Best Of 2008

Here's an existential dilemma: Can a store be a store if it has no walls or regular business hours but has existed for 60 years, stocks 1 million items and regularly turns a profit of more than $250,000 (which it donates to charity)? The inspiration for this question was this year's Greater St. Louis Book Fair, held the first weekend in May. We truly intended to give our dilemma the important philosophical consideration it deserved, but then we caught sight of all those tables laden with piles and piles of books in more than 150 categories, covering everything from mathematics to the occult, and we got distracted. To be more accurate, we fell into a state of pure bibliophilic ecstasy. So many books! So many things we didn't know we were dying to read until we picked them up! So many of them priced at five bucks or less! To hell with existential dilemmas. Our time, we decided, would be better served browsing through the enormous stash of books we hauled home. The question has been tabled. (That is, until the fair returns next spring.)

It's a typical Tuesday afternoon downtown. Businessmen and -women are packing into the elevators of the skyscrapers, Cardinals fans are looking for a good bar to pass time before the game and just up Broadway, Pure Pleasure Adult Megacenter is getting its afternoon rush. Don't let the fact that you need to be buzzed into this adult video store concern you. It's the proverbial clean well-lighted place. As you enter, take time to admire the autographed pics of such porn celebs as Britney Rears and Crystal Gunns. The videos are in back, neatly organized by interest — She Male (Without Balls She's a Doll), Classics (Debbie Does Dallas), All Male, Red Light, Amateur, etc. — in terms of length and girth, the collection would impress even John Holmes himself. Not only that, but the prices suit just about any budget. Who knew you could buy porn in the shadow of downtown STL for just $2.95?

The booths in the Warson Woods Antique Gallery all have a curated look, unlike the usual hoi polloi hodgepodge of lesser antique malls. "Mall" really isn't a classy enough word for this place, or for the dealers here, whom you can sometimes glimpse as they replenish their stock — cardigans tied around shoulders, headache bands clamped in place, tennis whites spotless. (Just adding a quick silver service before dashing off for a hard serve at the Racquet Club.) Each booth seems styled to emanate a long-ago place. Upper Michigan Lake Cottage circa 1910, with chipping green wicker. Debutante Boudoir circa 1919, with apricot ostrich feathers. Cocktail Lounge circa 1928, with French art deco marble and wood bar. Hunting Lodge circa 1933, with pointer lithographs. It's a rare treat to drift along the aisles in a time-travel haze, coveting every single thing you see! You really don't have to search hard at all to find something you must have here. Which — strangely — takes away none of the treasure-hunting fun.

Some people, especially starving artists, would argue that the best place to buy art supplies is the cheapest place to buy art supplies, and that would be located far from Earth, online. But we argue that the best place to buy art supplies is the liveliest place — one that rouses us to make art. So instead of out into cyberspace, we're sending you to a modest strip mall on Manchester Road, where Red Lead peddles its charms and papers and glitters and stamps. You know you, too, could create the richly layered Artist Trading Cards displayed inside, if you only had the time and the right ingredients. A collage of right ingredients is all around you, carefully culled by artists/sisters/co-owners/pals Sharon and Chris. Time is your own problem. Though if the priceless inspiration of this wonderland can't make you take back a few hours for art's sake, you need either electroshock treatments or a new job.

There's a reason City Sprouts repeatedly wins this category: It's a store for which women will get knocked up just to open a registry. OK, maybe not. But we have heard of women sans children who've shamelessly purchased one of their diaper bags (some are fashioned from fabric reminiscent of coveted Japanese retro prints) to repurpose as a carry-all. It's a hipster oasis for the urban parent: teeny midcentury-modern children's furniture and über-Swedish highchairs that resemble sculpture. (Think the rich man's IKEA for kids.) City Sprouts sells the coolest prams and bassinets in the city and features top brands like Svan, Dwell Baby — not the abridged Target version, mind you — Orbit Baby, Small Paul and See Kai Run shoes. Baby gear of this stature doesn't come cheap, but where else in town can discerning parents purchase onesies emblazoned with Mr. T's likeness?

Gas prices are sky-high. The environment ain't doing so hot, either. Mesa Cycles feels our pain. "If you've got more people that ride, the better off everybody is going to be," says co-owner Adrienne Murphy. This is a serious cyclery, though, so come ready to ride. Prices start at around $370 and, depending on the level of customization, can be upward of $6,000, but Murphy says she guarantees these bikes will last longer than cheaper alternatives. Every employee is a rider, so expert advice comes standard. Besides offering customers a wide variety of bikes, accessories and components, the store also sponsors cycling events year-round and the Mesa Cycles Racing Team, which, according to the team blog, is "dedicated to fostering youth cycling development in the Midwest." The in-house service department repairs, overhauls and custom-builds bikes (among other services).

