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Best of 2008 Staff Picks: goods + services 

Best place to learn to kick ass:
Eric Hibler's Pittsburgh Fight Club
4573 Campbell's Run Road, Robinson. 412-787-1162 or www.pghfightclub.com
Long before mixed martial arts became all the rage on pay-per-view, reality television shows and Saturday nights on CBS, Eric Hibler was teaching it to a handful of students in his parents' Green Tree garage. Now he runs his own studio, where he teaches basic punching and kicking as well as advanced mixed-martial-arts techniques. Hibler used to get paid a few shekels to compete in MMA matches in tiny arenas in backwater towns because the sport was illegal in most states. But now that everyone wants to do it, now that MMA is hip and trendy, you may as well learn to do it from a guy who's been doing it for years, and who loves kicking ass.

 

Best place to rent movies that isn't the Internet
Dreaming Ant
4525 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-683-7326 or www.dreamingant.com
Let's face it: You get Netflix thinking you're going to blast through The Wire, but you end up wasting your monthly fee by keeping National Treasure for three weeks. And sure, Redbox can dispense you a movie, but remember human interaction? Tucked away in the back of Crazy Mocha lies Dreaming Ant, where real-live people who actually know what they're talking about can help you browse Ant's small (yet at the same time, expansive) DVD library. Here, you can ponder Hollywood comedies versus independent ones, and a great selection of foreign films, as well as see all of the works of featured directors shelved conveniently in one spot, giving you a valid reason to leave your house.

 

Best novelty T-shirt
WearPittsburgh.com's "Whiff of Mediocrity"
Wearpittsburgh.com
Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word was "the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." The task of plucking precisely the right term from the lexicon to describe something becomes more complex the more commonplace the thing is. So it would seem with the Pirates. Everyone's familiar with the follies of our local batsmen -- who are now on history's backdoor step with a near record-setting string of losing seasons. But how best can we promote the nonsensical pleasure derived from undesirable notoriety? Local online clothing retailer WearPittsburgh answered the challenge in May with a line of shirts that will be hard to top: "Pittsburgh Baseball: the occasional fleeting whiff of mediocrity." The shirt was designed by Pittsburgh graphic designer Rachel Arnold Sager (thesumofdavid.com), based on an idea by Chad Hermann, author of the defunct blog Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman.

 

Best novelty gift shop:
Kards Unlimited
5522 Walnut St., Shadyside. 412-622-0500
It's unlikely that you'll ever need an Edgar Allan Poe action figure. And unless your skills in the sack make British porn look exciting, you'll probably never need the "Pop-up Book of Sex" to improve your love-making. But if by chance you ever long for such pointless knick-knacks and smutty reads, Kards Unlimited's got you covered. The novelty gift shop offers everything from calendars to cards, flasks to T-shirts. For readers, the store's book section offers obscure titles from authors like gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can even purchase linen stitched with witty one-liners like "Shadyside is kinda gay" or "Shadyside: 10,878 rich white people can't be wrong."

 

Best place to indulge the 10-year-old girl inside of you
Kawaii Gifts
5413 Walnut St., Shadyside. 412-687-2480 or www.kawaiigifts.com
If you or someone you know is a lover of all things adorable, then prepare for a mind-explosion when you enter Kawaii Gifts, right off Walnut Street down a little alleyway of awesome. Offering the usual Sanrio Hello Kitty fare, Kawaii also has an insane amount of San-X character merchandise, like Tarepanda keychains (a sad but cute panda) and Kogepan coin purses (a burnt bread bun). Are these words nonsense to you? Stop in and witness Wanroom (animal faces in household furniture) as well as the Nyanko kitties (cats disguised as other objects, generally edible ones). Here, you can get all the freakishly delightful stationery, cell-phone accessories, housewares, apparel and toys any kid (i.e. yourself) could dream of.

 

Best place to indulge the 10-year-old boy inside of you:
A.B. Charles Hobby Shop
1635 McFarland Road, Mount Lebanon. 412-561-3068 or www.ab-charles.com
For more than 50 years, this grandfather-of-all-hobby-shops was a little piece of 1958 on West Liberty Avenue. A couple years back, it relocated to a barnlike structure that lacks some of the charm, but makes up for it with a lot more space. There are plenty of diverting toys in the street-level showroom, but the true hobbyist moves back where the model-railroad stuff is kept ... or to the slot-car racetracks in the cavernous basement. Elsewhere you'll find floor-to-ceiling racks of model cars, radio-controlled airplanes, model rockets ... everything your mom said you could get "when you're a little older." And you'll find something at just about every experience level -- from juniors, to mid-level kitbashers, to prune-skinned retirees. In an era of electronic bleeps-and-bloops, A.B. Charles is a shrine for those who want to kill time with their bare hands.

