Best ghetto garden store
Other garden stores have pretty, pristine rows of brand-name-emblazoned plastic pots filled with conventional yet emerging vegetables and bright bougainvillea-covered lattice walls. But City Farmers Nursery has crannies, canopies and crevices—and even a little cackling thanks to some wayward birds.
City Farmers (4832 Home Ave. in City Heights, cityfarmersnursery.com) has another thing the other shops don't have, and that is adventure: Teeny bridges, random mazes of off-center aisles and a small collection of mangy, oddball animals turn simple garden shopping into an all-day outing. The plant selection is tops, from the far-out fern grotto and the prickly cacti valley where reckless stray cats convene to the rare fruit trees that are bursting with cherimoyas and kumquats (even the fruits are audacious).
The owners clearly love the experience of cultivating and caring for the smallest corners of their plot of rocky, urban land. Other things to do at City Farmers besides buy plants: fairy hunting, butterfly chasing, puddle jumping, swinging on the makeshift and fairly dodgy playground, hiking the tire trails, buying any number of Radio Flyer paraphernalia, eating lunch at Nate's Deli—in other words, being an oversized kid.
And at every turn there is a mini discovery. Impossibly small koi babies swim amid the murk. A floppy-eared goat runs amok in the chicken coop. The sweet fragrance of jasmine wafts around you and then turns, quickly and sharply, into something entirely else. Something like giant tortoise poop.
Best too-far-away fabric store
Here's what's wrong with Maisonette—it's in Oceanside (523 North Freeman St., maisonnetteoceanside.com). And here's what's wrong with Oceanside—it's 40 miles from San Diego. That said, San Diego is short on interesting, independent fabric stores—the kinds of shops that are all over cities like San Francisco, Portland and Boston. And the fact that Maisonette's that store makes it worth the drive.
Owned and operated by Ava Warr and her three children and located in a 1924 cottage that's been given an updated black-and-white paint job, Maisonette peddles the sorts of fabrics—displayed throughout the shop on and in pieces of vintage furniture—that are pretty yet modern, like Amy Butler's colorful Liberty of London-esque florals, Joel Dewberry's art-deco prints and some cute finds by Japanese fabric designers.
The pattern selection is equally impressive and indie-minded: Colette (a teeny-tiny Portland-based pattern maker whose “Stockists” list led me to Maisonette in the first place), Sew Liberated, more Amy Butler (to match up with your Amy Butler prints) and plenty of options for kids clothes, toys and crafts.
If you're doing good to sew a straight line, there are oilcloth prints with which to make placemats, tablecloths and simple tote bags. If you consider a needle and thread to be foreign objects, there are lots of handmade items for sale from local artisans and jewelry makers, or, co-owner Madeline Warr offers private lessons—$25 for two hours, which makes the haul up to Oceanside worth it.
Best place to find things for the family
Shopping with Mom and Grandma is a blast, but only if you're half drunk on red wine and filled to the brim with spinach and artichoke dip and warm baguettes from Café Merlot at Bernardo Winery.
Seriously, though, the Bernardo Winery Artist Village & Shops (13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte in Rancho Bernardo, bernardowinery.com) is an oft-forgotten gem for us city folk. And whether you're with your mom and grandma or just looking for birthday or holiday gifts for the old gals, this is the spot.
Start at the tasting room and, while you sip a glass or two, check out the Bernardo Winery-brand Olive Oil ($14), Zinfandel Salsa ($8.50) and Dipping Oils ($15) and cross the foodie in your family off the shopping list.
For something handmade and super-special, head over to Stone and Glass and get a hand-blown glass pumpkin (my mom would pass out with pleasure over one of these things) or stop by the Clay Artists at the Vineyard and get Gramms a vase that's the antithesis of those cheap things you find at Target.
There are clothing shops, kids stores, a new chocolate vendor and more. And if you want something a little less predictable, why not buy your mom a few of the famous cooking classes at Café Merlot?
Best icing on the cake
But what does it mean, exactly: Do It With Icing? Surely it's a euphemism for something. And yet, no, it is in fact a storefront in Kearny Mesa (7240 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., doitwithicing.com) dedicated to all the minutiae needed to craft crazy candies and cutesy cakes—things like shortening with hydrogenated oil, which is nothing like Crisco now that the government has banned the use of the infamous stuff in grocery-store brands, but not commercial ones.