Allstar has been known in St. Louis since 2002 for its stellar tattoos, but the studio, located on Olive Boulevard not far east of I-170, also offers piercings at competitive prices. The shop is comfortingly spotless, the piercers friendly and willing to talk even the most nervous Nelly through the piercing process. The shop's motto is "Art for Life," and these folks really believe in it — even if it means talking you out of your decision to have your nose triple-pierced on a dare.

The Borders in Brentwood gave us quite a fright last spring, closing up for three months after a water main break ruined the first floor and café. Three months! Valentine's Day to Memorial Day is a long and gloomy stretch. It would have been such a comfort to idle away those long wintry Sundays curled up in one of the store's many leather armchairs with a pile of books and magazines, inhaling the intoxicating aromas of ink and paper and fresh-ground espresso beans. The Brentwood store's selection is unparalleled, even by its St. Louis-area siblings in Creve Coeur, Sunset Hills and SoCo. (We confess, we did spend a few lonely nights in the café of rival Barnes & Noble in Ladue. We couldn't help it: They were open, and they gallantly extended their hours. Also, their coffee is better.) But in mid-May, when Borders Brentwood unfurled its Grand Reopening banner, we raced back like the lovesick fool we are.

Writer Luc Sante likens looking around a room full of books to taking a journey; as your eye skips from title to title, images spring to mind and connections are made, snippets of data about the author bubble to the surface, times distant and long gone snap back to the present. It's one of life's greatest pleasures, walking into a bookstore and experiencing that frisson as the subsumed depths of your mind fire simultaneously, reminding you with a charge that your brain is a vaster realm than you sometimes credit. Scratch that — it's one of life's greatest pleasures walking in to Subterranean Books and experiencing those mental pyrotechnics, because this is a shop that caters to books and the people who love them. No ziggurats of one title loom on tables in the doorway, no racks of impulse buys, no movie tie-in toys, no cutouts of Dr. Phil hawking his latest "tome" occlude your sight. Owner Kelly von Plonski has re-created Subterranean in the past year, resetting the floor plan to better accommodate her belief that the greatest variety of titles on the broadest range of topics is the Tao of the bookstore. The upstairs is still an art gallery, but new shelves allow for a maximization of space so that expanded sections covering interior design, cooking and the DIY movement offer inspiration. The erotica has been moved to the front of the shop for ease of access, a now-close neighbor to shelves devoted to ritual magic, the Beats and an entire section devoted to Taschen Books' bizarre view of the world. Literature, one of the most evocative words in the English language, is the backbone of the store still, twin columns that run the length of the room. The journey of a thousand years begins here at Subterranean, as soon as you open your eyes.

HEY, MAN! Don't skip over this item! Femme, in French, means "woman." And Femme, in Maplewood, means the place you should be shopping for your woman, regularly. Femme stocks the racks with indie lines including Mixie, Free People, Tulle, Petit Pois, Chasen Sully, Voom and — OK, sounds like gibberish, yes, but you'll learn your woman's favorite label, quickly. For starters, she'll love the dresses, 'cause they're sassy and sophisticated, but also 'cause there's nothing more romantic than a guy who buys his gal-pal a pretty little number just for the hell of it. Can't go wrong with the blazers, either. Throw in some earrings and you're golden. New stuff arrives weekly, sometimes daily, and you can call for news of the latest shipment. After a while they call you. So, man, you get it? As Femme's front window puts it: "for the things you deserve." Like a very happy woman.

Mother-daughter duo Marie Brauer and Janey Thompson, the owner-operators of Berrybridge, only took over the shop this past December, but you'd swear they've been at it a decade. The women make an immediate and inviting impression: Come in, have a glass of wine, stay awhile. The racks are the bride's (or her mom's) to browse, with selections from quality designers including Romona Keveza and Matthew Christopher. Prices are all over the map — a pleasant discovery given the ritzy zip code. The only-one-bride-at-a-time house rule makes for a relaxed — and fun — shopping experience. (Don't forget to make an appointment.) And with Brauer and Thompson working as a team, one on clamp duty and the other taking extremely copious (helpful!) notes, it's impossible not to depart with a clear mental picture of a pretty girl in white, walking down an aisle.