The Best of Silicon Valley 2014

Shopping & Services | Editors' Picks

University Art BEST ART SUPPLY STORE: University Art Photograph by Alex Stover

Best Urban Tech-Farm Start-Up



In a 3,000-square-foot climate-controlled warehouse lies the future of urban farming as envisioned by a cadre of Silicon Valley veterans. Dr. Ko Nishimura and Sam Araki abandoned high-tech careers to create Ecopia, which employs LEDs and carefully dispensed irrigation to grow some of the most sought-after organic greens and herbs in the Bay Area. Several patrons boast Michelin stars. Though the company keeps much of its technology a well-guarded secret, it borrows some techniques from NASA research on how to feed astronauts in outer space and others from indoor marijuana grows. The result: an entirely new genre of farming. Plants sprouted under the purple LED glow require 97 percent less water than traditional farming techniques and tend to be smaller, but more colorful and more flavorful than open-air-grown produce. Just ask chefs at Manresa, Village Pub, the Slanted Door, Alexander's and dozens of other upscale restaurants. Non-chefs can glean some of the yield through a direct-to-consumer line, too. (JW)

Best Underground Bookstore

Encore Books

Old Courthouse Square, 2200 Broadway, Redwood City

Redwood City's downtown is both walkable and surprisingly exotic. On the sidewalk Russian, Lebanese and Afghan restaurants compete for business. And this time of year the city smells of jasmine. Redwood City's pride is its 103-year-old Courthouse, a domed behemoth facing the Fox Theater. During the summer, crowds gather on the plaza to enjoy free movies in America's best climate (guaranteed "by government test"). Restored in 2006, the Old Courthouse is now a museum with a very sweet gift shop. Go downstairs instead, to the basement. From Tuesday through Saturday, 11am-3pm, there's a "gently-used" bookstore. You may be expecting a tiny Friends of the Library-style shoplet. In fact, this cellar bookstore benefiting the San Mateo County Historical Society has several rooms, including a separate alcove for old books, some older than the building they're in. And it's both big enough and undiscovered enough to attract bookstore scouts from as far away as Ireland. Rotating inventory meets literate donors meets non-profit benefactors, and the crypt-like surroundings intensify that feeling that you're about to find the book you've been looking for all your life. (RvB)

Best Closet-Sized Artisan Alcove

Petite Galleria

205 Jackson St, San Jose

We've stayed in hotel rooms with walk-in closets larger than the square footage at Petite Galleria in Japantown. In fact, it's easy to miss, somewhere on Jackson—between, um, something and something else. But wait? Which block now? Aha! Once inside, though, one finds a thoroughly tasteful array of works by local designers, artisans, jewelers, bookmakers and others. There's chocolate made with tea, odd pencil-ish-y works on paper, kooky and gorgeous earrings, bracelets, journals, sketchbooks, upcycled fashion and limited edition prints. In a world destroyed with homogeneous junk, sweatshop glamour and disposable fads, this petite alcove emits a distinctly gorgeous peculiarity. We like that. (GS)

Best Place to Grapple with Tapout-clad MMA Warriors

American Kickboxing Academy

1791 Hillsdale Ave, San Jose

Also: best place to get cauliflower ear, or best place to buy a foily Affliction T-shirt. In a forgettable-looking, un-air-conditioned, two-story gym on the southern edge of the city, some of the most feared fighters in the nation have tested their mettle. Established by kickboxing legend Javier Mendez in the mid-1980s, the American Kickboxing Academy grew into a training ground for Olympians and UFC champions, churning out renowned fighters including Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier and Phil Baroni, among others. Mendez trained his first UFC victor in 1997 and gradually, with the booming popularity of Ultimate Fighting, built up a stable of nationally ranked warriors, turning his sweltering South Bay gym into a mecca for aspiring mixed-martial artists. (JW)

Best Place for Office Nomads

NextSpace Coworking

97 S. Second St, San Jose

NextSpace Coworking emerged completely ahead of several curves. In short, there already existed plenty of freelance folks in a variety of professions who either go stir crazy working in solitude all day or just need to move from place to place. NextSpace knew it could fill a serious need by providing a remote locale replete with a kitchen, coffee, tea, boardroom space, desks, parties, happy hours, lectures, events and smoking-fast WiFi for any laptop nomad whose anti-routine requires such an environment. It was a great business plan. Other coworking spaces exist, to be sure, but NextSpace is in a league by itself. (GS)

Best Taxi Service


Lyft App

At the risk of never being able to hail a cab again, it's time we just came out and said it—Lyft is better than basically every taxi company in Silicon Valley. Cab operators are often rude and unable to predict wait times. Lyft, however, is quick, clean and affordable almost every time, more so than Uber. The future is here, and it's not looking good for the guys whose cars smell like yesterday's lunch. (JK)

