Best Of 2013

It's a divorce attorney's job to get two people to split up. Conversely, it's often Jim Hacking's job to bring two people together. That is, if one of the two people was born in a foreign country and the other is a U.S. citizen. Some of Hacking's more dramatic work is helping asylum seekers and battling with immigration authorities over deportations, but his bread and butter is marriage-based visas. This year the United States Supreme Court threw immigration attorneys a little curve ball after it declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Now that the federal government is recognizing same-sex marriages, Hacking was one of the (if not the) first attorneys in St. Louis to accept same-sex-couple clients who've been legally married and need a green card to stay together here in town. Because legalization of gay marriage is nowhere on the horizon for Missouri, it's great that attorneys like Hacking are willing to help keep these families together through other means.

This spring the media-relations officer for the St. Louis County Police Department found himself part of the police blotter for a change. Randy Vaughn was filling out paperwork when a fleeing suspect burst into the building and ran past his desk — the perp seemingly unaware that he had chosen police headquarters as a hiding place. The cops easily nabbed their prey, and Vaughn went about his duty of informing the media of the incident. "Usually, bad guys don't run at you," reported the police spokesman, adding, "it was ridiculous." Such colorful commentary isn't out of the ordinary for Vaughn, a seasoned vet who knows how to mix gravity with wit when dealing with the press. Who can forget his e-mail to reporters that not-so-subtly requested that they refrain from paging him between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.? "IN OTHER WORDS, PLEASE LET ME SLEEP!" wrote Vaughn. On its face, the message seems brusque, but we ask: What other bureaucrat will take your calls eighteen hours a day?

A driving force behind the IKEA-to-St. Louis rumors and home to some of the smartest analysis of local crime stats, nextSTL.com regularly stirs the pot in ways that can make mainstream media in town jealous. Launched in 2010 and run by editor Alex Ihnen, nextSTL is known for its in-depth analysis of hyperlocal issues — we're talking block-by-block changes — that really matter to its devoted readers. (Sources frequently tell us we have to check out its coverage of a topic before we publish our own stories.) Whether it's about the impact of Saint Louis University on midtown or the most nuanced breakdown of city/county crime data, nextSTL gets it right in a way rarely found in local media.

Of the 4 million pieces that populate the beautifully restored Central branch of the St. Louis Public Library, visitors will find some 100,000 maps of our fair city. Most of these, naturally, are found in the handsome St. Louis Room. Here are stacks upon stacks of maps, atlases and reproductions of cityscapes from centuries ago that outline St. Louis' story. (Some of the original maps were drawn at a time when mapmaking was the product of trips via hot-air balloon. So genteel!) It's a wondrous thing, seeing the familiar look so foreign: Tower Grove Park as we (sort of) know it, but here bordered by Russell's Coal Mines, Arsenal Street Road and King's High Way. These are depicted as well-traveled streets — but busy with horse-drawn carriages. Elsewhere there are sepia pictures of this very library at the turn of the 19th century, when patrons were mostly men in suits and ties, and the few women who came wore long sleeves and floppy hats. No place in town does St. Louis' history more magnificent justice than the public library's flagship branch. Tours leave from the desk in the library's Great Hall at 10 and 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. on Mondays and Saturdays.

We are a sedentary nation, and the Internet sure ain't helping. For the first time ever, this year Americans are expected to spend more time online (five hours per day) than they do watching TV (four and a half hours per day). Who better to recognize this than a counter-intuitive website that actually encourages us to unplug and get off our ass? The online home of Missouri State Parks is such a site. This beautiful and smartly designed website greets visitors with an interactive "Choose Your Own Adventure" tool. Just plug in your interests (camping, hiking, fishing, etc.) and voilà! Out pops dozens of state parks where you can pursue your hobbies. Click on one of those results, and you're taken to the park's individual website where you can see photos and video, read about the park and its history, and even reserve a campsite. And for you unabashed techies who cringe at the thought of spending time off the grid, know this: Some of Missouri's 87 state parks and historic sites offer campgrounds with free Wi-Fi. You can find out which ones at (where else?) www.mostateparks.com.

