OK, we don't know much about toys. Anymore. Once you get more modern than G.I. Joe and the video game Asteroids, we are usually lost. So we went to two matchless sources to find the best toy store out there: The New Yorker magazine and our six-year-old son. "I like the... Toys R Us a lot," wrote the New Yorker's Paul Goldberger. "It's exuberant, and doesn't try to be important." OK, Goldberger was writing specifically about the grand new toy store in Times Square (the likes of which you won't find in South Florida) as it compares with the work of Prada architect Rem Koolhaas. But still, it says something about the company. Not as much, however, as our six-year-old did: "It's the best." Good enough for us.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that during the sub-freezing stillness of Northern winters, palm trees rustle at the edge of every snowbound mind, that 9/11 and the recession have cast a pall over the land, and that tourism is suffering. South Floridians young and old, don't just wait for it to pass. You are duty-bound to offer our portion of the state as a paradisiacal antidote. Chief among the ways to achieve this is packaging, packaging, packaging. Fortunately, Lilly Pulitzer has blazed the trail. More than four decades ago, managing three children, catering to husband Peter Pulitzer (who later married the infamous Roxanne), and holding up her end of the Palm Beach party scene wasn't enough for the bohemian Palm Beach socialite. In 1960, Lilly opened an orange juice stand. To hide the juice stains, she had some shifts stitched up in bright patterns from dime-store fabrics. Customers dug them. She made more shifts. She went national with loud, geeky-yet-cheeky, custom-designed prints on polished cotton from Key West material. Thus, out of a pragmatic-yet-stylish aesthetic was born the über-signifier of the sun-kissed, carefree Florida-cum-Palm Beach lifestyle. This year, more than ever, we need Lilly. The Fort Lauderdale store has her whole line, including bedding, clothing, fabrics, and accessories. The Little Lilly, a child's cotton-lined shift with fabric bows and a novelty trim chain at the pockets ($60-64) done in fabrics like Myrtle (green sea turtles on a sea-blue background) or Sunrise (swirling suns on yellow) is as sweet as ice cream sherbet. Lilly has said her prints are "happy." Happy, right now, is what our visitors need. Dress the family in Lilly and get out there and frolic, damn it.

One of this chain's four Florida locations, this seven-month-old outpost beats out its competition by keeping things on a human scale while still offering a wide selection. Tucked into the corner of a strip mall rather than in an airplane-hangar-sized megawarehouse, the place is packed with tastefully arranged model rooms -- half the floor with crib-centered baby layouts, the other half with beds for older kids. Yet it doesn't feel cluttered. The walls are lined with shelves of toys, lamps, diaper bags, strollers, and such. There are familiar brand names ranging from mass marketers like Graco to boutique European manufacturers like Baby Bjorn. And there's unconventional stuff. A Potty Time Bear, which plays music and helps with toilet-training, goes for $19.99. Then there's the five-foot-long Tinkle-Crinkle, a worm-like toy that tinkles, crinkles, rattles, and squeaks, for $119.99. Although the array of products is impressive, it is the knowledgeable, attentive-yet-not-pushy presence of owner Sam Salkashawi and family that lends the place its welcoming, small-business feel -- as opposed to those other stores, where you can't ignore the fact that you've been sucked into the clutches of the dreaded Baby Industrial Complex (second in sinisterdom only to the Wedding Industrial Complex). The store is open most evenings. But hours change virtually every day. So call ahead.
Left alone for eight hours, most dogs look for something to chew. That is how hapless owners have lost furniture, shoes, and just about every other valuable possible to masticate. Central Bark is one of many businesses that has come to the rescue of the career-driven and guilt-ridden dog owner, although to get your canine enrolled feels like you're applying to an exclusive prep school. To gain admittance, owners must fill out a five-page application and bring said pooch in for a Saturday interview. Of course, the interviewers want to know whether the dog has had shots. But Central Bark also asks what commands your pooch knows, whether he or she pulls on the leash when walking, and if there are any particular breeds of dog or types of humans he or she doesn't like. Once accepted, friendly dogs are separated by size, age, and disposition, then let loose to play in a 5500-square-foot, air-conditioned indoor area or in a 1000-square-foot outside area, accompanied at all times by a "counselor" who encourages romping and squelches any developing turf wars over toys. Rates range from $18 to $22 per day, depending upon size. For the truly pampered canine, Central Bark also hosts birthday parties with cake, ice cream, and peanut-butter treats at $20 per dog.
