Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Most music stores have a creepy vibe, usually darkened by the bitterness of the bald guy behind the counter whose keyboard gig with Whitney Houston in 1985 didn't quite pan out. Not so at Encore music, a locally owned business that has thrived through ups and downs since the 1960s. Chad Speck bought the store from his late boss's wife in November 1995, and since then the dank little store in the Wedge neighborhood has garnered a reputation as the place for good used gear. Speck will take equipment on consignment, for cash, or in an outright trade. The latter may be the best strategy, as Encore houses nearly 350 guitars and basses along with about 100 amps. Occasionally a decent drum kit or two will float through, as will a stray keyboard. But mostly it's guitars, amps, effects pedals, and cheap strings that drive Encore's business. Prices can range from a hundred bucks into the thousands of dollars, but don't fear a rip-off. Speck says he is more than willing to work out a deal: "I just want to give a fair price."
Once upon a time, artists didn't have supply stores to feed their jones for a tube of cerulean-blue oil paint, or for a No. 8 flat-bristle sable brush, or for 300-pound cold-press aquarelle paper. Back then, burgeoning Rembrandts and Vermeers had to grind their own pigment, press the linseed, mix in the egg yolks, pluck the sable, stretch the canvas, lay down the gesso, and so on. It is lucky for us, then, that in these harried times there is Wet Paint, offering an endless array of quality artistic media at competitive prices. The narrow aisles of this just-big-enough boutique are brimming with all the paints, brushes, papers, and various artistic accouterments necessary for modern art aficionados. Plus, the staff is as friendly and uniformly knowledgeable as any you are likely to find this side of the industrial age.
Normally, it's our inclination to avoid the disorienting experience of shopping in megastores. The unnaturally bright lighting, the echoing aisles in spaces the size of an airplane hangar, the inexplicable siren call of that bargain-priced, industrial-size box of Cheerios. But we have to admit to casting aside our consumer discomfort for the sake of convenience. Why make the trip from store to store searching for and debating the merits of diapers, wipers, car seats, high chairs, bassinets, onesies, and breast pumps? Not to mention all the comforting tidbits that ride along in a diaper bag, from pacifiers to blankies to Pooh rattles. And what expecting parent has not felt the sudden need to completely decorate the nursery with coordinating ruffles, bumpers, and diaper stackers? All that and more, more, more is on display here. It's easy to compare brands because they carry most all of them, and some helpful staffer or another is always close by to answer questions or to demonstrate the ease of unfurling a tandem stroller. It's true what they say: When life hands you a baby, make it easier on yourself!
Buying vinyl just ain't what it used to be. New domestic LPs will run around $10, imports $20 or more. And well-educated collectors have been combing the stacks for so many years, it's hard to find dirt-cheap treasures among the trash. Still, there are goodies to be had in the basement of Root Cellar Records. You won't find super-rare collectibles in the bowels of the St. Paul store. Those are upstairs, sporting two- and three-digit price tags. What you will find are amenities like a working pinball machine, garlands of Christmas-tree lights, and a little record player to test-drive your finds. The stock is mostly a motley assortment of great vintage covers, unplayable records, major-label tax write-offs, and indie recs that never found their audience. But there's also an unusually good selection of Seventies hard rock and AOR staples (owner Earl Root hosts KFAI's Root of All Evil), making it a must-visit before planning any retro party. The prices have sneaked up to $2, which is still a deal for that Jefferson Starship record or that brilliant LP from early-Seventies songwriter Emmit Rhodes or Cheap Trick live at Budokan. And when the helpful staff gets tired of the inventory, they put on a fire sale, making that copy of Ted Nugent's Free For All look downright irresistible at 50 cents.
A couple of factors motivate our decision to award a B&B nearer the metro than, say, the quaint-inn capital of Lanesboro. For starters, this is the "Best of the Twin Cities" issue, yes? And while the intimate delights of most any comfy B&B are abundantly clear (a friend jokes that they're the middle-class rendition of hourly motels), they needn't be reserved for one's self and one's sweetie alone. The Covington Inn is a converted Forties-era tugboat tied to the Harriet Island pier on the ol' Miss, so close to downtown St. Paul that it invites convenient use as a spare bedroom for visiting relatives--and one of a uniquely utilitarian sort. Put it this way: Haven't you ever dreamed of sending your in-laws down the river? Surely we jest (sort of). But whatever your pleasure, the three-story, four-room Covington is simply the most distinctive B&B in the state, its exceedingly clever redesign maintaining all manner of nautical iconography alongside modern amenities such as gas fireplaces, fridges, private baths, air conditioning, phone jacks, and electrical outlets. (Nightly rates for staterooms range from $150 to $235, breakfast included.) Best of all, because of the 300-ton tugboat's thick steel walls, no one is apt to hear you--or your in-laws(!)--scream.
Looking for a lightweight, sturdy, streamlined work of art that you can attach to the back of your SUV, transport out into the country a ways, and take out for a luxurious afternoon ride around the lakes? Or perhaps you're looking for something with fat tires and a padded seat, so that you can take the sucker off road and spin its wheels in the mud for a while. Or maybe you want a high-style bad boy with tassels hanging off its handlebars, a long banana seat, and no more than two gears. Head to Penn Cycle. They might not have the largest or cheapest selection in the Twin Cities, but they understand that bicycles are about more than locomotion; they're an integral part of our self-image. Just take a look at their second level, in which the various styles, as well as posted explanations for their uses, fill the room like a World's Fair exhibit. In Los Angeles, the car is the symbol of status and personality, but this is the Twin Cities, where puppet theaters present skits about bicyclists rising up to push motorists off the streets. If you really want to show people who you are and where you stand, you're gonna have to do it with two wheels, and Penn Cycle will get you started at a competitive price.