Best Of 2012

The brilliant turquoise enamel siding of this downtown Alton institution will hit your eyes like the lights of heaven after you've been shot with one of the snub-nosed pistols for sale inside this gun and pawn emporium. Of course, before you walk away with one of the firearms for sale here, owner Mike Byrd will have to run a background check on you through the Illinois State Police to confirm you're not some kind of psychopath. That they know of. Yet. In the meantime, look at some of the unusual pawned items Byrd has for sale (such as the Princess Di commemorative coins) or all the stuffed animal heads on the walls. There are plenty of those, some so old the glass eyes have cataracts. Byrd's dad opened the shop back in '69, the year a car accident kept him in a coma for three months. (The good news is it kept him from being shipped off to Vietnam.) While you continue waiting for that background check (it will take at least 24 hours to make your purchase — 72 hours if you're buying a pistol), ask Byrd his thoughts on the Second Amendment and Chicago politicians. Your records will arrive long before he's finished talking.

When it comes to used record stores, there are the depressing ones — full of major-label failures and Pablo Cruise cardboard cutouts, veritable museums of broken dreams and dashed hopes. Then there are the inspiring ones: the stores where you're guaranteed to new and exciting sounds, even (especially) if you don't have a specific purchase in mind. St. Louis is fortunate to have one of the inspiring ones in the Record Exchange. Housed in a former St. Louis Public Library building, this Hampton Avenue institution is overwhelming no matter how often you stop by. Not only home to millions of CDs, vinyl albums and singles, it also has VHS tapes, DVDs, used musical instruments, old stereos and tape decks. Put aside at least a few hours. You'll need them.

Feeling creative? (Or at least inspired enough to rip off that idea you saw on Pinterest?) Artmart has the tools and supplies for any and every project. The 25,000-square-foot building houses a vast array of craft and gift items, but its smart, organized layout isn't daunting. Don't know where to start? Check out a free in-store demonstration, held two to three times a month. For the more committed artist, single-session or multi-session fine-arts classes allow anyone to be Picasso or Monet for a day. Artmart's classes are designed for preschoolers to adults and every age in between. The store also hosts birthday parties, family painting sessions and an open studio for kids. Unlike most art stores, the paper selection features more than 800 varieties from around the globe. The impressive inventory of card stock and envelopes is perfect for DIY invitations and notes. Before heading home, visit the framing center for ready-made or custom frames to display your work of art.

Sure, you could have your child's birthday party at any number of bounce-house emporia or arcade-themed chain restaurants. But how about something different, distinctive and very St. Louis-centric in nature? A local tradition since 1963, Bob Kramer and cohort Dug Feltch have performed with his cast of puppets all over the city, nationally and even in Eastern Europe. Kramer and Feltch will bring their cast of caterpillars, bees, ostriches and other random puppets to your venue of choice and make your young one part of the show. Better yet, they'll rent you their comfortably ramshackle studio in the Central West End and even provide themed cupcakes. All this costs less than what you'd pay for the nearest paintball palace or tearoom, and your kid will leave feeling like a star.

Like record stores and book shops, comic book stores have an unfortunate (and slightly overblown) reputation for being elitist and intimidating. Yet the best of these stores function not only as retail businesses, but as valuable, welcoming gathering spots. Star Clipper certainly falls into that latter category. Its selection of comics and graphic novels is as deep and diverse as you'd want, and the staff is friendly and helpful. Its selection of toys and pop-cultural ephemera ranges from Sanrio to anime. There are monthly events featuring area artists and release parties for major new issues. Long live print!

Sugar Magnolia Boutique may sound sweet and Southern, but don't be fooled by the name. The boutique is a one-stop shop for intimates, lingerie and burlesque items. Sugar Magnolia proudly carries items in sizes that the average mall store lacks, with bra cup sizes from AA to H and bands from 30 to 50. For women looking for just the right fit, personalized, private bra fittings are available by appointment. Beyond bras, the boutique is filled with panties, shapers, hosiery and lingerie. Styles run the gamut, with materials ranging from lace to silk and looks that are racy and romantic. Many items are creatively displayed in drawers, so it feels like browsing through a friend's closet. The boutique isn't the place for average undergarments, carrying international designers that bring a fresh, flirty perspective to lingerie.

