Northeast Ohio's best is getting better in the coming months: The Toys Time Forgot is slated to move down the street in Canal Fulton to a spot that will allow owner/Batman fetishist Dan Hare to display more of the treasure that's relegated to his basement at the current store. Find a vintage copy of the GI Joe you loved as a kid or the Erector Set you used to break it. Dan probably has what you're looking for; if not, it's still damn comforting to reminisce with him. Yeah, you can probably find what you want faster on eBay, but you won't get that tingly feeling, as if you're standing in your old bedroom again.
While most strip malls do wallow under the weight of bad 1970s architecture and empty storefronts, there are still a few open-air shopping centers worth the land that's been paved over. If you're looking for dietary supplements or a bad haircut, the best could be any strip mall in Ohio, but if you're after a good shopping fix without driving to the real mall, go no farther than the Promenade. The usual run of stores anchors the complex, but what sets it a cut above is that the parking lot was actually planned before the lines were painted. Assuming no leadfoot yuppie is whipping around in an SUV, you stand every chance of shopping at a strip mall without any traffic incidents -- every entrance even has a light, complete with a left-turn arrow. It's like heaven, without a roof or food court.
If shopping is life, existence must be cradled in the shop-lined corridors of SouthPark. With over 150 places to relieve yourself of that hard-earned paycheck, this Strongsville palace sits like a shopper's mecca. There's everything from Ann Taylor and GapKids to Brookstone and Radio Shack -- not to mention the four mainstays, J.C. Penney, Dillard's, Kaufmann's, and Sears. This shopping juggernaut boasts two floors, a huge food court, game center, and just recently, Internet access.
500 Southpark Center, Strongsville
It was the winged dragon in the window that stopped the Christian woman from Puerto Rico. "You take that into your house, and you'll have trouble," she warns, her blue eyes aghast. It's a rare window display indeed that spooks passersby. You get the eerie feeling at City Buddha that the thing you've found has been looking for you, too. This is the place to go for wood-carved gods with unpronounceable names and scary sculptures. It is also a place to buy tapestries, unusual instruments, and jewelry you expect college students to wear with Birkenstocks. It is not a place to find the devil, just his likeness carved in wood. Next to a statue of Buddha.
What would the true outdoorsman do without accessories? Well, Appalachian Outfitters in Peninsula is making sure that we never have to find out. This outdoor gear and clothing store is stocked with everything a mountain man (or woman) might find handy in the wilds: Outstanding selections of tents, kayaks, canoes, sleeping bags, shoes, and climbing gear only scratch the dark, earthy surface. And once you're done shopping, rappel on over to Kendall Cliffs, connected to the shop, where you can test out the merchandise on a professionally designed rock gym.
A year ago, the bookshelves of 84 Charing Cross filled three floors of an old building in the small harbor town of Munising in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Now, to be closer to book sales and family, the owners have relocated to Cleveland's West Side, right by Cleveland Public Theatre. Named for a book about a store on London's bookseller's row, 84 Charing Cross is everything a used bookstore should be: friendly, easy to hide out in, and full of obscure surprises: a rare first printing of a compilation of John Lennon interviews, 50-year-old issues of the Partisan Review, and long-out-of-print collections of Ernie Pyle's World War II reportage.
Cleveland ain't all sports, rock and roll, and bratwurst -- there are real lit-er-ary folks in these parts. You can see some real live ones at the used book sales that Lakewood Public Library holds in its basement two times a year (three, if you count the Saturday-only sale in August). It's hard to say which are packed in more tightly: the books or the customers. Shelves stretch high overhead and creak with the weight of the 50-cent books (the last day of the sale is the buck-a-bag day). Shoppers browse among the (well-organized) sections of fiction, periodicals, nonfiction on every subject, children's, and reference materials. Weary-but-happy bibliophiles, bearing armloads of books, smile sheepishly as they "excuse me, pardon me" through aisles crowded with fellow book-lovers. You really can't get much else for a buck these days. Except maybe a bratwurst.
Need to feed that musical monkey on your back, but your billfold is barely dealing with gas prices? Break out the bike and pedal to the Record Exchange, where thousands of used CDs, tapes, records, and video games range from 50 cents on up.
Whether it's homey whole wheat, crunchy corn and cranberry, or rustic basil focaccia, we love a dense loaf of handmade bread. And lately, whenever the craving hits, we have found ourselves turning to the cheerful folks at the Breadsmith to help us meet our needs. The bakers here create a magnificent array of daily breads, all without nasty preservatives or scary additives; we rarely leave without an all-natural baguette tucked beneath each arm, clutching a paper bag filled with an assortment of tender rolls in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other. Although Breadsmith is an award-winning national franchise, the Bainbridge-area store is, so far, the only location in Greater Cleveland.
18101 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood
Ah, the aroma! You'll think you're in heaven -- or at least Rome. Customers drool in front of the glass-encased lunchmeats, cheeses, salads, and olives, clutching their numbered paper slips and waiting for their turn to tell the nice man in the red polo shirt to please slice their prosciutto thin. Make a quick stop at the bakery counter for bread and tender sweet-sour lemon biscotti. Turn the corner to the grocery shelves, and you'll find coffees, chocolates, wines, oils, and spices. Mama mia! Pavlov would've loved it.
They have books, lots of books. But that's not why this particular Borders is the best place to snag some new reading material. 'Cause having books isn't enough. Going to a bookstore is pretty much a religious experience, as far as we're concerned, and as any churchgoer knows, worshiping at St. Peter's and worshiping at the airport chapel are not the same thing. Context matters. And the Beachwood Borders has the right context. It's got plenty of space, but it's certainly not cavernous. It's cozy without being claustrophobic. And the people who work there actually know something about the products they sell. Who woulda thought?