Also on hand? Sprinkles in the shape of the Star of David, chocolate rocks, royal icing turkeys, coffins and flying frigging eagles, sugar eyes, skulls and bugs, plus things that just sound dirty, like Merckens and Flo Coat-flavored oil and paramount crystals and edible glitter and Cremeco and endless tubs of brightly colored goo.
But they assure me it really is a store full of baking supplies, and gosh darn it if it's not the best one, ever. Every inch of wall space is dedicated to lollipop molds, organized better than any library with a pre-2003 Dewey Decimal System. There are two full aisles of those plastic cupcake toppers that ride astride a toothpick, and some of them are even modern, but most are not: Cabbage Patch Kids rest next to Kewpie dolls, which are next to sleepy Garfields and unicorns and “Men in Hammocks.” Really.
Best place to get a good ol' fashioned hair suck
There are plenty of barbershops on 30th Street in North Park, but the People's Barbershop (3992 30th St.) is the only one where you're liable to get a history lesson along with your haircut. The walls are decorated with black-and-white prints—including a photograph of University Avenue when it was a dusty old dirt road in 1911—and longtime neighbors often stop by to get a cut.
A little piece of North Park history, the shop has been around under various names for more than 50 years, says Frankie Tejero, the barbershop's latest owner and sole barber, and some of her customers have been coming here for about as long. Aside from her haircutting skills, Tejero has a great sense of humor, an adorable Shih Tzu who hangs around the place and her own peculiar way of doing things.
She only takes walk-ins (on a busy day, you may have to wait in a line of three or four clients), she doesn't do coloring or shampoo (you rinse your own hair at this barbershop), and she uses an old Electrolux vacuum to suck stray bits of cut hair off your head when she's done.
Visiting dogs, meanwhile, are treated to water and biscuits.
Best arranged-with-care flower shop
After spending eight years tucked in a tiny, colorful shop in Little Italy, the folks at Che Bella flower shop—husband-and-wife team Jim and Carla Bassi, along with daughter Thea—made the move to the East Village, opening an airier yet no less magical storefront at 1037 J St. (chebellafiori.com).
Anyone can throw together a spring mix of carnations, baby's breath and maybe a rose or two. But the Bassis make everything custom, using creative elements like patented roses from Italy, ornamental kale or seasonal fruit. Instead of only floral tape or raffia, they may nest your bouquet in honeysuckle vine for a more organic and woodsy feel.
Whether it's a chic bridal bouquet or an artsy arrangement for a hotel lobby, Che Bella creations are set apart by the personalities behind them. You're paying for a high-quality product—and people who have respect for their craft, as well as your personal style.
Che Bella puts on very cool monthly workshops where you can learn how to create one-of-a-kind arrangements you can then take home. November brings a new twist to the schedule: the first wreath-making class they've hosted.
Best place to buy everything and the kitchen sink
You might as well call Habitat for Humanity's ReStore (10222 San Diego Mission Road, sdhfh.org/restore.php) the anti-Home Depot. Each item in its 15,000-square-foot warehouse has been donated by local contractors and is offered to the public at better-than-closeout prices (think $20 French doors and $75 double ovens).
Longing to spruce up that light fixture, buy ceramic soap holders by the dozen, upgrade to granite countertops or install a bidet? They've got you covered. Best part is, proceeds fund the construction of new H4H houses in San Diego County.
Insider's tip: It's a fave destination for interior designers like Michael Soriano—the style mastermind behind ultra-cool projects like Analog Bar and Sessions Public.
Best place to buy that one thing you've been saving for
When you walk into the LF store in La Jolla, you might think you've walked into your own closet on a day that you couldn't decide what to wear: Everything's kind of strewn all over the place in a haphazard way. There are shoes on the floor, some things are folded neatly while others are sprawled out, and it looks like a really stylish mess.
Regardless of the merchandising tactics, LF (7864 Girard Ave., lfstores.com) stocks some exquisite merchandise, most notably an extensive collection of Jeffrey Campbell shoes, which can be difficult to track down in San Diego. The new seven-inch Lita lace-up platforms? LF has them in multiple colors. The latest exclusive collaboration with Jeffrey Campbell? Only at LF. The fall look book showcases what everyone wants for fall: shearling-lined jackets, military-style parkas, boots with plenty of hardware, floor-length skirts and chunky knits.
