Union Station's wealth of Budweiser and Cardinals souvenirs make it a magnet for downtown tourists, but for the rest of us, not so much. Still, one store stands out from the mall schlock. Play and Learn is a toy store whose offerings are so virtuous that you find yourself wondering: Do kids actually like this stuff? Indeed they do. (Witness the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine, which has its own corner at Play and Learn.) The store devotes sizable and prominent floor space to brainy games and puzzles, especially those by ThinkFun, maker of the award-winning Gordian's Knot. For kids who begin every sentence with the imperative "pretend," Play and Learn has quality dolls and figurines, including Groovy Girls (the plain-faced alternative to Bratz), as well as a line of incredibly detailed animals and fantasy figures by the German company Schleich.
Lately we've enjoyed a comic-book renaissance. Not only has Hollywood figured out that funnybooks are a part of our cultural lexicon, but so have the so-called legitimate publishers, one of which had comic artist Chris Ware draw the new cover for Voltaire's Candide. It's nothing to see a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the history of the industry (Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) or an alternative newsweekly print a retelling of Stack Lee's murder of Billy Lyons in panels with word balloons. Star Clipper Comics is a glowing example of the rebirth of comics: Gone are the days of geeked-out, poorly lit, cramped retail spaces with the product stored in cardboard boxes. Star Clipper is big, bright and beautiful, and it offers a stupendous collection of ongoing titles you know (hey, did you know the Hulk was back? He's angry!), titles outside the Marvel/DC multiverse you didn't know were around (hey, did you know the Lone Ranger was back? Tonto too!), as well as books, T-shirts, toys, games and those manga books the kids seem to like. Star Clipper goes further, though, hosting hipster events like the St. Louis Munny show, where local artists decorated Munny robot dolls (they're big in Japan) and unveiled them at a party complete with drinks and DJ spin.
We're not old, dammit! The waistline on these pants is just deceptively high. But consarn it, when we need to go to the shopateria to purchase batteries for our hearing aids, the last thing we want is to have to weave our way through knots of droopy-drawered hooligans milling about aimlessly. Aimlessly, that's right! They never buy anything, just stand there blabbing into their tiny phones and bellowing lewd things at the ladies. Believe it or not, some women don't want to know that their "Badonkadonk gotta lotta jonk," whatever the blazes that means. (But if it means that girl should pull her pants up and put on a sweater, we agree.) Anyhoo. Now that St. Louis Mills and the Saint Louis Galleria have instituted age limits on the weekend hours, all those fears have faded like the memories of what we had for lunch yesterday. After 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, no one younger than sixteen is allowed into the Galleria unless they're accompanied by an adult and what fifteen-year-old wants to go to the mall with Dad? Now a Saturday-evening trip to the mall means nothing but quiet walking on those broad thoroughfares, and the only kids you see are fresh-faced, clean-cut young men and ladies, strolling along merrily with their parents or their grandparents, if you're lucky. Say, let's meet for milkshakes at Johnny Rockets and then look at cardigans.
It doesn't advertise much, and its gates are generally located out of sight, at the end of the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport terminal. The way most travelers find out about USA 3000 Airlines, it seems, is via good old-fashioned word o' mouth. In this case, they're words you wanna hear: "on time"; "no-hassle"; "funny flight attendants"; "cheap." The five-year-old carrier, owned by Apple Vacations, sells deeply discounted one-way tickets for direct flights from St. Louis to Cancn, Mexico; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, Florida. USA 3000 doesn't require Saturday-night stays, and fare changes clock in at only $50 (for domestic flights) and $100 (international). Instead of camping out in line for a good spot inside the airline's Airbus A320s, travelers can snatch up a seat assignment online for $5 if they so choose. What's more, last-minute deals abound on the USA 3000 Web site. With some more good chatter, perhaps demand will rise and USA 3000 could add St. Louis lift-offs to Los Cabos in Baja, Mexico; Chicago; and Bermuda.
