The Best of Silicon Valley 2013

Shopping & Services | Editors' Picks

Black Cat Collective BLACK CAT COLLECTIVE: Best Place to Buy Vintage Hawaiian Gear, a Fur Coat and a Record Player All at the Same Time Photograph by Michael S. Gant

Best Place to Buy Vintage Hawaiian Gear, a Fur Coat and a Record Player All at the Same Time

Black Cat Collective Vintage Emporium

751 W. San Carlos St., San Jose. No store in the South Bay comes close to matching Black Cat Collective's vast array of vintage threads and toys. The red-leather suit from Michael Jackson's Thriller resides on a rack just a few feet away from a 1960s RCA Victor album. We could go into more detail about Black Cat's fur coats, oddball lamps and "Luau" room, but that would still be just scratching the surface. Even people whose closets are already full will appreciate the louche period mannequins scattered throughout the store. (JK)

Best Frontside Jewelry Grind

Bela La Vie

311 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell. Way at the back of the Campbell Courtyard lurks a secret paradise, where the wife of the Supreme Grandmaster of the Campbell Chapter of the Grand Council of Skateboard Elders runs a boutique. Here one can browse Bela Koi jewelry, home decor, kids' treats, funky accessories, vintage skateboard memorabilia, original artwork and more. Rachael Caballero, partner of Steve, runs the place. Both are often present, and the art shows on Friday nights just shred, to be honest. Steve has re-exploded on the scene a hundred times over, just in the last few years. The Bones Brigade documentary screened across the universe, and he even showed up to play for Agent Orange. Make sure you get one of the Bones replica jackets—that is, after you drop some cash for some jewelry. (GS)

Best New Invention Under the Sun

Lightweight, Flexible Solar Cells for Smartphones A car lacks the surface area to fully power up through panels of even the highest-efficiency solar cells. But cellphones, tablets and other handheld mobile devices plastered in gallium arsenide—the most effective material to harvest the sun's energy—could feasibly extend their battery life by 80 percent.

A Silicon Valley solar power company, Alta Devices, discovered a way to fabricate gallium arsenide into a sturdy, light and bendable form suitable for smartphones, laptops and other portable electronics. Place a suited-up device on your windowsill or car dashboard and, while it won't replace a battery, it will markedly cut down on energy consumption over the long run.

NASA uses gallium arsenide on satellites because it soaks up a high fraction of the light that hits it, unlike the less-effective thin-film photovoltaic strips you find on pocket calculators. Though the only current customer for Alta is the military, the South Bay manufacturer created a prototype shell for the Samsung Galaxy phone. The company says there's also huge potential for markets in developing countries, where cell phones are more ubiquitous than the energy outlets to power them. While automobiles still consume too much power for the micron-thin gallium arsenide to provide, specific functions could use sunlight-subsidized energy, like power steering or air conditioning. (JW)

Best Homebrew Store

Beer and WineMakers of America

755 E. Brokaw Road, San Jose. Homebrewing is growing in popularity. Local homebrew supply shops are attracting more customers than ever before, and many folks have turned to San Jose's Beer and WineMakers of America as their go-to homebrew store. Open since 1975, they have gained a loyal customer base largely thanks to their fair prices and friendly staff, including the knowledgeable and affable owner Rich. (AL)

Best Community Showcase

The Beerwalk Wine walks shedding light on local businesses have been mainstays throughout the valley. Leave it to the folks from Jack's Bar & Lounge to try the model with beer. Beerwalks took place last year in Japantown (twice), downtown Campbell and Willow Glen, connecting many folks to new-to-them local shops and restaurants. (AL)

Best Beer-and-Food Pairing Event

California Cafe Palo Alto

700 Welch Road, Palo Alto. The beer-food concept is not new, as the South Bay's 10 brewpubs naturally connect good food to fresh, local beer, but more folks are discovering the delights of special beer-and-food pairing events. California Cafe in Palo Alto hosts an ongoing brewmasters dinner series, and its annual South Bay Brewmasters dinner, held last February, filled the large, main dining area to capacity. Customers were treated to a five-course dinner that paired each course with two beers from different South Bay brewing companies, including Tied House, FireHouse Grill & Brewery, Los Gatos Brewing, Hermitage, Strike Brewing and Palo Alto Brewing. (AL)

Best Place to Watch Ping Pong

ICC Table Tennis Program

525 Los Coches St., Milpitas. Who knew a converted South Bay warehouse doubled as an Olympic training ground for table tennis? Since opening up eight years ago, the Indian Community Center in Milpitas has served up tournaments battled out by nationally ranked Ping Pong champs. Actually, three of the four U.S. Olympic table tennis players consider this their go-to spot to train: Timothy Wang, Lily Zhang and Ariel Hsing.

But it isn't necessary to claim Olympic accolades to enjoy the back-and-forth rush of some "Balls of Fury" action. The center offers a chance for players of all ages and expertise to compete at various events held throughout the year. The center marked its 10th anniversary earlier this month and included table tennis demos as part of the daylong celebration. (JW)

Best Mentor

Demone Carter Demone Carter calls it the "cool uncle effect": pair a kid with a young-enough-to-be-hip mentor and watch creative genius begin to simmer. It's a formula the 34-year-old rapper, musician and educator applies to his after-school arts organization FutureArtsNow!, which connects working artists with teens who need a healthy obsession.

