecture and drafting. Plus, she's accredited by the American Institute of Floral Designers -- something only 1,200 people worldwide can say. She views her work as botanical media: Other artists use clay or watercolor; she uses nature. A master of turning clients' floral dreams into a beautiful reality, she acknowledges that emotion is what drives every sale. It's also what accounts for phone calls from frantic brides asking her advice on how many tiers should be on their wedding cake. "The energy you can produce from these buckets is truly an art form," Thoele says, her enthusiasm as bright as the gladiolas and asters that surround her. "A lot of people don't like carnations, but I mean, look at these colors!"
You have not heard Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" until you've cranked it on Music for Pleasure's $30,000 system. Holy crap! It's as though the late crooner is not only alive and in the room but inside your head, channeling Leonard Cohen lyrics into your ear from the backside. You not only hear Jeff Buckley breathe again, but he possesses you. When he stretches to hit the perfect note, the sound doesn't bend, doesn't fall an iota short of delivering: We're talking pulsating viscera, right there, emanating from speakers. The system -- a Krell amplifier, T+A components and Dynaudio speakers -- is a sturdy mahogany chapel within which the music resides. In much the same fashion, Music for Pleasure itself is a chapel to sound. The high-end retailer occupies a former Webster Groves residence at the corner of Shrewsbury Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard. They sell way-way high-end gear for men (face it, audiophilia is a uniquely male endeavor) with fat wallets and hungry ears. Cheap stuff here will set you back, like, a grand. You wanna go top-end? Try 50 times that. It's pretty cool inside, less a retail shop than a home with the Most Supremest Rockingest Kick-Assingest Sound Systems Ever. The individual rooms are intact, and within each MfP audio experts have constructed perfect ambient atmospheres. Sit on the couch and a gale-force wind blasts music through your body. "Hallelujah."
After you've strolled through the inauspicious storefront doorway and up a flight of stairs into Ron Busch's Guitar Studio, the sheer square footage devoted to guitars, amps and assorted other musical paraphernalia can feel intimidating. You heard about this place through one of its charmingly bad local TV advertisements, but you wonder where to begin. Just then you're greeted by the mustachioed guy from the ad, Ron Busch himself. Now you start to feel a little more at ease. He seems to be able to tell by your black T-shirt, jeans and haircut that you're looking for an electric guitar (preferably one that sounds good distorted). Busch offers you a Les Paul clone. You try it but don't like it -- it's hard to play because the neck is too thick. Busch sees the problem and brings you a black-and-white Fender Telecaster, with which you immediately fall in love...until you see the price tag. But then Busch pitches what seems to be an unreal deal, and throws in an amp, a case and a strap. You walk out of Ron Busch Guitar Studio with a guitar in your hand and a spring in your step.
Whether you're Joe (or Jolene) Sixpack or a discriminating consumer of fine spirits, you owe yourself a little trip across the river to Corral Liquors in Granite City. What the wizened steel town of Granite City lacks in genteel refinements it makes up for in character. Hunkered on the town's main drag is Corral Liquors, one marvelous mother of a booze emporium. The exterior looks about as enticing as your average auto-parts shed, but step inside and prepare to be blown away by a jaw-dropping selection of wine, beer and spirits. Like whiskey? Corral's shelves groan under the weight of beaucoup brands both esoteric and familiar. Single-malt Scotch connoisseurs will find themselves in hooch heaven here. The beer section is flat-out astounding, with scores of international brews on offer that you can purchase by the individual bottle -- sample away, it's fun! -- or the six-pack. You won't find Old Jock Ale (from Scotland) at Schnucks or Dierbergs, but Corral will hook you up.
Knowledge of wine carries either an air or odor of distinction: Just enough savvy and you're a great date. Lengthy diatribes on the merits of Italian reds and you're a pretentious jerk. "This is not as in-your-face," says co-owner Mike Gray, describing a chardonnay to a customer. "It's simple. Elegant." Funny, that's exactly the way we'd describe Grapevine Wines & Cheese. The handsomely displayed wooden crates and rows of wine aren't too much for the eyes to soak in or too much for the pocketbook to comprehend. A cheaper domestic looks just as stately as its neighbor, a pricier foreign selection. Let this be a comfort to you who throw a bottle of Beaujolais into the grocery cart because it's on sale but couldn't dream how to pronounce it. The staff will not blow you off in favor of an oenophile with a fat wallet and a European accent. Instead they'll sing the praises of a bottle they'll be cracking open this weekend themselves. And if you stop in for one of Grapevine's wine tastings, you can take some vino for a test sip. Chances are it'll turn out to be exactly what you wanted: the khaki pants of wine -- affordable and goes with everything.
