2003 Best of
Shopping & ServicesHumans possess a bonus strand of DNA responsible for our unquenchable desire to pry open our pocketbooks at the sight of a bored teenager operating a cash register. We hereby identify the Darwinian champions of San Diego's Genus Capitalismus.
The best underground hip-hop marketplace
Smack in the middle of china-white Pacific Beach is one of the most cutting-edge urban joints in San Diego. Access Hip-Hop is both a record store and a label, a sort of philosophical partnership between a few San Diegans and hip-hop crew The Living Legends. While other record stores stock a fair amount of the usual suspects, Access boasts the kind of stuff that only underground aficionados are in tune with. Anticon to Zion I-your average PB bro-consumer probably doesn't deserve this caliber of discerning material. But now that Eminem's ensured that every single towhead in America knows that bling-bling has nothing to do with telephony, it's somewhat apropos. The guys in the store are heavily involved with bringing acts to San Diego and promoting the careers of local and national underground hip-hop artists, so treat 'em with the respect they deserve. And listen up-they could make your burgeoning rap collection cooler than the next J-Live album.
Best vintage clothing store that won't dirty your hands
At some point in her life, the anachronistic fashion-conscious girl realizes the layer of grime she gets on her hands scavenging thrift store racks isn't worth the thrill that comes with snagging a perfect vintage find. But what, then, is she left with? Soulless, mass-produced garb can only sustain her for so long before she's searching for that one-of-a-kind piece from the past. Frock You in Hillcrest, besides having a clever name, sells mint-condition men's and women's vintage clothes. You pay a little more, granted, but the pieces are pre-cleaned and there's not a single stained armpit or moth-eaten sweater in sight. The store also has a substantial collection of vintage accessories, including eyeglass frames and handbags.
Best store in a mall
If your significant other is pleading for some serious mall tromping and you know your toes are going to be burning, insist on ending up at the LoveSac store in Fashion Valley Mall. Sure, you could buy one of these $500 pieces of furniture, but making in-store use of them is a more financially feasible option. Made of cushy shredded sponge foam, these huge bags (the largest 6-foot bag fits up to 19 small children on it!) are a heavenly respite for mall-weary feet. With some slightly sexual namesakes-the SuperSac, TonOLoveSac, LotOLoveSac and LittleLoveSac are all available for purchase-this store makes a great post-date stop for some on-the-Sac cuddling. The store even plays surf and skate videos for your enjoyment. Just don't fall asleep-the employees aren't too keen on that move.
Best music store for art appreciation
The Muse music shop and gallery in North Park just keeps on throwing in new ways to entertain the musically young at heart. Owner Carolyn Tipton turned the back half of the store over to local art figurehead Tim McCormick last winter. Strong shows have been pouring out of the place by the month, making The Muse a heavy hitter on the Ray At Night gallery tour. With the addition of a boutique shop, second-hand-clothing department and a coffee/espresso corner underway, The Muse might soon be the one-stop shop for all those local music aficionados pouring out of Scolari's Office every night. With a new photography exhibit opening in November and live bands-an eclectic mix of overlooked local bands and those like the I've Got To Farts, who were touring through town last month-The Muse is also the spot to catch the after-hours action.
Best place to save gas
Walking through the front doors it's hard to believe the location of the new Motorsport Scooters, 4225 30th St., was once the infamous goth club Xanth. Originally part of the recently defunct Vespa Supershop, owner Alex Cohn has now expanded to include scooters, service, clothing and an impressive range of related collectibles. It's that selection of oddities that makes a visit to the showroom counters a visual smorgasbord. Need a tin elephant on a scooter? A kid-size pedal scooter for a tyke? They have it and more. In just a few months the shop has already gained a national rep amongst enthusiasts. Since the late 70s, San Diego has had scooter culture, particularly popular with the mod and acid jazz crowd, but these days, with gas at a premium and parking limited, scooters are appealing to a wider audience than ever.
