READERS' PICK: Yikes! That's what you can't help but yelp upon entering this independent toy store, which recently abandoned downtown for a more lucrative location a couple of doors down from Austin's Ice Cream. That was a reasonable move, but everything else about the place is absolutely nuts. This may be the only store in the country that actually stocks all that stuff that used to be advertised in comic books -- such classics as hot-pepper gum and vinyl barf. Even more impressive is the selection of rubber snakes and plastic bugs, not to mention the severed hands and loose eyeballs -- rolling eyeballs, bouncing eyeballs, floating-candle eyeballs, even finger-puppet eyeballs ("Honey, I'm having trouble putting on my contact lenses...."). What's really creepy, though, is the nun motif: boxing nuns, squeaking nuns, springing nuns, lunch box nuns. And even though Sally Field's flying nun is nowhere in sight, we like it, we really like it! The wind-up toys, the wooden tops, the stickers, the model cars are all fine, but it's the gross stuff that lures us, again and again, from our padded cells.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: The Dancing Gecko, 2443 N. Campbell Ave. The Dancing Gecko houses a spirited assemblage of creative housewares and rusticos to spruce up your humble abode...or adobe, as the case may be. The decor is pure Frida Kahlo, with the offerings reminiscent of her famed Casa Azul. Brightly painted tables and chairs, paintings, pottery, terra cotta chimineas, and an assortment of Mexican folk-crafts are included in a collection that would surely raise Frida's eyebrow in longing.
MORE MANIA: Tanque Verde Swap Meet, 4100 S. Palo Verde Road. Reality blurs into fantasy as you find yourself submerged in a world of glitter cosmetics, Teletubbies paraphernalia, moldy K-tel records, swatches of rabbit fur, platform shoes and kettle corn. Utopia? Perhaps, but most definitely the Tanque Verde Swap Meet. Wander the seemingly endless, dusty pathways that lead from one booth to the next, pilfering through pink and turquoise collectibles for your personal Holy Grail. Is it a Spice Girls address book you seek? That Mr. T doll you coveted as a kid? The possibilities are so seductive, you might just have to come back again the next day.
MORE MANIA: House of Pottery, 5020 E. Speedway Blvd. You've seen that bumper sticker, SH** HAPPENS? The advertisement for House of Pottery should read GARDENS HAPPEN. At least, that seems to characterize the serendipitous decorating design of this loco business, if it deigned to have a plan at all. The name is a misnomer as well; this place has a heck of a lot more to see than pottery, from the very funky to the relatively functional, and from the slightly touched to the definitely deranged, all items to enthuse a garden suffering too much sedation. Gargoyles and Buddhas. Rubber gnomes and ceramic raccoons. Japanese pagodas and Mexican wrought iron trellises. Salty old sea captains carved out of tree trunks. Metallic-colored gazing balls the size of basketballs. The stuff is piled around the yard, creating enchanting paths. If something's broken or not sold for a long time, it ends up becoming part of the landscape. A few pieces have been turned into kinetic sculpture, in the back of the lot, beyond the lily-padded fish ponds. A discarded metal bed frame serves as latticework for some vines, giving new meaning to the term "flower beds." And there is pottery, of course, very competitively priced. Don't let the heat keep you away; the staff usually sets out a huge Thermos of ice cold tea, so you can sip a refreshment as you wander about and try to separate the cute from the crazed.