Best Of :: Shopping & Services
In Houston, real estate development is a business dominated by stereotypes: the good ol' boy, the profit-at-all-costs mentality, the belief that any structure more than 25 years old needs to be torn down and replaced with something shiny and new, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. Tamra Pierce and Mimi Scarpulla defy these testosterone-driven traditions at every step. The two women, who met a couple of years ago while working on a project in Midtown, define their company's values -- "creativity, good design, open communication, integrity, beauty and quality" -- in terms that suggest they have one boot planted firmly on the ground and the other propped up on a more ethereal level. They also have the distinction of being inner-city housing developers with no interest in throwing up a pod of town homes on every lot they own. Scarpulla is from Philadelphia, a city that protects its history by selling it intact, and where she helped save two dozen historic buildings now being used as apartments. Here, in Houston's First Ward, for example, Pierce Scarpulla is restoring a half-dozen 80- to 100-year-old bungalows, otherwise known in the business as tear-downs. The best part, though, is that at a time when the city's supply of affordable housing is rapidly disappearing, Pierce Scarpulla plans to rent the houses to low-income families.
From beyond the corrugated tin walls, copper light posts topped with bulbous white globes protrude, and wilted chandeliers lie on top of the impossibly piled pile of junk. Sandwiched between La Maison and Value Village in the Heights, this nameless junk shop is easy to miss, especially when it's closed. (Many have either mistaken the tin exterior for a mere sturdy fence or walked past it without a thought.) Partly because almost everything collected here constitutes scrap metal, and partly because it is located outdoors without even a roof, this pile of junk remains dustless and mold-free in spite of its overwhelming mass and disorganization. And by overwhelming, we mean completely crammed and piled high. Want to get a look at that phone booth? Like a jungle explorer, you have to whack and push and stumble your way there. Want to take down that "no shoes" sign in German picturing a black high heel with a red circle and slash across it? Ask to be lifted on someone's shoulders. Finding good junk always requires a hearty search.
Pennants and posters that say "plants" and "sale sale sale" in bold black letters are in The Plant Lady's front yard. Her plants are gorgeous, and cheap. She sells big trees for $10 and enormous peace lilies for $5 (we've seen wimpier, wilted ones for $30 elsewhere). Flowering plants that are starting to go out of season are usually $1; if you insist that you don't want it, sometimes she'll make it a quarter or just throw it in for free. She's a nice lady who doesn't want disappointed customers; she wants repeat business, and she's definitely got ours. She doesn't mind telling you what type of plant it is, just how much light it needs and which room of your house you should put it in. She guarantees all of her plants. When our peace lily died (which, truly, we think is the fault of our nongreen thumb-of-death, and the fact that our pet rabbit ate it), she replaced it for free. When we accidentally left a Chinese evergreen -- which should never see the sun -- sitting in a hot Houston car with the windows rolled up, we went back the next day and she sold us another one for $3. She kept the one we had pretty much killed and promised to nurse it back to health for us. God bless her.
The folks at Outreach Dentistry will banish forever those Marathon Man-like memories of the evil white-coated dentist who looms like a horrifying shadow over the landscape of your oral hygiene. When you push open the glass door of Outreach, you'll get a home-style welcome. The waiting room of this mom-and-pop business (he's the dentist; she runs the office) is cheerful. No sliding-glass partitions or cranked-up televisions are there to make you feel like you've been dropped into some futuristic world of impending pain. Instead, you can ask questions as you fill out your forms in a comfy little reception area, and you'll get smart answers about everything from your insurance to the procedure you're about to undergo. Once you've slid your nervously sweating limbs into the dentist's chair, you'll encounter a good doctor who will listen to all your fears, chide you a bit about flossing, then go about the business of cleaning, drilling and filling with tender hands and the sort of modern-day technology that will make even the most phobic of patients breathe easier. Going to the dentist will never be fun, but the good people at Outreach will make it virtually painless.
Lawrence Marshall must really love cars. Starting as a mechanic in 1949, Marshall worked his way up the auto food chain to the purchase of a small Chevy dealership in 1969, parlaying that one outlet into the semirural, multibrand megaplex that straddles little Hempstead like an automotive behemoth. In 1999 Marshall sold his dealerships to company spokesman and former Oiler Ray "We clobber big-city prices" Childress. But instead of retiring like your average Rotarian titan, Marshall moved his office to a shed across 290 and opened Lawrence Marshall Antique Cars, which has been steadily expanding ever since -- most recently with an enclosed "museum" building housing over 100 vintage cars and trucks, in addition to the hundreds more stored on the outdoor lot. The enterprise specializes in ready-to-drive pre-1970s models, either meticulously restored or miraculously preserved, and so Marshall spends a good amount of time traveling the country to buy his stock. The result is a smorgasbord of four-wheeled history, from 1912 Model Ts to the familiar litany of early '70s Mopars with their hemis and their 440 six-packs, and a good sampling of everything in between. Museum or not, everything's for sale, from a few thousand-dollar project cars on up to the $20,000 show-winners. General manager Ken Smith guesses it's probably the largest antique car showroom in the country by now, but it's also a browser's paradise. Five dollars' admission -- refunded if you make a purchase -- buys you the run of the place. And yes, they do test-drives. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What smooth talkers they are at All-Star Audio Video. Any group of employees who can talk so many customers into believing that TVs -- inside cars! -- are required accessories deserves this award. And it's not as if Houston drivers weren't bad enough, turning without signaling or lining up seven cars deep behind a left-turning car when the right lane is utterly vacant. The added distraction of TVs in vehicles now makes these inhospitable roads just that more hostile. But don't blame All-Star. The 23-year-old company is, according to Steve "Pepper" Perez, who installs these thingies, just responding to demand. "There've been TVs in cars for a while," he says. "Then when multimedia hit, it's the easiest thing to take a trip and have a video for the kids. They don't wanna get out of the car. "Dad, drive around the block.' " Around the block? Chances are, Dad's "block" is a gated community. Perez says he has done installations on the vehicles of star baseball jocks like Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio and Andy Pettitte. He also says he and his two installers (one, Andy Bartinicki, joined the company a couple of years after owner Jim Lawless opened the first shop) have done jobs ranging in price from $2,500 to $25,000. About 80 percent of his customers, he says, are regulars. Though Perez talks excitedly and knows a helluva lot about vehicular TVs, he doesn't own one himself. "But I gotta get one," he says. "I need to."