It is, perhaps, the most memorable scene in the annals of American cinema: Steve Martin as Navin Johnson in the 1979 classic The Jerk, on a date in a fancy French restaurant, all hopped up on his newfound wealth. "Would monsieur care for another bottle of Château Latour?" the waiter inquires. Replies Navin: "Ah, yes, but no more 1966. Let's splurge! Bring us some fresh wine! The freshest you've got this year! No more of this old stuff." Walking into Corral Liquors is like that, only the other way around. See, most wine shops sell mostly the new stuff not so much by choice as because it's all that's available from the distributor. Corral, on the other hand, is rife with old stuff. For the wine lover, a trip to this unassuming boozemongery can be a journey back in time, to the late 1990s or early '00s. It wasn't planned that way. "It's just what happened," says Corral's wine buyer, Joe Billhartz, who came onboard in 1999. "It's more like: I brought it in at that time why the heck do I still have it?" We'll tell you why he still has it. He still has it because when people in the St. Louis area think wine, their next thought isn't Granite City. Plenty of folks cross Corral's threshold, but not a whole lot of them come for the wine. (A bunch of them probably come for the beer, a whopping array of malt beverages from around the globe.) That's why you, fellow wine drinker, can rustle yourself up a passel of late-1990s bottles at late 1990s prices. Our top find so far: the 1996 Montpeyroux from cult-fave winemaker Sylvain Fadat of Domaine D'Aupilhac, priced at $15. Ten years ago this was probably a tannic monster. It's still a burly bear of a wine, but that bear's wearing a silk smoking jacket. Of course, now that we've let the cab (ha!) out of the bag, Corral's back-stock might begin to dwindle. Fine by us. Billhartz is clearly a savvy wine buyer, his inventory of younger wines well worth a drive. Oh, and if you do go in search of the "old stuff," don't bother asking Billhartz for the Montpeyroux. Because, you see, we bought his last six bottles.
A great man once said that a great drinking city deserves a great liquor store. By that measure, our boozy little burg has traditionally registered somewhere shy of magnificent. Sure, St. Louis is home to some fine specialty shops and bars, but for years oenophiles and dipsomaniacs alike have had to schlep their beery frames out to the county if they were searching for anything more obscure than a bottle of Beaulieu or a fifth of Knob Creek. No more. With the arrival of Randall's Wine and Spirits, located just off I-44 east of Jefferson Avenue, city-dwellers with a hankering for a four-pack of white zin can rub elbows with folks on the hunt for a magnum of Château Margaux right in their own back yard. Liquormaster George Randall has outfitted this capacious shop with a fine selection of wine, beer and spirits, all priced to move. Randall, who also operates a liquor store on the east side (10800 Lincoln Trail, Fairview Heights, Illinois 62208; 618-394-9800), has even left himself room to grow: He's currently using only half of the space in his Jefferson Avenue warehouse; the other half is given over to specimens from his car collection. Rest assured that as St. Louis lumbers back toward greatness, it'll have a liquor store to match.
So there's more to drinking than happy hours and hangovers. Liquor, you've learned, is a universe far larger than Jäger a universe of tannins, acids, fruits and oak. You've realized, over the years, that winemaking is an endlessly fascinating process, crafted with one part art, one part science and now you, too, want to be a vintner. First stop: St. Louis Wine & Beermaking, a great little shop in Chesterfield that has all you'll need to get your bacchanal on. From simple winemaking kits to advanced reflectoquant meters and microscopes, the helpful staff will guide you each step of the way. You say beermaking's your bag? They've got that covered too, with a full complement of barley, malt and hops. Time to take your drinking to the next level.
