Mark, sorry I am a little late to the discussion, but my vote goes to the Alien Bees too. I screwed around playing with camera flashes and even the potato masher flashes taped to stands, but once I finally decided enough was enough, it took me right at two months searching the Bay, here and a couple other photo sites to find good Bees at the right price. It is true they pretty much keep their value so if you decide to upgrade to the really good stuff, you won't lose hardly any money doing so.
I borrowed one of the girl's dolls and a stuffed animal or two to practice with. A good flash meter would help too. I got tons of lighting technique stuff off of the strobist and also following links on Buff's forum. If you have the time, there are some tremendous links that people have listed on that Alien Bee forum.
I went with used Bees and then bought the accessories for them directly from Buff, have not been disappointed yet with any of that purchase. I would suggest that eventually you WILL get some sort of studio flash......don't waste a penny of your hard earned money on getting a bunch of small flashes, buy it right the first time. You will never regret buying an Alien Bee or two, they will add much to your photography options and getting to know how to use them properly or knowing how to get the effect your after will make you grow as a photographer. Still learning after a good year with mine, but I am getting better, I am getting closer to understanding why something doesn't look the way I want it to, and most importantly, my wife can be thrilled at times at the results I have gotten of the kids, despite the looks of total disgust I get when dragging out all "that" stuff.
Oh, I mainly got AB800's. I also got some of the White Lightenings too......that is over kill......just look for the Bees as cheap as you can. Wait for your price point if needed. Sometimes it seems thought that for the small difference, it may be better to just buy new one's and be done with it....fully warrantted. I came very close many times to doing that, but just wait it out, they will show up at the price you want.