Best unpretentious hair salon
Some of us hate to get our hair cut. No matter how much we said we didn't want it, some of us spent a good two years stuck with that Jennifer Aniston bouncy do-do until we finally took matters into our own hands and cut our hair ourselves. The resulting hack job was worth not having to step foot in a hair salon. Then we found Maryjane's in Hillcrest and we were happy. Owner Scott Smith (who named the place after his adorable wife Mary) is a haircutting genius who can do his job while conversing about anything from cool places to hang out, to which City Councilmembers aren't doing their job. Each haircut at Maryjane's includes a head-and-neck massage and the salon's airy, open layout makes it a place that's never noisy or over-crowded.
Best place to sell used CDs
Lots of places in town buy back used CDs, but none with the frequency and dollar-per-CD ratio of SecondSpin.com. Though the store is named after the company's website, the brick-and-mortar version is full of friendly local music lovers who are there to assist your every need. When they think you are erroneously selling back something that deserves another listen, the staff may ask you to reconsider your sale and test-drive the album one more time. I guess I'll check out that Murder City Devils disc one more time. No, I don't want to keep the Yanni. Yes, I'm sure. Thanks SecondSpin.com! You're the coolest!
Best store to wait in while your wife or girlfriend shops
We know what you're thinking: Victoria's Secret. Nope. Wrong, hormone boy. You get all excited and, honestly, a little creepy when she takes you there. Something about their tolerance of the thong. Way too obvious for our tastes. Plus those employees are nowhere near as friendly and down to earth as the not-too-granola, not-quite-supermodels-but-damn-fine ladies who work in and populate the Dreamgirls clothing boutique on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. Have a seat. Check out the latest, dog-eared issues of Surfer or Sports Illustrated. Someone at this store knows you guys, and she cares. But your other half still has to have her clothes, and they have to be unique. And affordable. And cute, damnit. She can get all of that at Dreamgirls-and you get to talk to some of the friendliest, least-threatening females in town while she's trying her stuff on. Guilt-free shopping with the little woman. Now that's paradise.
-Will K. Shilling
Best cure for Midwest homesickness
Sorry, no cornfields, spectacular autumn leaves or amber waves of you know what, but San Diego does have sprawl and strip malls, restaurant franchises and super-centers. The Midwest is by no means soulless, but it is spoiled by dark splotches of mediocrity that we have come to recognize as doorways into an inner sanctum comparable to the womb. We love our comfort. If you moved from the Cincinnati suburbs and you're reeling for a sense of place, Mission Valley shopping center is the closest you'll come. It's outdoors and outlet, but it's got those too-buttery soft-pretzels, bulk candy stores, junk jewelry, costume jewelry, cell phone booths, wig booths and the store that sells those jeans you've been looking for that all your friends are wearing.
Best place to get penis pasta
Novelty is something that is useless yet so fascinating that you can't imagine living without it. Even better, you can't imagine not getting it for a friend's birthday. And Babette Schwartz is the sort of gift shop that defines hip-chic novelty-a store for the Freda Kahlo-obsessed satirist in all of us. First off, the place is run by a drag queen-'nuff said. Second, the small boutique is packed to the gills with every tasteful and tasteless talisman of the American pop-culture underground. You want Barbies in drag? Got 'em. You want white-trash cookbooks? Got 'em. You want penis pasta? Got it. You want vintage candy (yes, it is an enterprise these days)? Saddle up the sweet tooth. Books, t-shirts, decorative chili-pepper lights, phallic saltshakers-Babette, like his/her sexuality, has it all. But the main focus of the store is greeting cards-an endless barrage of sarcastic come-ons and offensive congrats-type sentiments are displayed along the wall.
Best place to get your hair cut by a friendly transvestite
Who needs to pay a pocket-load of hard-earned dollars for a personality-less clip off the shoulders? A haircut can be a demeaning and long process of clipping and shaving and uninteresting conversation, but it can also be surprisingly enjoyable. The unlikely spot to get the latter? Supercuts in Clairemont. The staff's ability to talk without trying to deify the weather or the state of city athletics makes the cut enjoyable. The environment doesn't seem stale or corporately sculpted, and the employees have a certain pizzazz about them. This is a haircut that involves more than just scissors and a chair. One particular stylist has attitude, confidence and the style and grace of both sexes-and looks great in a skirt. Be prepared for the staff to remember your name the next time you come in, no matter how long it's been, and expect the feeling of a local neighborhood barbershop.