Little Johnny has drawn his very first tree, a roiling smudge of green and brown, the watercolor still damp on the page. It is no Monet, but don't tell that to Johnny's mom. Bursting with pride over her budding artist's wondrous creation, she has come to Artmart to preserve forever this humble tree and no way is she's going to make do with the cheap ready-made stuff (though this fine emporium's got plenty of those). From the center of the cavernous shop, the young mother eyes a wall covered with a vast variety of elegant frame molding. She moves toward it, trailed by one of the store's many design consultants. "This one," she says, pointing. "What is it?" She is complimented on her taste. It is Roma molding, custom-crafted and imported from Italy. Roma it shall be (though she might have chosen something from Larson-Juhl, Studio Moulding or Nurre Caxton. On to the glass and again, no ordinary glass can it be for Johnny's tree. It must be Museum Glass, yes, with reflection control. The next day yep, the turnaround at Artmart's fast the mother returns to pick up the painting. The design consultant recalls her client's first impression: "It is a masterpiece!"
Online shopping often leads to a moral quandary: If I order books/DVDs/puppy sweaters online, am I depriving a local business of much-needed dollars? Is the convenience of buying music in my pajamas worth the slow-but-steady deterioration of my civic soul? It's enough to drive a person to drink (something you can also do while shopping online). Cheer up, everyone. When you shop at LaurieSolet.com one of the snazziest, chicest fashion sites out there your money goes to talented local girl Laurie Solet. The Web site is a digital reflection of Solet's fabulous Clayton boutique; like the physical store, the online space is eye-catching, easy to navigate and deliciously hip. Instead of forcing e-shoppers to scroll through pages and pages of disorganized thumbnails, Solet organizes her site in an extraordinarily user-friendly way. Want to shop by designer? Just click on the drop-down menu (and prepare for a drop-down jaw when you see that Solet carries lines by Ella Moss, Anna Corinna, T-Bags, Rebecca Taylor and others). Need a specific item? Shop by category and get as specific as earrings, clutches or "dressy pants." Or trust Solet's consummate sense of style and use our favorite browsing option: Shop by Trend. Do you want something "short and shifted"? "Cool and casual"? Perhaps... "sassy and sexy"? Whichever trend you choose, you'll be treated to a virtual fashion show of high-design wearables. Point, click and order something that'll dazzle the world because we all have to leave the house sometime.
Clint Lunn won't do more than one wedding per weekend. "Some florists do three, even four," he says. "I can't do that. The day's too important. If I'm your florist, yours is the only wedding I'm thinking about all weekend." Lunn's philosophy about weddings extends to everything he does at Pick Flower Gallery. Each flower is displayed with great care. Every glass vase gleams. A Pick arrangement defies the notion that flowers should be fussy and frilly; Lunn's less-is-so-much-more approach spotlights delicate orchids, elegant lilies and tropical blooms that blaze sunset-red. And these flowers are by no means for special occasions only. Nearly every day a chalkboard outside the Central West End shop describes specials: Gladiola bouquets, $10. Sunflower bouquets, $5. But if it is special-occasion flowers that you seek, you can't do better than Pick. Lunn, who designs stunning foyer arrangements for the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton (among other high-end locales), outlines a plan that fits each customer's aesthetic and budget, then executes it perfectly. Want a lush, English garden-style centerpiece? A minimalist arrangement, with curly willow and red anthurium reaching toward the ceiling? As long as the season is right, anything is possible. "I had a couple come in on a Monday and need flowers for their wedding the next Saturday," Lunn relates with a laugh. And did he do their flowers? "Of course," he says. "Of course."
Row upon row of Hooter Hiders. Tubes of Boob Tube bust cream and Tummy Toner toning lotion. No, you have not arrived at Hustler Hollywood, Larry Flynt's emporium of all things carnal (see "Best Adult Video Store"). You've landed at City Sprouts, theone-stop shop for our city's fashionable tots and their hipster folks. Here you'll find frilly onesies, lovingly folded and placed on cubbyhole display. You'll find booties ornamented with rockabilly flames and you'll find pint-size Vans. At City Sprouts the shirts are emblazoned with sharks and messenger bags do double duty with diapers. Books bear titles like Hot Mama: How to Have a Babe and Be a Babeand the toys are classy objets, well designed and made of wood. Of course, City Sprouts' brand of haute couture bébé will cost you. But your kid's worth it.