You won't encounter a "mystery" section at Brazos Bookstore; nor can you order a mocha au lait. A fabulous collection of books and a knowledgeable staff are this classy enclave's draw. Brazos clearly places quality over quantity. Perusing the literature, history and art sections, you will be hard-pressed to find a throwaway title. DeLillo and Dostoyevsky share shelf space with newcomers like Jennifer Egan and Nathan Englander. Gibbons's history of Rome roosts near a new biography on Rosa Parks. Brazos has an excellent selection of art books and current literary reviews. Those who like their writers in the flesh can enjoy the store's fine reading series, which has brought such luminaries as Doris Lessing, Jerzy Kosinski and, recently, Martin Amis to the Bayou City. An adjoining gallery space showcases the work of artists and designers like renowned architect Frank O. Gehry.
Say good-bye to the cramped, dirty Asian grocery store with its persistent fishy stench, and hello to brightly lit aisles upon aisles of groceries. True to the very Texas notion that bigger is better, the newest Hong Kong Market location on Bellaire at Boone Road is bigger than a Randalls Flagship, bigger than a Fiesta, bigger, even, than Wayne Dolcefino's ego. What it lacks in character it makes up for in quantity and variety of goods. Its in-house bakery offers almond cookies and mooncakes from local bakeries; its produce section has more green leafy vegetables than you could ever name. Its shelves house more varieties of canned shark fin, dried squid and shrimp chips than any other Asian grocery store, as well as jars of Ragú spaghetti sauce for Americanized kids. Hong Kong Market also maintains aisles of housewares with woks, rice cookers of impressive proportions, flip-flops, Pokémon alarm clocks, Asian soaps and even farmers' rice hats. Big, clean and reasonably cheap. That's all you need to know.
SuperStand lacks the hard-boiled grit of an old-time newsstand, but it does have thousands of magazines, cresting in glossy abundance like waves of a media-saturated sea. The inevitable mugs of Eastwood, Travolta and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stare from shelves, but you also will find more arcane fare. Aggressive outdoor types will relish mags like Turkey Hunting Strategy. The news and politics section goes beyond Time and Newsweek to offer a variety of political and foreign-affairs journals. SuperStand is a hobbyist's dream, with publications that will have you building a model of the USS Oregon or making a birdhouse for your backyard. Doll makers and coin collectors will find their interests catered to. The sparse "mature" section, featuring a handful of adult magazines wrapped like medical waste, is one of the few that does not celebrate excess. The puzzles shelf, on the other hand, is overflowing. And there are plenty of business, computer, sports, food and travel mags, as well as European tabloids and newspapers from around the world. Our pick of the day? Eminem and Friends, a fanzine with posters of the lovable white rapper.
The Astros have tanked, and the pitchers can't get anybody out, but one guy at "Homeron" Field is still consistently throwing strikes: Arnie the Peanut Dude, who hurls his roasted wares across entire sections to waving fans and nails 'em in the mitts every time. Arnie doesn't just deliver peanuts and make change; he entertains the crowd in a blue-collar way that matches the baseball setting far more perfectly than the 'Stros' silly rabbit mascot. An old-school vendor, Arnie doesn't load himself down with five items to maximize his revenues. You want peanuts? Peanuts he's got, and he can dish out half a dozen bags and never lose track of who owes what. Combining keen peripheral vision with an impeccable sense of timing, Arnie senses his customers the way bats sense mice at midnight. He reaches nonchalantly into his pouch, pulls out a bag, grips it for accuracy.

The windup, the pitch: Steeeerike!

Make this one plural, as in Best Shops. The Houston Museum of Natural Science severs the traditional museum gift store into a parent-and-child participatory sport. Mom and Dad -- or just those without children -- get their consumer time in the fairly upscale Collector's Gift Shop. The quiet confines with classy thick wood accents offer up genuine collectibles and quality goods, ranging from luminous butterfly wings pressed into glass to C.L. Whiting's "leaf leather" purses and accessories. And the museum's special exhibitions, such as the "Kremlin Gold" display of jewels, have a gift shop all their own. Meanwhile, Junior gets his separate hunting ground in the kids' shop. Children can roam this area, grabbing at the vast arrays of rubber dinosaurs and other educational toys, both Stone Age and futuristic. Of course, kids of all ages snap up the "Space Mucus," a gooey, glow-in-the-dark steal at $2.75. At the unique shops of the Museum of Natural Science, to each his (or her) own. To own. That's the way it ought to be.
The Houston makers of this device tout it as "the ultimate tailgate barbecue pit." What you have is your basic steel drum-style cooker that you can use in your backyard or attach to the back of your car or truck and haul to the beach, park or ball game. Apparently you can cook while you drive. The mobile version of the contraption looks like a combination grill and unicycle. The Gator Pit has 420 square inches of cooking surface and 222 square inches of work surface. It's yours for a mere $399.99 plus shipping. You can order by phone or on-line at www.gatorpit.net.
Scott McCool is Houston's florist to the stars. He won't name the names of the socialites on his roster of 1,800 accounts, but he will tell us that his designers have spruced up events at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Alley Theatre and the River Oaks Country Club, with fabulous arrangements of roses from Ecuador, lilies from Chile and orchids from Singapore. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg on a wedding or a fund-raiser to do business with In Bloom, though. The minimum order is only $35. So treat yourself to some fancy flowers, just like the rich and famous.
Where else but on the gentrifying Washington Avenue can you find a slick Bank of America a stone's toss from junkyards, dive bars and diners? With 11 (yes, 11) drive-thru slots, this drive-up darling in the shadow of downtown fills up around lunchtime and quitting time. It's a fun place to people-watch from the comfort of your car, as drivers piloting everything from de rigueur SUVs to art cars to hot rods to jalopies rush through to deposit, withdraw and cash out. Soccer moms, blue-collar types, executives, teens, garden party luncheoners and sweaty runners from nearby Memorial Park wait in line for the next available teller, who can probably tell tales about the characters who spin through this colorful hodgepodge patch of Houston.
The problem with thrift stores is that they require too much work: To find that vintage western shirt, or that trendy fresh-from-the-mall sundress, you have to paw through racks of stained or ripped goods that honestly weren't all that desirable to begin with. But at Buffalo Exchange, the dregs have been weeded out, leaving behind only those that appeal to your urban sensibility: stuff like Levi's 501s, office-worthy blouses from DKNY, pink vinyl pants, Buddy Holly eyeglass frames, a shiny purple minidress trimmed in foofy orange marabou. Yeah, it's about twice as expensive as most thrift stores, but that means it's half as expensive as the mall. And you can trade in your old stuff for store credit. Assuming, of course, that your old stuff is good enough.
If you think leather is just for bulky bomber jackets and boring loafers, the North Beach girls will make you think again. Posing at the door of the Galleria store, these leathered-up ladies are more likely to be dressed in hot pink hot pants, turquoise halter tops, python-print miniskirts or hip-hugging, reality-straining, ohmigod, don't-look-now, fire-engine-red jeans. Theirs is the wardrobe of a high-priced Las Vegas call girl or Christina Aguilera, not a wife or a working woman out for a simple Saturday-afternoon shop, which makes us wonder how North Beach Leather is staying in business, but that's beside the point. It's the seedy, sexy rock-and-roll image that makes us stop to watch. By the way, if you're going to the Galleria just to see skin on skin, call first. The North Beach models are only an occasional spectacle.

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