Best independent record store
Looking for an obscure Miles Davis LP? It's there. Perhaps some original old-school Parliament Funkadelic? It's there. Surf, garage, Latin jazz, Dixieland and reggae, it's there, too. Hardcore, electronica, psychedelic and big band... there. Lou's Records even has some huge 99-cent bins of cheap stuff you probably can't live without. It's 5,000 square feet of some of the world's best recorded music in three of the ugliest trailer-esque buildings you have ever seen. It's been there for close to 25 years when owner Lou Russell first opened Lou's in Cardiff. An afternoon treasure hunting at Lou's is Nirvana, and if you plan it right, you might catch one of the many bands that stop by and play mini concerts at Lou's every month. Now how cool is that?
Best place to train to kick sand
Tired of the glossy Ballys and LA Fitnesses of the world? World Gym in Pacific Beach would scoff at their treadmills with built-in CD players, and spit on their shiny chrome signage. The three main ingredients at World Gym appear to be performance enhancers, tattoos and heavy metal, possibly not in that order. There are two cavernous floors with hundreds and hundreds of new and (mostly) old cardio and weight machines. That, together with a low, low membership fee, makes World Gym a true gym rat's gym. Sure, there is the occasional beginner here, but nowhere else do they stand out in such stark contrast to the muscle-bound freaks around them. No matter how big you are, buddy, you will not be the biggest guy here. You probably won't even be the biggest woman.
Best gym eye candy, straight-guy division
Oh sure, North County has a certain stifling homogeneity, but with a trophy-wives-per-capita ratio approaching that of Orange County or even L.A., the area sure can offer some visually appealing vapidity. Here, men and women of all ages dress for success, even in the gym, and the average exercise class at Frogs Athletic Club in Solana Beach has more fake boobs than the pages of the Reader. Go upstairs to the cardio area overlooking the gym, and you're sure to get an eyeful. Or just sit outside the windows of the exercise room while Frogs offers one of its very popular jiggle and wiggle exercise classes. What do you mean, that's not what they're called?
Best gym eye candy, gay-guy division
Possibly one of the most crowded and oversold gyms in the area, 24-Hour Fitness in Hillcrest will offer you ample opportunity to ogle and be ogled as you wait endlessly for the machine of your choice. With all the introductions per capita, it's like a fabulous cocktail party with weights. The best seats in the house-oh, my-are the two stair-masters facing the entrance. From there, you get a birds-eye view of all the comings and goings. The picture windows looking out over Fifth Avenue offer additional opportunities for scooping and flirting, or as observed at least once, drunken club-goers outside pressing ham for the late-night bench-pressers inside.
Best place to meet single women who know how to infuse
While studying my recipe for some fancy chocolate dessert in the huge industrial kitchen, I noticed a young, good-looking man laughing and flirting with a striking blonde over an electric mixer. Scanning the room, I counted exactly three males-compared to about 25 (mostly young) females. At least a few of them had to be on the rebound. This guy had discovered San Diego's best-kept singles secret-the cooking class. I had endured a two-month waiting list for the Friday Night Dinner Party at Great News!, a cookware retailer that doubles as a school for culinary wannabes such as myself. The Dinner Party is a hands-on class (others are hands-off), where you gather with a roomful of strangers to try your hand at a variety of dishes and a couple glasses of wine. Not only do you learn fancy kitchen tips (we learned how to cut a red pepper as if you're splitting the atom), but you also get to have a meal with good-natured strangers and eat all that you create (which can be good or bad).
Best place to resurrect your seventh-grade wardrobe
At the Vans outlet on First Street in El Cajon, you're not going to be overwhelmed by the huge selection. The non-shoe pickings are often quite limited, especially for an outlet. But what the little skate clothes store lacks in volume, it makes up for in sheer retro-utilitarianism. Before you run to the dictionary on that one, chill: we made it up. It denotes, in the confusing, cutthroat world of the male fashionista, a style that is timeless and useful, cool and affordable. Vans, with its athletic, skate-rat aesthetic, perfectly embodies the San Diego male: laid-back, yet on the move; stylish, yet seemingly unconcerned with superficiality. Plus, the store seems to always have a sale going, as if it's constantly on the verge of going out of business. Don't let the bargain basement prices fool ya. This store's not going anywhere. Worth the drive, at least once every season.
-Will K. Shilling