 

Best place to buy a gift for your liberal, gay uncle
A Pleasant Present
2301 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-421-7104 or www.apleasantpresent.com
His George Bush jokes and eclectic cocktail recipes have been the only reason you've been able to survive family get-togethers for the past eight years, so why not surprise your liberal, gay uncle this year with a "Yes we did!" Obama T-shirt, or a crooked "I'm so gay, I can't even drink straight!" mug? A Pleasant Present also offers "after the rapture" mints, anti-masturbatory air-fresheners for the car, and napkins with a "before" picture of a young man next to an "after" picture of a lovely woman. And, if you also have to get a gift for your conservative "other uncle," no worries ... the store also sells macho items like a Pittsburgh Steelers laundry bag.

 

click to enlarge Pretty Birds, in Millvale, has a variety of exotic birds, including this colorful macaw. - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • Pretty Birds, in Millvale, has a variety of exotic birds, including this colorful macaw.

Best free place to gawk at a nearly insane profusion of birds
Pretty Birds
425 Grant Ave., Millvale. 412-822-8082 or www.prettybirds.net
Sure, you could be all fancy-pants about it and check out the new additions at the National Aviary on the North Side, but it costs money -- like, several dollars -- to hang with penguins and screaming lorikeets and giant Phil Spector-lookin' pigeons. And perhaps the pigeons who live on your roof no longer fascinate you like they once did. Trek out to Millvale and visit Pretty Birds, where you can board your feather-brained pal, buy treats for her or have his feathers professionally groomed. If you ask nicely, you just might get to catch sight of alien-like hatchlings in an incubator, or get sassed by an African grey. Just be careful where you put your paws -- the main room is full of birds roaming free. And hollering.

 

click to enlarge Kate Thiel, part-owner of Divertido, poses with stuffed creatures that you need. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Kate Thiel, part-owner of Divertido, poses with stuffed creatures that you need.

Best hipster alternative to The Sharper Image
Divertido
3701 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-687-3701 or www.divertidoshop.com
If you never knew it existed, you probably don't need it -- and yet, we have shops like The Sharper Image. For the hipster who has everything, Divertido offers a range of locally made craft items, curious gizmos and stylish whatsits that will soon have you reaching for your wallet. Speaking of which, isn't it time you upgraded your wallet to a sleeker design made of ... cork? How about a candle in the shape of a cat ... in the lotus position? Novelty ice trays? In the trendy Lawrenceville boutique, you'll also find coffee-table books, ceramics, furnishings, local art, handcrafted greeting cards, even a jewelry counter -- all selected with an eye for style that's guaranteed to intrigue.

 

Best independent musical instrument store
Pianos N' Stuff Music
468 Freeport Road, Blawnox. 412-828-1003 or www.nstuffmusic.com
Want the huge inventory and premium brands of a chain store, but prefer to buy the instrument of your dreams -- or your budget -- from a local outlet? Blawnox's Pianos N' Stuff, in business since 1968, should be your first stop. Play a little "Stairway" in the front room, surrounded by gleaming guitars and amps, or try out your chops on an electronic drum kit in the percussion area. A separate room offers keyboards, synthesizers and electronics; another has recording equipment; and downstairs, you'll find a few used instruments. But most useful for a musician on a budget is the rental service, offering everything from an enormous PA and recording equipment to guitars and microphones -- what better way to try out gear before splurging on it? And Pianos N' Stuff's annual March Madness sale is legendary, drawing lines of bargain-hunters around the block.

 

Best place to see a movie by yourself
Harris Theater
809 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-682-4111 or www.pghfilmmakers.org
There are few things more humiliating than walking into a crowded theater by yourself and having the young hipster at the ticket counter say, "JUST one?" Watching a movie alone at the Harris Theater, in Downtown's Cultural District, is the perfect place to make a date with yourself without such condescending intrusions. Sit in the theater's balcony seats with your bag of popcorn and soda, where you have the best view of the screen; where the people below can't see you; and, where you can pretend you're Waldorf or Statler from The Muppets, quietly heckling all the people below you who are suffering through awkward dates while you can laugh or cry as loud as you want, without caring what the person beside you thinks.

 

click to enlarge Word up: Pam Wilson, a Big Idea Collective member for five years, mans the bookstore's Chomsky collection. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Word up: Pam Wilson, a Big Idea Collective member for five years, mans the bookstore's Chomsky collection.

Best place to bone up on Chomsky
The Big Idea Infoshop
504 Millvale Ave., Bloomfield. 412-687-4323 or www.thebigideapgh.org
Nursing a yen for zines? Pining for Bookchin? Searching for volumes on sexual identity? The Big Idea is the little shop that can meet your needs. It's a volunteer-run nonprofit bookstore on Millvale just south of West Penn Hospital. (Prior to relocating there, the store came of age in Wilkinsburg in the early part of the decade.) It's the spot to find new books with a lefty bent -- everything from alternative health to bicycle repair to popular history finds a place on its shelves. Do yourself a favor, though: Call ahead before you make a trip there -- some of the store's weekday hours are tentative.

