Best Of :: Shopping & Services
"Where's the bargains?" No, it's not grammatically correct, and yes, you might occasionally find better pricing on Craigslist, but if you are a living, breathing, deal-hunting Floridian, you can't help but utter a Pavlovian "At the Swap Shop!" response anytime someone utters the above question. The Swap Shop slogan that was first made famous on local TV ads a few years back has even made its way into remix territory on YouTube. But it's not just the cheesy slogan that makes the Swap Shop one of the state's largest tourist attractions (the owners claim it is second only to Disney); it's the complete unpredictability of the vendors' goods on display. Airbrushed Jesus T-shirts, discounted adult toys, quinceañera garb, designer perfumes, vintage Atari games, tables upon tables of tube socks, a dozen roses for under ten bucks, and cheap produce can all be scored from one of the 2,000 vendors on hand, seven days a week.
Millions of years from now, when archaeologists are trying to figure out how we lived circa 2012, they need only unearth the site of the Sawgrass Mills Mall. Our entire culture can be deduced from a Marshalls, a Best Buy Mobile, and a SuperTarget, plus a 23-screen theater with IMAX and some fossilized Chick-fil-A. Although the mall is a legendary draw for tourists — easy to recognize because they're pushing three shopping carts apiece — we locals would go mad and broke if we came here habitually, because the place is so massive that it triggers sensory overload. But once in a great while, when the skies are gray and you've gotten a good night's sleep, come here to shop — and shop hard. While the prices in many shops aren't hugely discounted, you sure as hell can't beat the selection. Among the 350 stores are a TJ Maxx, a Burlington Coat Factory, and a Bed Bath and Beyond — seriously, it's like Sawgrass Mills eats a box store every morning for breakfast. Be strategic. Try not to get sidelined by the tower of gumball machines or the SpongeBob pajama seller, and save your energy for the real deals at Last Call by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom Rack.
Sincerity is an increasingly endangered species. When someone earnestly tells you to "prepare to rule the world" after performing a few hip-opening stretches, its tempting to roll the eyes or, at the very least, stifle a laugh. But just one muscle-melting session inside this cocoon of a studio will cure that cynical knee jerk. Pick a class — seriously, any class; all of the instructors are fantastic — and see what you've been missing at your atmosphere-free corporate gym. Hot or warm, Vinyasa or raja, easy or seemingly death-defying, this recently expanded space caters to yogis of all ilk. Don't try to fight it: The passion and positivity exuded by the staff and classmates are catching. Just get your ass in the studio, chant a few "oms," and admit that you actually like feeling this good.
Once upon a time, massages seemed like fairy-tale creations available only to Condé Nast-reading, spa-going rich men and their trophy wives. But then a friend tipped us off to this cool studio that puts massage in reach of us little people. Owners Frank Velaz and MaryLou DiNicolas use massage to alleviate real injuries — from accidents, sports, baby-making, stress, and carpal tunnel — so they accept insurance. One arm of the business caters to pregnant ladies whose backs are aching from the baby weight; specially designed massage tables have cutouts that make room for a big belly and two bloated boobies, and MaryLou doubles as a doula. The therapy is not just physical but emotional too. They'll talk like new best friends if you're chatty and need to vent, but if you're jonesing for some quiet time, they'll shut up and let the darkened room and aromatherapy work their healing magic. Thai massage, couples massage, cupping, and yoga classes are all in their repertoire too.
When it comes to finding safe activities for kids, parents are in a major bind these days. What's that, you say? Go to the beach? In this 100-degree heat? Snoogums will get a sunburn. The indoor play place? Those rackets charge $20 a pop. A private babysitter? Sigh... they're probably pedophiles. There is an oasis in this swamp of iniquity. At Calvary Chapel's flagship 75-acre campus in Fort Lauderdale, there's a massive playground with a state-of-the-art seesaw, an athletic field, and an entire skateboarding park. Four on-site eateries include a gourmet restaurant with table service (try the portobello steak; it's divine) and a Starbucks-like coffee shop. Should you want to explore this resort-like paradise sans kids for a while, browse in the bookstore or take a Tae Bo class at the sports complex — or catch the sermon; that's an option too. While you do, young'uns can be dropped off for free childcare. Infants and toddlers play with toys, albeit biblical-themed, in the nursery, and school-aged kids act out plays in the theater. Sure, your precious pumpkin might come home with a little Jesus on his play clothes, but is there really any harm in it? Just make sure the kids don't get too addicted... next, they will be asking you to shell out $2,550 so they can spend spring break with the high school missionary team in Uganda.