Quietly tucked away in deep south city next to Carondelet Park, fortressed behind rows of century-old trees that line the boulevards, Holly Hills gets along quietly, just fine on its own. The houses span from elegant brick masterpieces to affordable, comfortable bungalows. Perhaps most telling about the neighborhood is its census figures. In a time when many city folks were, and still are, fleeing west and south, the Holly Hills neighborhood has essentially retained its population between the 2000 and 2010 census, its numbers falling by just 4 residents, to 3,701. And the fact that Holly Hills is less than a ten-minute shot down Interstate 55 from downtown certainly lures local attorneys, judges, politicians, city firefighters and police. And let's face it: In terms of neighborhood safety, these are good neighbors to have.

The 2012-'13 Blues were a frustrating club, unable to get out of their own way, seemingly cursed with unlucky injuries and loaded down with players pulling nightly Jekyll and Hyde routines. One player, though, stood above it all. One defenseman whose play remained at the same excellent level all season, regardless of the chaos surrounding him. Alex Pietrangelo is the foundation upon which this Blues team is built, and if you're looking for a reason to believe the future is bright for St. Louis hockey, you need look no further. The man they call Petro has, in a remarkably short period of time, established himself as one of the best young defensemen in the NHL. His skill set has no real weak links; he's equally at ease handling the puck or mucking in the corners, his shot quickly is becoming the stuff of opposing goalies' nightmares and his sweat has the ability to cure cancer. OK, so we're not entirely sure that last one is true, but it's, like, a 99 percent certainty.

Claire Waldbart Kramer is the great-granddaughter of the man who founded Alex Waldbart Florist in 1872 with a shop in the lobby of the Planter's Hotel downtown. The iconic green neon sign out front has been attracting customers since the 1930s, though it has hung in its current spot only since 1967. "I was five when we moved to this location. I wasn't a florist then, but I do remember the tastes of that era: lots of daisies and carnations," Kramer says. When her great-grandfather and grandfather were running the shop, she says, the flowers they sold were all grown in local greenhouses: gladioli, liatris, roses. "The business was much more seasonal back then. Now we can get any flower, anytime, from anywhere — mostly California and South America." Though it's a family business that's been around for 141 years, Alex Waldbart Florist is known for its fresh, contemporary floral designs. Gifts are also available. To complement a Valentine's Day arrangement, for instance, the shop offers award-winning Moonstruck chocolates from Portland, Oregon, as well as Linnea's Lights, the gorgeously packaged, double-wicked, triple-scented soy candles. The gardenia variety is made specially for Waldbart by the Indiana-based candle company.

Some comic-book stores are total dungeons — unreasonably dark, gunning for a spot on Hoarders and manned by jerky, know-it-all clerks. Others boast bright lighting, cutesy displays and all the sickeningly sweet sunshine and unicorns you desire. The Fantasy Shop location in St. Charles finds the middle ground, preventing your shopping experience from becoming too depressing or too candy-coated. There's a slight on-the-DL feeling when you step into the shop, which stems from the dusty linoleum floors and pop-up strip-mall Halloween outlet impression, but with its wall of current weeklies, boxes of back issues and shelves of graphic novels, the Fantasy Shop is far from temporary. And if you need a few impressive nonprint pieces for your shelves, the helpful clerks can point you toward character busts, fantasy weapons and strategy games. Don't forget to pick up some Batman Pez dispensers at the counter!

Apop is a collector's dream. The shop marries new vinyl with used fare, providing for the diehards and casual wax eaters alike. Reissues of classic records comingle with recent drops by burgeoning labels. Cassette tapes line the far right wall where you'll find the most obscure rips in noise and pop. Every piece is curated by clerks who trim the fat daily. While shelf space is limited to the weird and superlative in most media, the value-priced CD stock makes finding a quick disc worth the trip. Along with sound art and eye candy, Apop supplies punk zines alongside odd periodicals and other printed brain food.

Readers' Choice: Vintage Vinyl