 

Best alternative map
Bike PGH's Bike Pittsburgh Map
www.bikepgh.org
For those who frequently travel by bicycle, the member-driven (-pedaled?) advocacy group's November 2007 release of the first new biking map since the first Clinton administration was cause for no-hands celebration. The map's route suggestions (conveyed by color-coded streets), the steepness indicators, and the shout-outs to local landmarks and bike-repair shops were all a boon. The just-released 2.0 version is even better. It's about 20 percent smaller, for easier handling; the route markings are even more detailed; and best of all, it's got a handy guide to those conceptual flat tires in every 'Burgh biker's day: the bridges. Written by folks who know because they go, these brief paragraphs should prove useful to novices and veterans alike.

 

Best collection of locally themed books outside the library
Caliban
410 S. Craig St., Oakland. 412-681-9111 or www.calibanbooks.com
The 2008 Carnegie International features an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, in which landmark works of philosophy and literature are crammed inside a cave-like space. Which is to say it's a bit like Caliban -- especially if your interest is in the rare and the local. Caliban offers an extensive collection of locally themed books, ranging from municipal histories to steelmaking manuals, alongside its copious collection of poetry, back issues of The Believer and a slew of rare tomes. Caliban has also recently opened up a temporary discount store a few doors down to get rid of its warehouse overstock. Book-lovers enter at their peril.

 

click to enlarge Heidi Weitz, reflected in the specs of client Wale Williams. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Heidi Weitz, reflected in the specs of client Wale Williams.

Best place to get framed
HeidiOptics
223 Fourth Ave., Downtown. 412-281-7022 or www.heidioptics.com
Born into the eyewear game, Heidi Weitz launched her own shop in 2005 to showcase "hand-picked eyewear from around the world," which she herself scours up in spectacle-conscious spots like Berlin, Paris and Japan. Weitz also retrofits gorgeous vintage frames from the dusty inventories she finds: "I have a guy in the south of France whose family has been in the business for like 100 years who is putting together a collection for me right now." Weitz has an uncanny ability to match her customers' faces, personalities and needs with the right pair of specs. "I care strangely that the frames and face match, that people both look and feel good about their glasses." Her brand-spankin' new store has just opened in the historic Benedum-Trees building on the street level.

 

Best place to buy a good-luck charm
Journeys of Life
810 Bellefonte St., Shadyside. 412-681-8755 or www.journeysoflife.com
When the Xanax runs out and you are still freaking out about that possible promotion, a trip to Journeys of Life might be the answer to calm your nerves. Pick up "A Pocket Full of Wealth" -- a bag with three stones "picked to reflect the qualities of one who feels wealthy" -- while you're waiting for the news. The store, a calming retreat from nearby busy Walnut Street, has shelves full of similar good-luck items; most sell for under $5, like a three-legged wooden pig, four-leaf-clover stones and tiny silver wishbones. Make sure you pick up some incense, feng shui crystals and a simplicity "potential" necklace to complete your spiritual journey.

 

Best farmers' market
Farmers@Firehouse
2216 Penn Ave., Strip District. 9 a.m-1 p.m. Saturdays (seasonal)
No offense to any of the area's other fine weekly meeting grounds for folks who grow our food, but this foodie magnet has it all. It's mostly organic, for one -- the region's only market with that distinction, and just the first sign of its commitment to sustainable agriculture. It also might be the only in-city farmers' market that regularly offers pastured beef, pork, chicken and lamb. And eggs. Oh, yeah, and fresh bread, cooking demonstrations, a mushroom guy and, once in a while, a traveling beehive display. On Saturdays, the Strip might seem to overflow with food -- and shoppers -- but since 2002 it's made welcome room for this place.

 

click to enlarge HEATHER MULL

Best place this side of Italy to hang with lotsa salami
Parma Sausage Company
1734 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-391-4238 or www.parmasausage.com
Founded and family-operated since 1954, Parma Sausage produces, right here in Pittsburgh, fantastically tasty, patiently aged cured meats that rival anything in the foofy import section of the grocery store. Upstairs from the shop are meticulously clean, climate-controlled drying rooms that could pass for installation art (except it smells MUCH nicer) featuring racks and racks of Genoa, veneto and rustico salamis, pepperoni, and the top dog of any deli tray, prosciutto. Plus, pancetta, king of all bacon! They're all just waiting for that magic moment when someone who loves them will take them home to meet the family.

 

Best place to buy a gift during an economic downturn
Handmade Arcade
www.handmadearcade.com
Pittsburgh's annual craft fair has gotten so big -- nearly 100 vendors and upwards of 10,000 patrons -- that its November 2008 edition had to be housed in a National Guard armory. Customers perused knit goods, hand-crafted soaps and toddler-wear just a few feet from where camouflaged Humvees stood guard, ensuring that while enemies may beset us from all sides, they will never lay hold of our adorable onesies. The products are fun, the prices were (mostly) reasonable -- and you could shop for gifts with little fear of someone else getting the same thing. All the while, the good folks at Artist Image Resource made sure no one went home empty-handed, silk-screening giant-sized copies of daily newspaper "Obama wins" headlines.

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