What is more eternally chic than dogs as accessories? At this Hollywood puppy boutique, you can peruse the world's furriest miniatures. Created four years ago by a Dania Beach woman with 13 dogs and an angry condo association telling her to get rid of them or else, Tea Cups started out as a refuge for toy breeds with nowhere else to scurry. But business boomed, and now the shop sells Yorkies, Maltese, pugs, poodles, Chihuahuas, and any other breed weighing less than 20 pounds. The canines lounge in comfort on down beds, sipping their equivalent of Cristal. Part clothing store, Tea Cups also lets you play dress-up. Bones are so passé. Try a summer sweater, zip jacket, a demure hat, a crystal collar, or the popular pink- or gold-sequined bathing suit, which is priced at $29.99.
The room was ready when we arrived, with a blanket on the floor for Roscoe to lie on. One, then another of the several female doctors on staff came in to verify the cancer's relentless damage. They greeted the old guy warmly and treated him gingerly, as if he were their own dog, and offered us sympathy and assurances that we were doing the right thing at the right time. They left us alone with him a few final minutes and let us choose whether to remain with him. We stayed and held him. When the time arrived, they gave Roscoe a Milkbone as they swiftly but carefully administered the freedom-producing mixture. He drifted off into an eternal sleep as we all cried. They left us with him a few minutes more, then hugged us as we left. They would handle the cremation. Gentleness and compassion. That's what makes this animal hospital number one.
Barnes & Noble Booksellers
With one of the biggest book selections in Broward -- 170,000 volumes -- this massive retailer has no local equals. It's the largest, newest, and the only two-story location among the four B&N stores in the county. The place even boasts a system that allows you to listen to every CD they carry. But the reason to come here is the books. There's a large section that caters to the gay and lesbian community in nearby Wilton Manors, as well as substantial travel and children's areas. Until a big independent like Liberties Fine Books, Music and Café (which closed last year) returns, this is the place to get even the most obscure titles, friendliest service, and widest local-author selection. For a look at the latter, flip through former New Times writers' first books -- Ben Greenman's Superbad and Steve Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal. There are also the SoFla staples: Dave Barry, James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen. It's open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
This is a bookstore torn from a book lover's imaginings and plopped down in the most unbookish of settings: amid a visual jumble of strip malls and shopping centers just south of the busy intersection of Oakland Park Boulevard and Federal Highway. The current vice president of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association has plied his trade here since 1978 after growing out of a nearby store that he opened in 1974. It may not look like much from the outside, but open the door and it's a browser's treasure-trove -- more than 100,000 used and rare volumes are packed into a warren of narrow aisles and shelves that rise straight up to the second-story ceiling. Hittel brags he has books from 25 cents up to $14,500 (for a rare copy of Charles Dickens's serialized A Tale of Two Cities). On a recent Saturday, a financial planner stacked old books on the checkout counter, trying to get the right mix to give his office an intellectual veneer. He was puzzled by the rapt look of the other shoppers, lingering over Dog's Bark, a limpid collection of essays by Truman Capote ($20), or leafing through a wood-bound scrapbook of a family's 1941 Florida vacation ($75). For bookstore visitors, it's the outsides as well as the insides that confer the magic. And inside this place, it's easy to get lost. "I didn't know this was here," marveled a tall hipster with bobbed burgundy hair who had wandered into the store and then spent the better part of an hour hunched in the photography section.
Looking at this place, located in an innocuous strip mall on the beach side of the 17th Street Causeway, you wouldn't even know its name. But you'd definitely know its wares. Large, brightly lit signs proclaim LIQUOR and PUB LOUNGE in red letters. Inside, you'll find a good selection of high-end liquors. A bottle of Cragganmore Scotch Whisky, some of the finest money can buy, runs $40. And what's that sound coming from the back door? Why, it's a little bar attached to the rear of the store, for those impulse buyers who need their alcohol this very minute. Don't be afraid, now. Sure, this place is about as local a bar as you'll find, but the locals are friendly. From the bartenders -- one a surly man with a buzz cut and another a Johnny Cash look-alike -- to the regulars, most of whom live on boats or in houses with docks, everyone's affable once you get to know them.
Centrally located on what may be the most civilized street in the county -- the elegant, tree-lined heart of Palm Beach's north end -- this newsstand offers a selection that mirrors the elite resort island's population of international transients. The collection of dailies and newsmagazines is heavily Eurocentric, with British, German, and Italian publications more in evidence than those of U.S. origin. With magazine racks as fashion-oriented as the clientele, this is a great place to catch the glamorous in repose, faux-aristos parking their poodles at the curb while they pick up a pack of cigs and the news from back home. Join them as they read at an outdoor table at swanky Chuck & Harold's up the block. Or save a few bucks, taking in your Corriere della Sera with an ice cream cone from Sprinkles next door.

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