At some point, almost all of the big mall computer stores decided they couldn't afford to hire salespeople who actually know anything. Micro Center is the exception: Prices are competitive, but Micro Center also puts smart salespeople on the floor. Their own line of computers is usually a good buy, and the shelves almost always offer a fuller line of choices, from peripherals to software, than what you will find anywhere else. Another miracle: When the salespeople don't know the difference, they say, "I don't know the difference."
It may be time to retire this category for one simple reason: No one comes close to matching GameStop's selection of new and used video games and hardware. That's why this Grapevine-based company, with more than 1,300 stores nationally, is a perennial winner in Best of Dallas. The clerks know their merchandise; the prices, while not greatly discounted, are reasonable; and we doubt that it's possible to drive more than a few miles in Dallas without being near one of the chain's locations. But why do we love it so? Here's why: We wandered in looking for a copy of the coveted Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the day it was released. "Have you preordered a copy?" the clerk asked. "No," we said, lip trembling, tears welling in our childlike, 41-year-old eyes. No problem. He felt our pain and reached under the counter to find us a reserve copy. The guys at GameStop? They know your joneses, fellow gamers, and they sympathize.
Comic-book auctions have become quite a lucrative market in recent years, and the king of this particular hill is Dallas' Heritage Comics Auctions. For example: Last year, when Nicolas Cage decided to sell off his entire comic-book collection--which contained such prize books as Action Comics No. 1 (the first appearance of Superman) and All-Star Comics No. 3 (the debut of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team)--he went with Heritage. Spider-Man/X-Men/Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee also tapped the auction house when he wanted to sell off a sizable chunk of his (obviously) extensive assortment of books. Though Heritage still deals primarily in rare coins, the comic trade made the company more than $10 million since it began dealing in funny books in 2001--and that was before they helped Cage sell his collection. If you've got a big wallet rubbing up against a set of Incredible Hulk Underoos, look no further. Oh, and the second-best place? Mark Cuban's house.

Best Inexpensive Internet Service

Texas.Net

Dial-up service is fast becoming antique, but Texas.Net's $20-a-month home service is the best cheap and reliable Internet access we know of. The 9-year-old Austin-based outfit is a boutique among giants, but the big guys could learn a thing or two from them about service. In five years we've never had access or billing problems, and the e-mail is as reliable as it comes. Perhaps the best part is the e-mail address you get on their system: yourstrulytexas.net. Nobody will think you hail from Philadelphia with an address like that. It's Lone Star all the way.

So we needed some leather cleaner. Nearly $100 later, we left Elliott's with things we needed and things we didn't and were once again assured that this is probably the best hardware store on the planet. Not to be sexist, but the male buying impulse is so well identified and satisfied here that even the cookware looks good. Of course, the formula is simple. High-quality goods are well displayed and backed up by a knowledgeable sales staff. Sure, this is the perennial pick. But to send you anywhere else for the sake of novelty would be untrue to the double-blind-test, peer-review standards we employ in these matters.
Sure, you can buy one of those hardware-store chain saws that are light and dainty and easy to start. But what's the point? Would you buy a hybrid-electric Harley? You need a big damn chain saw. Loud! You need one of them orange helmets with a visor. You need chain saw chaps. In fact, if you get the orange helmet and the chaps, you might not even need the saw! So don't go to the hardware store. Go to Gassett, where the real lumberjacks and lumberjills go. They got Stihl (pronounced "Steel," by the way). They got Echo. The real stuff. Don't be a chain saw wannabe. Be real! Get Stihl!

Whether you're a pro or just a weekend hobbyist who loves the eau de toilette of freshly cut grass blended with two-cycle engine emissions, Casey's has the goods--even those heavy-duty back-mounted leaf blowers that look like flamethrowers (Die, leaf pile! Die!). Casey's has all the brands that draw lawn grunts--Toro, Honda, Echo, Snapper, Stihl, Shindaiwa, Lawn Boy--and offers pickup and delivery service. Plus the staff is polite, knowledgeable and accommodating, which isn't easy when your head is humming with a two-cycle weed whacker buzz all day.

Didn't you ever want to dig a hole in the back yard, put some water lilies in it, put some fish in it, sit around and look at it? Well, you should, man. What's the matter with you? Nowadays everybody sells the basic equipment, even Home Depot, but most of the people who sell it have no idea how to do it. The people at Water Gardens Galore originally got into the business by servicing existing ponds. They really know their stuff, and they can tell you how to avoid the pitfalls, such as mosquitoes. (You buy little mosquito-eaters, and it's no sweat after that.) There's a little bit of an art to it, and they can tell you what it is. Live in an apartment? You can do a balcony pond. Really. Time to move? Heave-ho over the edge. It's part of the natural cycle.

Best Place to be Stuck in the 20th Century

Movie Trading Company

We know someone--the name begins with "M" and rhymes with "brother"--who still doesn't own a DVD player. She claims she never will but defends her right to complain that no one carries videocassettes anymore. Lucky for her (and her technophobe brethren), there is one last sanctuary. Movie Trading Company still carries VHS tapes, and used ones are only $5.99. But if you buy four--say, Dirty Dancing, Memphis Belle, Road House and Autumn in New York--then they're five bucks apiece. There are rows upon rows, because, really, what 15 people don't need an almost-new copy of Teen Wolf? Let's just hope this oasis in the desert of DVDs doesn't dry up. Mom might have to learn to work another scary small appliance.

An evil-eye talisman is a Turkish charm that is supposed to bring luck and ward off those who wish to do you harm--both concepts we can get on board with. Plus, they look really cute on a gold chain or possibly a silver bracelet. Yes, we're superstitious, but not at the expense of fashion. In any case, the best place to go for the evil eye is Another Time & Place, on the trendy Knox-Henderson strip (a second location opened in Plano earlier this year). They've got evil eyes for every occasion and every person. Besides jewelry, there are evil-eye key chains, magnets, coin purses, door hangers and more. So, really, there's no excuse not to protect yourself. But that's not all. Another Time & Place is the trinket-shopper's crack house. The stuff's always there, and you can never get enough. But for some reason, we're always drawn to the good-luck charms; you know, like mini-Buddhas and three-legged pigs...OK, fine, make fun if you wish, but you might as well break a bunch of mirrors and stand under a ladder.

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