Best Of 2009

Mermaid dresses no longer create a splash, and even A-lines don't always make the grade. A harried bride needs the gentle opinion of someone who's not Mom, and she'll get it at Bridal Connections, where the endearing "honey"s from the attendants are dropped as gently as petals down an aisle, and testimonials are tacked up here and there in the form of thank-you notes from dozens upon dozens of adoring brides. What the place lacks in frou-frou frills it more than makes up for in common-sense solutions. One of the dressing rooms is the size of a college dorm room and can accommodate several onlookers plus strollers; a ceiling fan whirs overhead. There's a rack with one-off bridesmaid dresses priced as low as $19.99. To-be brides can purchase a dress off the rack or order one that's brand-new. The shop also offers tuxedo rentals, wedding dress-preservation services and the gravity-defying, cheeseburger-concealing underthings known as Spanx. And though every shop in Florissant's Yac's Plaza is independently owned, Bridal Connections' neighbors just so happen to be a wedding-cake store and a photography studio.

Porn has become so entrenched in mainstream pop culture that it shouldn't surprise you to find that Romantix looks more like a Target or Walgreens than the back-alley smut peddler of generations past. The store has a brightly lighted and, uh, wide-open layout, and the staff is friendly but not intrusive. The video selection is back and to the left, neatly arranged into the major genres (all-girl, big-boob, anal) with separate sections for classics (the oeuvre of Little Oral Annie) and more contemporary trends (MILFs). As is industry standard, new releases can top $30, but a wide array of titles are available for $10 to $20. What's more, Romantix is conveniently located next door to the Penthouse Club, so if, um, circumstances put you in the mood for a grown-up flick, your horny of plenty is only steps away.

Alton has long been a magnet for area antique seekers, and Prairie Peddler owners Fred Dirk and Greg Levy have been drawing customers to their store for 30 years now. Last flood they finally had enough of inundation, so they moved to higher ground a few blocks away. Grain elevators no longer block out the sun; the new location is full of light. This makes the high quality of the merchandise much easier to see. The spacious rooms are arranged like sets, to best showcase the clean-lined eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American antiques the partners favor. Collectors of mid-century Modern shouldn't shop here: Anything savoring of the (early) twentieth century is relegated to the more folksy upstairs rooms. The Prairie Peddler really is an antique store. It's a good place to buy something truly nice for a fancy great aunt: There are plenty of small pieces such as tea dishes, barley-twist candlesticks and mourning samplers to accent the settees and Sheraton-style side tables. And if you're not in the market for spinets or salt-glazed crockery, that portrait of the gentleman with mutton-chop side-whiskers might just add some ancestral panache to your home.

Sometimes appearances do lie. You may look like a dull old cubicle jockey, but inside you are an artist! If Picasso had been forced to work exclusively in PowerPoint, he woulda been no great shakes, either. So you head out to Artmart, with its endless rows of brushes and canvases and tubes of paint and helpful salespeople who can explain the difference between cadmium red and alizarin crimson. But, oh, look, there are comic-book boards! And a tie-dye kit! (Varicolored socks are an excellent way to display your artistic vision.) Perhaps your true medium is scrapbooking? Or gift-wrapping? Or acrylic gel transfer? The Artmart staff does do free demonstrations and hand out helpful how-to guides.... With the area's widest selection of the finest art supplies to choose from, you know you'd be a genius at whatever you took up. But what to try first? It's such a conundrum. Perhaps you'd better retreat to the book section and curl up in one of the big, comfy leather chairs and take stock before you commit. Your newly purchased Moleskine notebook displays your seriousness of purpose. But which of the hundreds of pens is worthy of recording your noble thoughts? Good Lord, you're going to be here all day.

If you are not overwhelmed (OK, terrified) at the concept of having your first baby, have someone check your pulse to make sure you're alive. Walking into a baby superstore does not help the situation. With so many products to choose from, how can the expectant parent zero in on what to get? That's why it's so nice to walk into a store such as Cotton Babies. A staff member will happily give you a tour, which thankfully won't cause a third-trimester mom-to-be to run short of breath. You'll be introduced to a wide array of strollers, clothes, carriers, diapers, bottles, pumps and more. True to its name, Cotton Babies does have a bit of an agenda: The store makes and sells its own brand of cloth diapers. But you'll be surprised how nonthreatening they make cloth sound — these ain't your parents' stick-a-pin-in-and-pray-you-don't-draw-blood diapers, and you can even get flushable liners. Cotton Babies offers classes for parents-to-be and newbie moms and/or dads and can accommodate a baby registry. (Maybe Aunt Millie'll spring for one of those sweet Bugaboo strollers!)

