By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Matt, a 25-year-old law student with close-cropped hair, plays with a pair of big-eyed, floppy-eared puppies in a cage while he sips his drink. He surveys the animal shed, which houses chickens, finches, parakeets and three crazed kittens swatting at him from their cage behind him. "This is pretty cool," he says. "It's like a cross between an ice house, a petting zoo and someone's shed." A self-professed "country boy," Matt says Wabash is a shot of state pride. "The minute you walk in, it's pure Texas. It's the kind of place where you can hang out in flip-flops and sit on a bag of feed if you want. And if it's too much country, you can still walk outside and see all the urban, sheet-metal lofts. I can't see anyone having a problem with this place." Maybe not inside, but the City of Houston has taken issue with Wabash's banners advertising their organic gardening products. Recently, a COH representative ticketed them for oversized signage. Thing is, says Devinn, a Wabash manager, just about every business on Washington has oversized signs. "There were businesses all the way down Washington that weren't cited." Devinn says he sent the officer to a neighboring business, which the officer grudgingly ticketed. "You can't drive anywhere in this city without seeing an oversized sign," he says. "I don't have a problem with anyone else's, but why us? Why did we get ticketed when people across the street didn't? You have to wonder where the guy was looking, and why we stuck out and no one else did." He won't go as far as to cite a conspiracy, but one thing's for sure: This venerable feed store sure seems snakebitten.
The signage and immunization problems are behind them, but the folks at Wabash still have another nemesis: rain. This was supposed to be their coming-out party. Customers were buzzing about Ice House Day for weeks. Drivers, seeing the sign, pulled up and were inquiring about the dominos and poker games. Heacker had a horde of friends who were supposed to show. But the downpour -- and it's torrential -- has kept everyone but a few faithful at home.
To add insult to injury, the rains create miniature lakes on the Wabash property. It all stems from a bout with local developer George Polydoros, who Betty says tried everything to squeeze her out. [See "Room to Crow" by Melissa Hung, August 24, 2000.] Polydoros finally sold and left her alone, but not without a final kiss-off. He built gutters on every neighboring townhouse, except for the one house directly behind the store. The result: Every rain creates a huge dump-down and subsequent pond on the Wabash property. The next-door neighbor would have to pony up the cash to fix this, which is why Heacker has had to live with the little lakes that form after each rainstorm. "I'm just not going to ask someone to spend hundreds of dollars to fix a problem they didn't create," she says. "That's just not neighborly."
A striped tabby kitten scales his cage, nibbles at Cassidy's finger, and then loses his grip. He tumbles to the bottom of the cage, plopping on top of his two brothers in his litter box. "There's no pretension or expectations here," says Cassidy, a pretty, 25-year-old brunette who works in marketing. "If I was at a bar for happy hour, I'd have to change. I'd have to schmooze. Here I can drink a beer and play with animals. My friend's a total 'scene' person, and when I told her about this place, she was like, 'Kittens!? Oh my gawd, I am so there.'"
Heacker's plan for Ice House night is to draw couples and singles who'd normally hit a bar. But can a feed store, with its squawking parrots and mini horses, ever become a happy hour destination for the young crowd? Matt thinks it's all about the fur appeal. "Man, you've got beer, kittens and puppies. There's your pickup line."