Best Of 2005

James Mercer has earned his keep shining shoes downtown for the better part of the past quarter-century. At present he operates a chair in a small room on the ninth floor of the Chemical Building at Eighth and Olive, next door to Marilyn Massey's Downtown Barber Shop. Shining shoes is a tough racket these days, reports Mercer -- a consequence of the lethal combination of commercial sprawl and office workers' ever-increasing preference for casual footwear. "My business is providing for me from deadline to deadline -- and every weekend's a deadline," Mercer will tell you. Still, Mercer is one of the great local professionals in a great old profession. Erroneously viewed as menial, the art of the shine is just that: an art. Mercer also separates himself from the pack with his knowledge of the urban core. He's a downtown guy who can walk you through the mercurial neighborhood's unofficial street-level history over a soda and a burger at Dapper Dan's or Dooley's. He and his craft are survivors; long may they live.
Hand car washes are for special occasions (or men who love their cars even more than their lawns). Automated drive-through car washes are a quick fix in emergency situations. Wielding a hose at self-service bays is the most common method, and if most of the equipment works most of the time, we're relieved to not have lost ten quarters. Then there's the Neighborhood Car Wash, a sprawling, sparkling palace of automobile hygiene, where everything works if you let it. It's an extremely tidy establishment with scrub bays cleaner than some people's showers, vacuums that actually suck up dirt, and change machines that accept grubby bills. Within the complex are five self-service stalls with vacuums in the foyer, two Touchless drive-throughs and stand-alone vacuums off to the side for those who need to erase interior evidence, then dash away. All white and blue and breezy, the Neighborhood is like a water park for your car.
Duke, unofficial canine mascot of the RFT editorial offices and habitual problem child, hates a bath. So much so that the best way to wash him is to get in the shower with him and hold him between your legs while scrubbing him down. That was before Four Muddy Paws opened. This pet boutique equipped with self-service dog wash stations has everything required to make bath time a pleasant experience for pooch and human: freestanding washbasins at waist level (no more crouching on cold, wet bathroom tiles); handheld spray nozzles (complete water control!); an open-ended tub design so Duke can hop in of his own accord; salon-smelling shampoos and conditioners; collars attached to the tub wall to keep the Dukester in place. To all these and more Duke submitted willingly -- even the eye and ear wipes. (He did freak out when subjected to the blower at the drying station, but then again, Duke is afraid of staplers.) And all for the cost of a deluxe car wash ($12 to $16, depending on which pampering package you choose). Now if only Duke would quit peeing on the plants in the office lobby.
Klassic Cleaner is a humble affair in the basement of the Gateway One Building downtown, just a counter and a hanger pole. Counter attendant Chong (she prefers a one-name moniker) has a sixth sense when it comes to knowing that a customer has arrived and appears stage-left like a game show host. Klassic's been down here for sixteen years, and in that time they've gathered a loyal group of downtowners who swear by them. Bachelors especially should kiss up to Chong; she's got a mother's eye for split seams and stains, all of which she remedies without being asked. She's of the old school when it comes to dry cleaning, as well. Klassic removes buttons before cleaning to prevent breakage, and then re-sews them, good as new. A well-kept secret that deserves widespread recognition, the place has high standards and quick turnaround. If you spill coffee in the morning and you're willing to go topless until early afternoon, they can fix it.
Look to the right as you enter Keller Gun Works and admire the large stuffed bear. It's not merely a decoration. It's the original Build-a-Bear. Owner Jim Keller shot it himself. He'll tell you so, if you ask, his voice betraying no pride, just the slightest hint of amusement. Do you really think he would display someone else's kill in his store? That store, which Keller operates with his wife, Kathy, is not quite five years old, but Keller has been in the gun business for more than a quarter-century, and his experience and passion are evident in how readily, and expertly, he'll answer even the most naive question about his impressive stock of handguns, rifles, ammunition and accessories. But don't ask him whether he killed -- and please do not touch -- the bear.
Far too many pawnshops amount to little more than really terrible places to buy an engagement ring. First Cash, on the other hand, is a great place to do some casual shopping. A national chain with three St. Louis locations, First Cash's most popular (and best) store is its North Grand outlet. At times the line of customers is literally out the door, with folks queueing up for two-for-one television sets, mountain bikes, guitars, amps and, of course, bling. First Cash also stocks surprisingly high-quality DVDs for three bucks a pop. (We recently scored a Stripes, Last Waltz and Saved! trifecta.) But back to the window-shopping factor (actually, strike that -- the windows have bars over them): We never cease to be transfixed by the random assortment of industrial items, from air compressors to power tools to floor waxers. For four little C-notes, your floor can be the buffest on the block! With bargains like that, who needs eBay?