I'll be honest: LF is not an inexpensive store. You probably won't stumble upon a deal (unless you make it to one of the sales, which happen at the end of every season). But LF's stuff is high-quality. Some things are priced under $100 while others will run you upwards of $600. In other words, you may not be able to buy 10 things in one visit, but you'll find many things that you'll want to start saving for. If nothing else, I assure you that you'll find a pair of shoes that you can't find anywhere else in San Diego.
Best cheap shoes
Ever wanna throw the DeLorean in reverse and go back in time to when malls were indoors, fluorescently lit and chock full of stores catering to your every high-school whim (candy in bulk, hot dogs on sticks, chain jewelry by the foot)?
Plaza Bonita is just such a time warp. And right next door to Charlotte Russe (natch), you'll find a store that, back in the day, used to be called The Wild Pair (flashbacks, anyone?) but has adopted its corporate, vaguely British name in the aughts: Leeds (alternatively known online as Bakers).
This is the metatarsus equivalent of Forever 21—disposable, cheap-ass copies of today's trends—and since leather costs big bucks, the bulk of their shoes are made of synthetic goods. This is great news on two counts. One, you don't have to invest a fortune in fleeting fashion and, two, if you shun animal by-products, you've never seen such a glorious assortment of plastic footwear in your life.
Leeds (3030 Plaza Bonita Road in National City, bakersshoes.com) is especially great for boots—currently in stock are lace-up military-inspired ones (with a heel or without; fold-over or to the knee; khaki, brown or black; canvas, micro-suede or faux leather; studded or buckled—the choices are seemingly endless), plus ankle boots of every variety, flats and heels, casual and dressy, hippie or thankfully not, even fake Hunter rain boots. It's rare to find anything over $100, and almost everything is well under $50.
Best global trader
Longing for an insta-vacation? Head over to Balboa Park's United Nations international Gift Shop (2171 Pan American Plaza, ungiftshop.org) to get your worldly gift fix. Barack Obama babushka dolls? Check. Kenyan soapstone carvings? You'll find 'em here. Frida Kahlo-inspired decorative papel picado? Claro que sí! Other standouts include informative books like The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam (discounted from $16 to $9.95), a Michelle Obama magnetic dress-up set complete with accessories like a “#1 Mom” T-shirt and a rolling pin ($14.95) and a line of blank greeting cards in the shape of history's top intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde and Al Gore ($3.95).The shop is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and if you happen to be in town on a cruise, you'll receive a free surprise gift.
Spreading the wealth, Leader-style
When the Leader met CityBeat's “Urban Scout” columnist, Clea Hantman, he chuckled, patted her on the head and called her a “wee Campfire Girl.”
“George Bush's whole stimulate-the-economy-by-shopping thing,” the Leader quipped, “he stole that from me.”
The Leader insists on paying full price, never accepts freebies from his followers and says that if the Prop. D sales-tax increase had passed, he'd have alone generated enough tax revenue to fund a fire station for a year.
So where does the Leader drop some coin? He takes his leading ladies to spots like Mimi Red (shop.mimiandred.com), Cecilia Boutique (ceciliaboutique.com) and Dulce (dulcebags.com). For gifts, he finds Make Good's (themakegood.com) DIY thing endearing and thinks Clarity Soaps & Candles in South Park smells delightful. You might catch him browsing Sugar Kiss Boutique (sugarkissboutique.blogspot.com), Noon (noondesignshop.com), Pigment (shoppigment.com) and Solo (solocedros.com) for gifts. He's been spotted debating Obamacare with Dennis Wills at D.G. Wills Bookstore (dgwillsbooks.com) and getting decorating tips at Mixture (mixturehome.com).
Though he gets his daily wear at Bargain Center in North Park, he mixes it up with finds from Bedouin Vintage (bedouinvintage.com), 5&A Dime (5andadime.com), Hunt & Gather (huntandgathershop.com), Junc (shopjuncboutique.com) and, for that subversive-chic look, Luigi Vera (luigivera.com).