Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Palm Hammock Orchid Estate spreads out like a secret jungle, hidden in a mostly residential neighborhood just south of Snapper Creek Elementary School. The gravel parking lot behind an unassuming gateway is the last stop before entering the huge nursery's world of eerie calmness. The whispered burbling of waterfalls and koi ponds conspires with soft music and waving foliage to make the nursery a sort of meditative sanctuary in the middle of the Miami suburbs. Tim Anderson, who presides with wife Anne over the nursery he started 30 years ago, says the plant selection at Palm Hammock is eclectic. "I only grow what I like," he explains. "We started off growing cactus and succulents. Now we have the results of 30 years of collecting." Anderson describes the nursery as an artistic and spiritual endeavor, supported by his "money-making business," landscape architecture. Religious statues -- Buddhist and Hindu figures sitting alongside St. Francis -- and bird baths, benches, and fountains are scattered among the thousands of orchids, ferns, African violets, water lilies, tropical bonsai, and other flora that fill the estate's six greenhouses and grounds.
Looking for smut in a clean, well-lit place? Miami Playground leads the pack of porn palaces for the second year running. This family-run, triple-X emporium near MIA rents and sells hundreds of DVDs and videotapes featuring all (legal) ages, proclivities, and sexual exploits. If you haven't seen that rare chicks-with-dicks or ultimate gang-bang video, this may be the place to find it. The playground recently expanded to include more video booths and an adjacent boutique that sells leather, lace, and latex kink wear, as well as a wide variety of sex toys.
In 1978 La Ideal was just another mom-and-pop operation on Flagler Street (305-548-3296) offering its wares to expectant immigrant parents living in East Little Havana. Today it is a veritable conglomerate, with three additional stores in Miami (305-716-1140), Hialeah (305-826-2021), and Broward County, all ready to deliver (so to speak) everything new mommies and daddies could want for that little bundle of joy. At the Hialeah location the aisles are stocked from floor to ceiling with affordable and designer bedding sets, blankets, car seats, bottles, and pacifiers. One full aisle is dedicated to nothing but food bibs. Row upon row of strollers, cribs, and baby furniture, including rockers that beckon pregnant women with visions of sweet lullabies.
The snowy-haired Dr. Smith, owner of the Trail Animal Clinic, has been tending to Miami's domestic pets since 1968. In that time he's developed a reputation for being some sort of kindly animal whisperer. Wounded or sick animals might be barking or squawking madly in the waiting room, but when Dr. Smith lays his hands on them, gently pressing their coats, probing for injuries or tense organs, furry and feathered friends mellow out. The veteran vet soothes not only his four-legged patients but also the humans who love them. Each pet and his or her master receive his full attention until everyone is agreed on the best course of action. It's that personal touch, a far different experience from the chain clinics, that makes all the difference.
If it weren't for places like Cycle World, we'd all be on those stupid-ass cruisers by now. Of course the cruisers are cool and easy to ride, and you can get them at this place too. But you don't go to Cycle World for the motorcycle handlebars and mod look of South Beach. Go because you like to take a serious ride on weekends -- or every day. For weekenders the shop can start you out with GT, Giant, or Trek road or mountain bikes at the best prices in town, which is why Cycle World won this award last year. Want to upgrade to a better bicycle? How much money can you spend? Just to make you feel better about spending that much, they'll throw in a 60-day warranty (not including flat tires).
Readers Choice: Mack Cycle and Fitness
The eternal winner, and deservedly so. Given that so much of the overall retail scene is dominated by chain stores, and that in books the competition is especially stiff, it's heartening that Books & Books has managed to survive, indeed thrive. The store deserves kudos for its informed staff, its hosting of a wide variety of book-discussion groups, its hefty schedule of author readings and other events (of which a fair number are in Spanish, including the just-launched readings for niños), and its gem of a main store, with its delightful courtyard. And unlike the cafés at a number of the national bookstore emporiums, which have about as much charm as a college student center, the café at Books & Books is a decidedly pleasant enhancement to literary pursuits.