Carter's prescriptive-instead-of-proscriptive approach to after-school outreach has led to a local revival in breakdancing, urban art, rap, graphic design and other spinoffs from the artistry of street culture. Instead of condescendingly talking kids out of doing drugs, he gives them something to care enough about that they don't have time to screw around. The full-time mentor and father of two still finds time to further his own art. He recently released a CD, The New Math, under his stage name, Dem One, and writes about his second act as mentor on his blog Carter, a graduate of the School of Arts and Cultures' Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute, will offer summer hip-hop dance, urban art and hip-hop drama classes at his alma mater through FutureArtsNow! (JW)

Best Place to Cook Up the Next Big Start-Up

599 Fairchild Dr., Mountain View

Pinterest started here. The makers of Pebble watches hunkered down in the converted stained-glass factory warehouse to set up their West Coast headquarters. The Hacker Dojo in Mountain View is as much a shared office space as a social hall, community center and breeding ground for the type of do-it-yourself idea-sharing that shapes Silicon Valley industry.

There are plenty of telecommuting spots in the region, some with their own administrative staff, some sneakers-jeans and communal-tables casual, some cubicles-and-suits formal. For $100, the Dojo shares a more relaxed space—complete with a pink-walled electronics room, scores of cell phones to test-drive your app ideas, trays of silicon chips and diodes, and a 3D printer.

Some of the patrons have day jobs and pop in when they can, others work full-time from the space, relying on its draw to put them in touch with the skills they need, maybe a graphic designer or a coder or a mechanical tinkerer or just a sounding board. It's a mash-up of work and play, or, more so, just a playful place to work, and probably the origin of some "next big thing." (JW)

Best Place to Score Old-School Computer Parts

Weird Stuff

384 W. Caribbean Dr., Sunnyvale. Need an adapter for a Commodore 64 restoration project? How about six discounted servers that are only 5 years old? Tucked away in a nondescript business park in Sunnyvale is Weird Stuff, a true South Bay gem. For 25 years Weird Stuff has been selling vintage electronics and overstock computer parts to eager tech heads.

Some of the items are current, but a lot of them are old and hard to find anywhere. Not all of the patrons are obsessive nerds rummaging through their bins looking for obscure electronic odds and ends, some are just folks with a tinkering jones. Weird Stuff carries so much stuff, and at reasonable rates, that you're bound to find what you're looking for here. Plus the staff will help you locate all those hard-to-find items. They also maintain an extensive online store. (AC)

Best Place to Make a Spaceship


120 Independence Dr., Menlo Park. 300 S. Second St., San Jose. You don't have to have something as ambitious in mind as building a spaceship to benefit from TechShop's two locations in Silicon Valley. Maybe you want to build little wooden frogs or design a better doorknob. Really, the sky is the limit, and TechShop has all the equipment to get there: woodworking tools, quilting machines, 3-D printers and computers with Autocad and Adobe software, along with classes on how to use all this stuff. All it takes is a membership, which runs about $125 a month. (AC)

Best Hands-On Tribute to the Valley of Heart's Delight

Stojanovich Family Park

316 Union Ave., Campbell. Clearly, when this park was in the design phase, great attention was paid to giving multiple nods to the area's orchard roots. (The park's plot was formerly owned by the Stojanovich family and previously housed a fruit-drying plant.)

Little plum-shaped seats, adorned with cute, wiggly worms, beg to be climbed on, as does the play structure with slides and a mini-tower mimicking the water tower overseeing the heart of Campbell. The park itself is a sweet 1.3-acre neighborhood getaway with just enough grass to play catch, some tires and a "fruit can" for climbing, a small bridge and two baby swings. (CY)

Best Place to Keep Analog Film Alive

Foto Express

304 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose. When Foto Express opened, the idea of a camera inside a phone was reserved for international spies, and the only place to post your pictures for others to see was ... literally a post! For more than 30 years, Foto Express has been dedicated to the alchemy commonly known as analog photography. Mixing solvents in the dark, the staff knows exactly which tincture, in which proportion, will persuade the black metallic of film to release its hidden treasure. They also posses the age-old skill of turning negative images into what we recognize as "a photo." They are quite experienced in both 35mm and medium-format film, in color and, most importantly, black and white. If you're searching for a professional to develop your film correctly, Foto Express is pretty much the only game in town; yet, they still offer student discounts and reasonable pricing. (TM)

Best Needleworker

Charis Wolf, LAc

Health in Harmony, 621 E. Campbell Ave., Ste. 12, Campbell. If acupuncture were only about needles, fewer people would seek out practitioners of the ancient Chinese craft. Acupuncturist Charis Wolf looks at the bigger picture when meeting and getting to know new patients, working with them to optimize their diet for their body type, to reduce stress and to find harmony in their lives, whether they are seeking treatment for chronic illness, infertility, pain or hormonal imbalance. When it comes to the needles themselves, Wolf listens to and observes her patient and skillfully places the tiny pins at points specific to that person's needs at that moment with the intent to bring balance, energy and calm. (CY)

Best Use of Instagram

Bobby's Liquors

2327 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. Forget Facebook. Forget Twitter. Instagram is the new way to reach out to customers via social media. Bobby's Liquors definitely has fun with the image-sharing app, showcasing new additions to the liquor store's wide selection of craft beers—sometimes teasing viewers with bottles or kegs of brew that are "#not4sale"— plus a smattering of personal shots, including pics of the shop owner's dog, Bella. Instagram is mostly used by college kids taking snaps of what they ate, anyway, so Bobby's Liquors fits right in with its own style of food porn. (CY)