A fortuneteller booth called "Earl's Mistic [sic] Eyes" run by a woman of that unlikely name, raises this flea market above all others. Earl puts a lot of thought into her outfits, and all that thought is all the way kooky. Witnessed looks have been: purple velour caftan paired with an amethyst medallion hanging over her forehead like a third eye; bubblegum colored pajamas accessorized with a large lollipop and mob cap; long black cape, aluminum eye shadow, curlicued eyeliner and black claw gauged earrings. Earl is good at auguring, too: Despite the outrageous costumes and Shaolin Temple gimcrackery decorating her space, the advice she gives is down-to-earth. "Sure, passion makes you feel alive," she intones, "But so does sticking your finger into an electrical socket. Take your head out of your ass and grow up." The rest of the flea market — all 130-plus vendors who set up shop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, has storage lockers full of bargains for sale like "Bottle Caps" (ball caps with real bottle openers in the visors), Tinkerbell belly-button charms and power tools. Lots of power tools.

For 31 years Frew's Bridal occupied a bland boxlike space in a nondescript strip mall on Alton's outer parkway. This year the shop relocated to a gorgeously renovated old building in downtown Alton that once housed a strange and "haunted" antique store called Tootie's. What was once a Pepto-Bismol pink storefront has been painted a more sophisticated brown; the concrete floors have been stained and polished to a mother-of-pearl sheen; and if there are any ghosts left inside, they're having a lot more fun trying on gowns than they were wafting through junk dust. Frew's Bridal is an authorized dealer for the mega-popular bridal designers Maggie Sottero and Pronovias, as well as at least 25 other brands. The website associated with Frew's ( has a huge, international following. The store also carries plenty of plus sizes. Yes, there's something for everyone at Frew's. For evidence of that, just take a gander at the happy brides-to-be twirling in front of the ornate, dressing-room mirrors.

"Insist on Clean Windows: It's Our Job." So read the T-shirts worn by the handful of high school-aged boys and girls working the back end of the Waterway car wash, located within a BP filling station off of Watson Road, near River Des Peres. But "insist" is such a strong verb — maybe you're too polite too insist on much of anything, lest you rankle nerves or rustle feathers. Here's the great thing about Waterway (at the Shrewsbury location or any of the seven other centers around town): You'll never have to insist on clean windows. The towel-ready crew buffs your windows to a shine every time, whether you opt for the $5 exterior wash ($5 if you purchase gas, that is) or buck up for the full wash-and-wax detailing jobs. Once your car exits the automated washing tunnel, those fresh-faced, unfailingly polite youngsters put the human touch on your car wash. And the human touch is what separates good car washes from great ones, provided that you are not the human providing the touch. Luckily, Waterway has a small army of towel jockeys ready to do it for you.

Excellent frame work renders itself invisible; foregrounding and complementing artwork, a superior frame compels one's eyes toward the centerpiece at hand, and only later (if ever) reveals itself as a product of expert craft. This fine balance is precisely what Sandra Marchewa (an accomplished artist) and her business partner Paul Young have specialized in for the past seven years — guiding artwork toward its best possible framed life, which they produce on-site. Ever knowledgeable about wood types, quality metals, mattes and the assorted benefits of glass versus Plexi, Marchewa and Young offer detailed consultation on how to best situate and memorialize one's precious item — be it a vintage photograph, an ephemeral drawing on wilted newsprint or a crumpled keepsake with little more than personal worth. Their willingness to see the broader spectrum of art and give it its most elegant due is in large part a result of the shop's dual function as a gallery. Until this summer, when it held its last exhibit, Pace was also home to PSTL, an intimate exhibition space showcasing some of the most inventive, experimental and compelling work in town by local artists. While PSTL's close is deeply lamented, Marchewa and Young's first-rate sensitivity to quality fine art — let alone the fine art of framing — remains a reliable and invaluable constant.