Readers Choice: Books & Books
Brightly colored beaded flags depicting vodou gods, snakes, and apparitions decorate the walls of Papa Paul's emporium of the spirits in Little Haiti. The flags drape above vitrines full of powerful objects such as wood-carved saints, hand-stitched satin kerchiefs in myriad hues, and cloth dolls with no faces. Painted maracas, devotional beads, and various perfumes and tonics for luck, love, and batting down evil spirits all can be found here. Papa keeps things friendly and welcoming, especially to the uninitiated. He also has space available for private consultations. If you're lucky, you might receive a tour of the back room -- a spacious garage decorated with worship murals used as a temple. You'll be luckier still if you are able to witness one of Papa's intense and beautiful ceremonies performed there.
A misnomer if we've ever seen one. Dan had a lot of loyal customers, so when Manfred and Josephine Wenzel immigrated here from Germany and took over the business 26 years ago, "We didn't change anything," Mrs. Wenzel says today. Completely utilitarian shop space, with all the artisan tools Mr. Wenzel brought from the old country, where he studied camera repair for three and a half years in the great German tradition: "No computers! Za more sophisticated za camera, za more trouble! I'm an old man from za old school! [Film] transport and electronic shutter speed are complicated." It's why virtually all of Miami's professional photographers patronize Dan's. Wenzel, of course, will work on digitals, which he predicts will take over completely in ten years. He's sophisticated in not wanting to name a "best" camera, but his voice rises when you mention Rolleiflex and Voigtlander, two traditional German camera manufacturers who, like Leica, set the standard. "Right now we're in business. Later, when za digitals vin, I'll sit at home and vatch the pool through the back door. But not yet!"
Sick of driving in a dirty car? At the venerable Leo's you can get your vehicle sprayed, scrubbed, and dried by a team of specialists for as little as ten dollars. Throw down an extra five bucks and they'll vacuum the inside too. You can also spend quite a bit more for a detailing that will make your wheels look brand-new. Be sure to set aside a half-hour or so for a straight wash as the folks here like to take their time and do a thorough job, which they've been doing at this location for years. The resulting gleam that will flicker off your car, an amazing effect that was nearly impossible when it was covered in dirt and bird doo, will be well worth the wait. And the wait is made quite pleasant by the adjacent presence of Andiamo, winner of last year's Best Gourmet Pizza.
Readers Choice: Busy Bee
Located in a nondescript strip mall for the past seventeen years, this small shop is easily overlooked -- but shouldn't be. Its interior is packed floor to ceiling with all the superhero-related collectibles one expects from comics' "golden age," right up to the current "collectors' age" (because a mint-condition Superman Action Comics #1 from the days your granddad was a kid could put your child through college). Also you'll find trading cards of sports stars and cartoon characters, action figures, eye-popping Day-Glo superhero T-shirts, and a full assortment of contemporary comics. But like all the best superheroes, this store has a secret identity. Ask nicely, and mild-mannered proprietor Glenn Lightfoot will slip into the back room and emerge minutes later as Bargain Bin Boy, savior of comic-book lovers who actually want to read the things rather than collect them. Instead of today's average $2.25 to $3.00 funny book (not so funny for roughly a fifteen-minute read), Lightfoot's bargain books are just 50 cents each. And it's good stuff, too, in good condition: lots of Batman, Superman, Spidey, Spawn, all the X-folk titles, even some graphic novels originally priced at five to ten dollars a pop.
Austin's has been serving the dive community since 1968. In Miami, that's a very long time indeed. Here's why the customers keep coming back and why Austin's has won this award twice before: a huge inventory from more than 75 vendors, a highly professional sales staff, experienced resident diving experts, and first-rate technical support in service and repairs. Underwater-photography equipment is a specialty, with an unrivaled selection of cameras ranging from $15.50 disposables to $1000 movie cameras. For novices or accomplished technical divers, Austin's has what you need.
Readers Choice: Austins Diving Center
Following a 2002 incident when a Key Biscayne resident drove into a parking lot via the exit and punctured all four tires on those mean-looking spikes they have at rental car outfits too, this flea market's general manager, Scott Miller, put up "about 500 traffic signs" so navigating the streets and parking lot "is no longer an adventure," he promises. Once you get inside, however, that's a different story. Open seven days from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., the market -- eighteen years and going strong -- is teeming with more than 1000 vendors, including 70 offering farm-fresh produce, plus thirteen eateries. Shoppers and sellers come from around the world, and these days record crowds are pouring in, mostly on weekends, with an average of 85,000 hunting the sprawling grounds over two days. You can find most anything at this flea, but Miller notes, "We do not do gold-filled teeth." That was at a flea market across the county line in Broward, and supposedly those parking-lot dentists were shut down.