Best Equestrian Getaway Close to Home

Westwind Community Barn

27210 Altamont Rd, Los Altos Hills

Founded by a Hungarian royal who escaped her own country after the post-WWII Soviet takeover, Westwind Barn, a bucolic 15-acre ranch tucked away in the hills near Los Altos, played a remarkable role in equestrian history. Countess Margit Bessenyey bought the site to breed Hungarian horses, a coveted bloodline that would have all but died out if it hadn't been for her efforts to preserve it. It was her hope to someday return the stock to her homeland after the fall of Communism. Sadly, she died in 1976, more than 13 years before the Iron Curtain fell. Most of her horses were sold off. But she left the barn to the town of Los Altos, which turned it into a community equestrian park. In February, the town appointed a new manager, Torie Dye, who offers lessons for $55 an hour. Dye's philosophy is to create a well-rounded horse enthusiast rather than just the casual rider. To that end, she incorporates horse care as much as horse riding into her curriculum. To sign up, call the town at (650) 947-2518. (JW)

Best Meeting of an Art Fair and a Sports Fan Shop

Discover San Jose

150 S. First St, Suite 103, San Jose

Chances are, if you're at this store buying a San Jose Earthquakes jersey, a San Jose Giants hat or San Jose Sharks cheer-muffs—that's ear muffs with the Sharks logo emblazoned on them—you've probably already discovered San Jose. But this gift shop, which opened last summer, also stocks locally made goods such as jewelry, T-shirts and scarves. There's also an assortment of posters of various vintages from San Jose events, from the recent Cinequest festival to the late, lamented SoFA Festival that went extinct back in 2001. And while, as the name implies, San Jose is the focus, the shop doesn't ignore the rest of the valley, stocking goods such as Venetian masks made in Los Gatos and T-shirts with the logo of the Homebrew Computer Club, a local hobbyists' group that met in the '70s and '80s, and whose membership once included such electronics enthusiasts as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. (HZ)

Best (Re)use of Your Old Toaster

Repair Cafe

351 Homer Ave, Palo Alto

Obsolescence fuels American consumerism, pushing people to buy the latest and greatest instead of restoring what they already own. In 1960, each person in the U.S. generated less than a few pounds of waste a day. By the 2000s, the average teetered under five pounds a day, the most per capita in the world. A group of fix-it fans on the Peninsula aim to change that, one busted gadget at a time. The Repair CafE hosts a few events a year, in which anyone with a broken item brings it to the restorative analog hackathon—as long as it's portable. In other words, forget bringing your defunct car or washing machine. Owners pay for parts, but no repair fee. The gatherings are as much a social hour as a fix-it clinic, complete with coffee, refreshments and a place to fraternize with other sustainability-conscious broken appliance owners. (JW)

Best Place to Meet a Local Author

Village Books

326 Village Ln, Los Gatos

Just when everyone's predicting the death of the bookstore, the bookstore is figuring out a new way of life. Indie bookstores have long been a third space where literary types gather, but now it seems that creating this kind of community is not only good for the people involved but necessary for stores' survival. The once endangered Kepler's Books in Menlo Park now operates under a hybrid model, one side selling books, the other side fostering literary community. The fledgling Village Books in Los Gatos has the same passion for community with local authors featured prominently among their wide book selection (augmented by a focus on custom orders), and tons of readings and events with local and nationally known authors. (SL)

Best Time Capsule

Diamond Laundry and Cleaners

398 W. San Carlos St, San Jose.

In the heart of the world's tech capital Diamond Laundry and Cleaners has stood, impervious to the march of time. The mid-century modern facility narrowly escaped demolition during the construction of the Guadalupe Parkway, which cuts right past it on San Carlos Street. Since relocating to the building from Grant Street in 1950, the Burton family has kept the look and feel of the place entirely intact, down to the iconic hand-painted sign that boasts "Miss Careful works here" above the faceless blue silhouette of a woman to the left of white diamond-framed letters spelling out the name of the establishment. The Diamond Laundry matriarch, who's worked for the business for upward of six decades, is Mary Burton, a favorite in Yelp reviews she'll probably never read. At 92, she still shows up to work every day, remembers her loyal patrons by name, and hands out promotional pens and, yes, even calendars of the pre-smartphone-era wall-hanging variety. (JW)

Best Place to Yearn for Good Penmanship


170 S. Market St, San Jose

Who writes anything by hand anymore? The ziggurat-like display of multicolored pens here will make you want to write—something. Ballpoint pens, felt tips, gel ink pens and mechanical pencils in many colors (with tips in varying degrees of fineness) all remind you that there's very little tactile pleasure in texting. The stationery selection at the base of the display, with journals and passport-sized blank books and notepads, intensifies a desire to put ink on a page. Perhaps you've come to this housewares and clothing store to buy something else—maybe a set of sheets or a pair of socks—but the pen display will ambush you as you step in the door. (HZ)