The folks who don Statue of Liberty costumes and dance the day away for all the cars on Hallandale Beach Boulevard are so reliable that they should be reference points in local traffic reports. Jesus Abikarram, manager of Liberty Tax Service (get the costume reference?), says he employs a steady flow of dancers on the sidewalk from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during tax season, rotating them through four-hour shifts. All the dancers have their own approach to get through a shift. One, who wished to remain nameless, was jamming the Bee Gees and lip-synching into a water bottle on a warm March day. "I get a lot of honks and a lot of whistles," he said. "I get a lot of middle fingers too."
Chelsea and Fred Marando opened their place in 2009 as a hub for local, organic produce. In a few short years, they've grown so much that the farm is supplying restaurants in addition to families. Grab a bag and a pair of scissors at the entrance so you can clip your own herbs and lettuces. Browse the baskets of bright fruits and veggies. Pop inside the general store for beautiful pumpernickel breads, marbled rye, and olive loaves, plus raw milk, homemade preserves, locally roasted coffee, and a vast selection of organic pet food. Want more? Buy into the community-supported agriculture program and get a weekly supply of star fruit, oranges, tomatoes, and such. Or go a step further and get your hands dirty by participating in the community garden on-site. Bring the kids — pigs, chickens, billy goats, and geese (all once abandoned and adopted by the farm) make a miniature petting zoo of sorts.
It's 6 p.m. on a Monday at Publix. Armed with shopping carts, 20- and 30-something men dressed in their work attire stroll through the various aisles. You can learn a lot about a man from his grocery cart. It's sort of like the real-life version of a dating website profile. The grocery-store choices reveal if he's healthy, if he can cook, and if he's got a job. The grocery store also provides for an assortment of simple conversation starters: Ask a guy to reach for something on a high shelf, or offer advice on something that he's considering dropping in his cart. Meeting over Coco Puffs is infinitely better than meeting some drunken fool who's pounding cheap beer at a bar downtown.
Most white-collar criminals 'round these parts are in it for the money — in the case of former Lauderdale Lakes Finance Director Larry Tibbs, however, the achievement isn't in how much he stole but how much he invented. To hide just how bad the city was at the whole "having money" thing, Tibbs used every trick in the book and several that weren't: He said the city was going to make money from sources that didn't exist, made up numbers for sources that did exist, and pilfered cash from sources that belonged to other people, according to an investigation by the Broward Office of the Inspector General. An all-star effort; any town looking to lie to taxpayers and bounce checks to the sheriff's office would be lucky to have him.
When he's not rapping onstage — or on top of a bar — Jacques Bruna, AKA Bleubird, can be found distributing ice pops and hosting local Record Store Day events, saving kittens from trees, and organizing area happenings with the creative collective Black Locust Society. Impossible to miss, the wildly charismatic Bruna is usually seen driving around in his multicolored ice-cream-truck/music-playing RV, the Freeebird. Regardless of the rhyme or reasons, this dude certainly makes Fort Lauderdale a bit more colorful.
Any disgruntled citizen can hurl insults during a school board meeting or launch a NIMBY crusade. Rita Solnet is the rare activist with powerful allies inside and outside government. Her diligently researched arguments prompt policy changes with far-reaching implications throughout the state. The Boca Raton mom helped found the national, nonpartisan group Parents Across America, which rails against privatization and high-stakes testing in schools. This year, she helped prevent a for-profit company with a dismal track record, Mavericks in Education, from opening three new charter schools in Palm Beach County. Then she took the fight to Tallahassee, successfully protesting a "parent empowerment" bill that would have allowed public schools to be converted to charters. Solnet saw the measure as an attempt to privatize schools and drive a wedge between parents and school administrators. "This bill no more empowers me than it does the gecko on my patio from taking over my home," Solnet wrote in a letter protesting the bill. Try arguing with that.
When Bill Di Scipio heard that officials were trying to land a contract for an immigration detention center in the quiet, low-tax town of Southwest Ranches, he went to a few meetings to investigate. What he thought he saw was a handful of bumbling and conspiratorial city officials bent on sealing a deal behind the backs of residents. The proposal — still in the works — calls for a contract between the town and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with a majority of the proceeds going to Corrections Corporation of America, which wants to build the 1,500-bed jail. Di Scipio launched a torrent of public-records requests for everything from emails to receipts, focusing on the shadowy work of Town Attorney Keith Poliakoff, who told council members, "The less we say, the better off we will be." When his requests went unanswered, Di Scipio started writing new ones, in broken English under the nom de plume of Frank Nurt. His name now elicits an audible groan from the city clerk in charge of public records, and Poliakoff smacked down a lawsuit from Di Scipio and his rookie lawyer over the $1.25 that he was incorrectly charged for copies of records. Di Scipio's tactics may be unorthodox, but his work has resulted in important information seeing the light of day, and his activist group persuaded Pembroke Pines to oppose the facility, opening that city to a big lawsuit from CCA.