Unless you know they're superfresh, purchase perishable clams and mussels no more than 36 hours before you plan to cook them. As soon as you get home, remove all the wrapping and place the shellfish in a clean, dry bowl. Dampen a paper towel and cover the mollusks, turning up a corner to give them a little air. Refrigerate until just before cleaning and cooking them. Squid, scallops, and shrimp are particularly perishable. Don't buy them sooner than the day before you plan to cook them. Keep in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
The fibrous tuft you see on some mussel shells is called a beard. It is what the mollusk creates for grabbing onto pilings or rocks. Pull off these beards, if present, from the edge of each mussel before scrubbing. (Farmed mussels usually don't have beards because of how they are raised.) A round, thin rubber disk used to open jars provides perfect tension for pulling off stubborn beards. Scrub the shells of clams and mussels with a stiff brush, ridding them of any sand.—from Secrets for Preparing Fish and Shellfish by Linda Carucci
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For more background on various shellfish, check out the wikipedia entry on Shellfish
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