In a city that has a fair number of good book stores, especially of the used variety, it's hard to single out just one for recognition. This year an old favorite, Left Bank Books, rises to the top of the stack. The store's combination of up-to-the minute new offerings upstairs and gently worn treasures in the basement is a book lover's afternoon (or evening) delight. What truly sets Left Bank apart, though, are the details. The employee recommendations rarely disappoint and usually introduce even the most informed reader to books that have slipped through the cracks. Left Bank's author readings/signings are always worth the trip. (Bonus treat: Many of the discussions carry over into neighborhood bars after the signing is over, giving bibliophiles and autograph hounds a chance to connect with the writers in an even less formal setting.) The store is also a strong supporter of reading groups, hosting four itself and supplying books to a few dozen more. Left Bank celebrated its 35th birthday this summer, and it seems to be improving with age.
Given our druthers, we'd rather read than do most anything. We pore over books at cafés (witness the coffee-stained pages); we wake in the morning with half-read novels splayed on our bed. We read passages aloud to one another, because some writing is just too good not to share. And we think that Heaven probably looks a lot like Dunaway Books. Sure, we all love the satisfying spine-crack of a brand-new book, but there's also something to be said for used books, and that something is "yes, please!" Dunaway satisfies our literary lust with more than 80,000 titles, many of them long out of print. (Our most recent haul included a hard-to-find Philip Roth novel, a collection of popular '60s graffiti and a thick tome on the wherefores of exorcism.) The employees at Dunaway keep their bounty of books in impeccable order -- most likely because they have a lot of respect for what they sell. While many used book stores seem to employ the same organizational aesthetic as your crazy uncle's attic, Dunaway has three glorious levels of super-sensibly arranged books, and we love them all. Philosophy! Lingustics! Cookbooks! Absolutely badass home-design books from the 1970s! Book lovers, prepare to spend the good part of a day shuffling happily along Dunaway's hardwood floors, finding treasure after treasure.
You could have spent a week at A. Amitin's now-closed Washington Avenue bookatorium. You could do it on purpose, browsing World Book Encyclopedia sets from the Eisenhower era, going through stacks of black-and-white porn magazines or finding a first edition of a Gide novel in the original French (sans cover). You could also do it against your will, getting lost in one of the poorly lit sub-basements and having a giant stack of obsolete medical textbooks fall on your head and knock you out. After the store finally shut down in October 2003, the half-million or so books were quickly cleared out. Owner Larry Amitin kept some and donated some to Larry Rice. But the rest are stored in the old Globe-Democrat building downtown and will soon be back on the market. "Amitin's is not gone, it's nestled in the bottom of the earth, ready to erupt again," imparts the certifiably affable Chesterfield claims adjuster, who says he will soon start selling tomes by appointment only (inquire at [email protected]). In his free time since shuttering his legendary independent store -- founded in 1932 -- Amitin is penning what he describes as "a fantasy novel about the future of bookstores. I don't call it St. Louis but I call it 'Midwest City.' If Michael Moore ever sees this thing, he's probably going to have ten orgasms."
You're the kind of person who walks into a bookstore and immediately says to yourself, "Aaack! Books! Where the heck are the magazines?" So why bother going to bookstores at all? Stick to World News Ltd., a store that takes the world's glossy and newsprinted pages very, very seriously. World News doesn't just carry Vogue, the place carries the American, British, Spanish, French and Italian versions of Vogue. Everything from highly intellectual -- three different chess magazines! -- to anti-intellectual -- SPLAT ("The paintball magazine")! -- is represented. There's something here up everyone's alley. Not interested in Velvet Park ("Dyke Culture in Bloom")? Try The Ride ("East Coast Bike Culture" -- as in ten-speed). We're talking 2,000 magazine titles in all, plus 25 foreign newspapers (including Le Figaro and the Prague Post). Keep in mind that while all that highbrow shit's nice, it takes the foreign tabloids to ask the deep questions -- like: "J. Lo ¿Embarazada?"