If the world did indeed live in the palatial estates and country manors favored as settings in the home-improvement shows and magazines, every one of us would shop at Beckmann Brothers for our landscape needs. Massive rocks suitable for the most rustic flagstones, neat phalanxes of hedges to ring our castles, soft carpets of gorgeous blooms stretching toward the horizon -- whatever our yardly need, we'd all find it at Beckmann's. Alas, some of us live in second-floor walkups, and so when we seek to beautify our little haven, we journey to -- yes, Beckmann Brothers. A broad selection of houseplants suitable for the most meager window box, a truly generous array of vegetable seedlings (or actual seeds, for those who like to start projects at the very beginning) and, most important, a knowledgeable staff capable of answering questions and suggesting perhaps a better plant for that indirectly lit window box frequented by marauding squirrels. Beckmann's offers the same high quality in quantities both epic in scope and modest in budget.
So, what's the longest you've waited for service at one of the big-box hardware stores? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? An hour? Only to find that the "sales associate" doesn't know the difference between a croissant and crescent wrench? Step into Southside Hardware, and you'll be hard-pressed to wait fifteen seconds before a member of the Ripper family offers assistance. With industry experience spanning 40 years and three generations, you're pretty much guaranteed the Rippers (Steve, Ed, Bill, Sean and Allison) will know what you're looking for. "We know we can't compete with the box stores' prices, so we try to make it up on the customer-service side," says patriarch Steve Ripper. To wit: The store offers free delivery, niche services such as weed-eater and lawn-mower repair, and small-town perks like staying open late the day your toilet does its best Old Faithful impression and you call the store frantic for a replacement valve. Try asking the same favor of the megastores. Then explain to the clerk the difference between a toilet valve and a toilet brush.
Long before St. Louis was first in shoes, first in booze and last in the American League, the Levine Hat Company was hawking hats downtown. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that customers are practically swaddled in service from the moment they step through the door and are handed a plastic head covering (for the more sanitary trying-on of hats). But the thing is, it's always surprising -- "customer service" having become as quaintly anachronistic as the black-and-white photos of hats' heyday that line the entry walls. No, maybe we aren't all strolling the streets of downtown or attending theater opening nights crowned with glory, but plenty of folks still wear hats, and here those hats are given deliberate respect. Racks and racks of chapeaux for men and women line the large space, with each topper individually displayed. Though questions are answered promptly and educated opinions as to height, style and suitability are offered with ease, no obsequious commission-grubber will stalk you through the store. Browse what may well be the biggest hat store in the world in peace, turning your head this way and that, practicing your best tough-guy snarl or curtsy to the queen. Don't see anything you like? Remember, these folks cut their teeth on the manufacture of fine headwear (though the industry has changed to the point where they now retail much more than they make), so tell them what you're looking for; it can probably be whipped up for you. Best of all, you can feel community-minded and shopping-savvy at the same time, as the prices at Levine Hat rival or beat anything you'll find online for quality brands from Stetson to Kangol. A close second to the bricks-and-mortar experience can be found at the store's Web site, where customers can differentiate homburgs from porkpies, learn hat etiquette (do you know when straw-hat season begins?), check hat sizing and more. The world looks different -- and better -- seen from beneath a hat.
Learning to talk would have been so much more fun if only we'd done it in Artmart's Frame Center. But it's not hard to picture (har!): Wandering up and down the aisles is a tremendous exercise in vocabulary and in adjective usage, from embossed to fresco to bas relief. "Biiiiiig," you think, running your hand over a 24-by-36 black matte frame. "Lit-tle," says the tinny voice in your head as you gaze upon a 3.5-by-5 photo frame. "Baroque," the lesson continues, after you spot a huge one that would only look at home in a palace. "Hillbilly!" when you stumble upon the yes, denim, frame. The prices vary widely here, but so does the selection. Artmart's framing experts, ever attentive without being obtrusive, will answer your questions and offer suggestions if you want "em. Some frames are available at marked-down prices. Like the $4 number that from one angle reads "Loves Me" and from another, "Loves Me Not." Heh! "Practical," our inner voice concludes as we stand in line to pay.