Best Of :: Shopping & Services
No disrespect to any of Houston's handful of plucky independent record stores — which, by and large, are doing just fine, thank you very much — but the best selection of music-related merchandise often comes with a live show as part of the bargain. And it is a bargain: Not only does the average merch table these days generally offer more than is generally available at the store — like out-of-print or hard-to-find singles and LPs, much more than just stickers and T-shirts — but these over-the-counter transactions come without that bothersome sales tax and, if you're so inclined, usually with a ready-made autograph attached. Many local bands, such as the Wild Moccasins, have begun taking this a step further by giving away recorded products, like full-length debut Skin Collision Past, as a sort of party favor with the price of cover.
Here in H-Town's funkier regions, strip malls, those much-maligned supposed harbingers of sterility and bland suburbanism, sure can have a hell of a lot of grit and soul. Take this doozy on the northside, just across the street from the site of the former Northline Mall. The actual strip looks to be about 50 years old, and it's a one-stop for just about all your H-Town needs. There's 'cue and CFS at the arched-roofed Hungry Farmer, ghetto Chinese at the rugged little red-roofed China Inn, and a shop where you can buy or even rent a boomin' system for your ride. Best of all, there's one of the last outposts of the once-mighty Soundwaves music/surf chain, and unlike the Montrose location, the Crosstimbers outlet does not force its primarily blues/soul, hip-hop, zydeco and gospel inventory to contend for shelf space with boogie boards and ding repair kits, so it's that rarest of things: a living, breathing record store. That's one reason that in looking at this delightfully run-down and lovably cheesily constructed strip from across the street, you could convince yourself it's any year between 1975 and 2010. Timelessness like that is often in too short supply in this ever-changing, ephemeral megalopolis.
The gas station at the northeast corner of Montrose and Richmond used to be a full-service garage and repair shop, meaning the retail part of it was as cramped as most Montrose convenience stores. Now it's a big, shining example of how to do gas stations right. There's 14 pumps — in the middle of Montrose! — but inside is where A to Z Food & Deli really comes through. Sparklingly clean, the store not only offers a great selection of convenience-store stuff, it features a not-bad-at-all kitchen and deli, with subs, breakfast tacos, Philly cheese steaks and other items. The staff is friendly and eager, too.
It wasn't long ago that River Oaks was considered the richest ZIP code in the nation. But time can take its toll, and even $15 million mansions need a facelift sometimes. During the last three decades, Houston's Exterior Worlds has helped with that. The company specializes in "high-end landscape design," repairing and building outdoor fountains, luxury swimming pools and even outdoor kitchens. That's along with the normal range of services. Exterior Worlds helps keep River Oaks one area that non-Houstonians can envy.
Smack-dab between the antiquing hotspots of lower Westheimer and West 19th Street there looms this 1895 carriage barn, with more than 5,000 square feet of trash 'n' treasure within. Lots of antique stores tend to cater to women, but Heights Station's multi-dealer layout features a couple of fun testosterone zones with their sports memorabilia and rock and roll collectibles sections. You can get that old chair just about anywhere, but only at Heights Station — the mother of all attics — can you also go home with a signed 8-by-10 glossy of Journey from their "Don't Stop Believin'" heyday and a Charley Kerfeld rookie card.
Just step inside this Heights shop and smell the difference. It's like taking a gourmet-shopping trip around the world. Want Vietnamese cinnamon? Tellicherry black peppercorns? Szechuan pepper salt? Mexican oregano? Yep, Penzeys has all that and more, offering spices, herbs, seasonings, gift boxes and some pretty cool pepper mills and saltshakers. It's a great place to buy gifts, and novices need not worry. The friendly staff will offer recipes and sniff tests. You could spend hours here just sniffing all the different kinds of chili powders. It's spice heaven.