Best Of 2002

Big-box stores are to customer service what Eminem is to feminism. Nothing is more frustrating than being in an airplane hangar of a store, having to look for something specific, and being at the mercy of a 16-year-old clerk who believes his $6.50 an hour only buys his presence and an occasional grunt. Home Depot, however, may be the one exception to this rule. Sure, it gets a bad rap (see Best Old-School Hardware Store). But it's one of the few large retailers to actually staff its stores with adults. Whether you're looking for cement board or a nuanced discussion of the merits of 68 brands of caulk in stock, these guys know their game. They're also not afraid to dog their own merchandise when they know it sucks -- a critical quality, when that home repair job must be completed before kickoff, and there's no time for a second trip to the store to replace a broken drill bit.
Sweet (clothing) dreams come true in this boutique, whose eclectic collections suggest New York's funky SoHo district, with Betsy Johnson party dresses right next to structured black pants ensembles. Uncluttered racks, cookies and cider, and low music all contribute to the store's appeal, but what's really great is owner Audrey Bergrin (and her trusty associates). Her expertise in fitting, combined with an artistic eye, makes her suggestions about what looks good absolutely dead-on. Like a good girlfriend, she tells you the truth, even if it means losing a sale. Her maxim is "If you don't feel good in it, you won't wear it." (And if you don't wear it, you won't come back.) If she says, "You look wonderful," you believe her.
This sleekly laid-out store fights Cleveland casual, with the truth as its motto: "You know you could look better." The personable salespeople prove their point with an array of carefully selected suits, shirts, and accessories. If you can't trust your own taste, you can trust theirs.
With old-time hardware stores dropping like accounting firms, crushed by the sheer size and selection of their big-box brethren, the competition in this category has become decidedly thin. Yet Ingersoll Hardware, proud seller of hammers and hoses since 1906, carries on this most noble of traditions. It's one of those small, dusty places, appropriately crowded and packed with everything from paint to lawn stuff to plumbing supplies to brooms. They still do full window repair -- not just cut glass -- and the prices are surprisingly competitive, compared to bigger rivals. You don't have to screw your wallet just to support the little guy. And unlike other small stores, Ingersoll is not an endangered species. "Business has picked up so much," says Bill Knittle, who has 23 years on the job. "All the hardware stores closed, and people hate going to Home Depot. If one of us doesn't know something, we'll get somebody else to help you."
A Mohawk haircut is reassuring in some contexts. Behind the counter at a computer shop, for instance; nothing says digital literacy quite like a nose ring. In addition to at least one credible-looking employee, DC Parts offers closeout prices and sage advice. The store has columns of refurbished hard drives and monitors, enough cable and wire to reach Guam, and Big Lots-type odds and ends, like tape-head cleaners for $1. Retail, schmetail. Pentium I -- that's old-school.
Don't have a heart attack in here -- unless you want to die in utter bliss. Made by little Croatian ladies in the back room, the European-style truffles and hand-dipped fruit and nut confections are pure poetry. The handmade candy bars are even dreamier: two paper-thin layers of dark chocolate, caressing a creamy nut or fruit filling that's spread on like butter. Once that's assembled, more chocolate is dribbled onto the outside. They use the best cocoa beans and don't go overboard on the sugar, so what you get is the distilled chocolate flavor, reminiscent of the finest chocolate shops in Italy.
Sharing space with a shop that sells antique Persian rugs, Loganberry certainly isn't lacking in the quaint department. It's the sort of warm, inviting secondhand bookshop now found only in college towns or the arty sections of a handful of major cities. There are some real gems to be found in its tall, closely packed stacks: lots of used and antique hardcover children's books, an eclectic selection of fiction, and long-out-of-print volumes of poetry by the likes of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kenneth Koch, and Anne Sexton.
"I've got a magazine for everybody," boasts Bank News owner Gill Cafarelli. One look at the sprawling collection of glossies in his store, built into the old Broadview Savings Bank, and it's clear he's probably got a few magazines for everybody. Sure, there's Vogue and Maxim, but also more obscure titles such as Fat Girl, touted as "a 'zine for fat dykes and the women who want them." You'll find 19 different tattoo magazines and a huge collection of adult comics, including "Tijuana Bibles," featuring unauthorized, randy exploits of Batwoman, Superman, and other straight arrows. A browser's delight, Bank News must be seen to be believed.
Okay, with 72 locations in 11 states, Half Price Books is undoubtedly a chain. But with such a great selection of ridiculously underpriced books, it's worthy of our esteem. Where else could you find a like-new trade paperback of All the President's Men for a scant two bucks, just a few months before the 30th anniversary of Watergate? There is a huge collection of paperbacks, all priced at half-off the cover (hence the name), which makes this a great store to troll for beach reading. It's also a delight for book collectors, who should stop in once a week to peruse elusive, out-of-print gems.
Welcome to the Valhalla of grocery stores. Here, under one very large roof, shoppers will find separate walk-in coolers for wine and beer, a deli cafe that serves gargantuan sandwiches and mouthwatering sushi (sushi!), a dizzying selection of meats (marinated beef loin) and fish (black-tip shark), and a panoply of organic products that even natural food shops would envy. There's also a video store and a day care -- i.e., places to stash the teens and toddlers, so that parents can prance freely through aisles that stretch forever. Sure, prices are a bit higher -- this is Westlake, after all -- but for that once-a-month grocery binge, it's worth the extra dough.
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