Most folks can't ride their bikes to St. Louis Bicycle Co., but its location in far west county is worth the trip in the ol' gas guzzler. This inviting bike shop carries three cult-favorite brands — Scott, Jamis and Independent Fabrication — as well as all manner of accoutrements. What really sets St. Louis Bicycle Co. apart, though, is the service. You won't encounter any cooler-than-thou attitudes here. Even the novice cyclist's questions will be answered in a friendly and uncondescending way. Plus, if you buy a bike, the shop throws in two years' of free tune-ups.

We all know about the various bodily regions where a human being can have an extra hole poked, and "Best of" issues past have explored the various area emporia where such procedures are offered. So forgive us if we go a little off-road here. Of all the rites of passage in a young girl's life, few are as special — or involve such a small degree of humiliation — as getting her ears pierced for the first time. Though her later piercings may occur in edgy and "artistic" urban tattoo studios and involve noses or belly buttons or super-large holes, odds are that first piercing will have occurred at a mall, with her mom, under the girly pink auspices of Claire's. It's OK, you can admit it. We won't judge. Claire's website boasts that the company has been responsible for 80 million piercings, and we're not going to argue. That ought to qualify a visit there as an archetypal American experience. It's also free. Free! (With the purchase of a pair of earrings and a bottle of disinfectant. That sort of subtle upselling is also part of the archetypal American experience, but if you're still on an allowance budget, there are decent posts to be had for less than twenty bucks.) And, as a generation of girls could tell you, it doesn't hurt. Much.

The best bookstores have a certain feel when you walk in. There's a particular hush in the air, one that really only seems to exist in bookstores and libraries, and you can immediately feel it. Barnes & Noble's got that hush, that almost sacred calm, and it's really no wonder most devoted bibliophiles swear by the giant. Virtually all the local locations are good, but the Crestwood location lauded here boasts the best atmosphere of them all. Staffers are helpful and truly know their stuff, the selection is second to none, the furniture is comfy and worn, and even the café is topnotch. There's a reason Barnes & Noble continues to thrive in an age when books are going the way of the dodo: They get it.

The "people don't read anymore" trope dates back to about a week after the advent of publishing, and today humanity publishes more books per annum than in all recorded history. People read. Or at least, people make books, and people buy books. Book retail has always been the eccentric nephew of the retail world. That's wrong. Left Bank Books proves it. In the past year, this highly regarded fixture of the nation's independent-bookstore landscape opened a location downtown to complement the Central West End base of operations. People buy books, and people in this city buy books from Left Bank. The downtown store is crisp and inviting, with spotless concrete floors and exposed ductwork invoking the lofts it neighbors. It's flooded with light from outside but somehow remains flawlessly peaceful within. The blond bookcases are stacked with everything from guides and photo tomes to cookbooks and thrillers and, yes, Literature-with-a-capital-L — in essence, everything a full-service indie bookstore should offer. Comfortable chairs too! One is tempted to compare and contrast the new place with the old (here used books are upstairs instead of downstairs, the floor is open and roomy instead of sectioned and carpeted), but that does the whole enterprise a tasteless disservice, akin to comparing siblings.

You had a clunker; you got some cash. Good for you. Only problem is you didn't really get enough cash. Now, you have this great new car — and a big ol' car payment. You want to keep the new ride looking nice and squeaky clean, but you can't drop $25 every week on a wash. Seeing as how there probably won't be a Cash for Car Washes program, you need to head to Crystal Clear Wash. This see-through (the sides are clear), drive-through car wash is conveniently open seven days a week, and it gets your vehicle shining in a hurry — for just $6. (You can, of course, bump up the cleaning power to the $9 or $12 level.) Those prices are certainly right, and if you keep up with your punch card, your tenth wash is free. Plus, at Crystal Clear you get to stay in your car, like you used to do years ago, and watch it get swallowed up by high-power spray and the various sponge-like things — you know, the horizontal roller brush, the vertical shaking thingies, all of your favorite tools to wash away the week's grime. It's just too bad you can't scrub down the ol' car payment here.