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.
Like a Glamour magazine list of fashion don'ts, Pick-n-Pull's proscriptions for maintaining junkyard etiquette, hanging directly in front of the place's South Shaver entrance, are equally as mind-numbing. Some deserve mentioning: 5. No open-toed shoes; 6. No alcohol; 7. No torches or power saws; and the doozy, 11. No cameras or weapons allowed. Makes the average upstanding citizen feel right at home, don't ya think? Yet risking life and limb and bourbon flask for a chance to cruise Pick-n-Pull's hewwwwge 11-acre lot is worth it. Jalopies of every domestic type lie in neat rows. Each heap is raised and appropriately categorized (vans on this side, Camaros on that), and none are stacked, which makes for easy pullin'. Area grease monkeys prefer this seven-year-old yard because it's never muddy and because bottles of Powerade and water are available for sale beneath the shelter, in addition to the obligatory sodas. Prices, like those ascribed to parts, are competitive. On a sunny Saturday, Pick-n-Pull is gearhead heaven. The musky aroma of a Coupe de Ville's leather interior, the soft crackle of footsteps on the gray stone lot, the majesty of a sailing dragonfly -- these lotus petals could lull even the oiliest shop rat into pastoral bliss. Nobody or nothing says you can't just hang out all day.
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.
Bill Jordan is too nice a guy to be in the pool business, a rare dolphin in a sea of sharks. Swimming pools, as their owners well know, are subject to a host of problems, and to deal with them requires an incongruent knowledge of chemistry, construction, engineering and mechanics. Without a complete grasp of the organism at hand, pool people can easily come up with a $500 solution to a $5 problem: Replace the whole thing. Jordan learned the business from the ground up, working for several pool companies before striking out on his own. He has been trained by equipment manufacturers to recognize the quirks of each company's pumps, robots, chlorinators or whatever's ailing. He'll also consult with prospective pool owners before they build, because a simple design adjustment up front often can save big bucks down the road. In a business with a low barrier to entry, Jordan has high standards; he's the kind of ethical operator as central to peace of mind as a good auto mechanic, or dentist, or plumber.
When asked how he could be leading bike rides well into his eighties, B.M. Shirar always replied, "I eat a banana every day." B.M. died nine years ago, but his bicycle shop -- the nation's oldest, according to B.M.'s grandson and the current proprietor, James Turner -- is still pedaling strong at 88. B.M. and his father opened Shirar's at Franklin and Main, in the Magnolia Brewery Building, with a horse-drawn wagonload of tools and spare parts brought over from Hempstead. Their first customers were a group of delivery boys. Today there's not much having to do with bikes that you can't get or find out about at Shirar's, which, come to think of it, is what you ought to be able to say about any bike shop worth its spokes. But there's something about a place that started selling bicycles before there were automobiles and whose founder was able to pass his love for bicycles down the line to a fourth generation. Maybe because it's always been family-owned, Shirar's understands and rewards loyalty: Shirar's gives first priority and $15 discounts on tune-up and overhaul services to bikes bought at the shop.
The Best Microbrewery prize easily goes to... the only microbrewery in Houston! That stated, Saint Arnold produces a revolving selection of beers and ales that really are, if you happen to be a serious devotee of the brewmaster's art, excellent. The brews are made according to German legal standards that U.S. breweries do not have to follow, but Saint Arnold does. The brewery is open to the quaffing public every Saturday at 1 p.m. for a two-hour tour of the squeaky-clean premises and a tasting of the brews being produced. Devotees of Wisconsinian culture can even finish off their tour and tasting by purchasing Saint Arnold's new line of beer-infused bratwurst (pronounced, in case you are not from Wisconsin, "BROT-wurst").
Has this ever happened to you? You're with your beloved for a night of freaky-sneaky, hanky-spanky action. Then you realize -- oh, damn -- you're all out of flavored condoms. You could do the whole thing manually with some regular rubbers and a bottle of flavored Motion Lotion, but that takes too long and it tends to get messy. You need flavored condoms in a hurry and don't have the $5 to shill out for them at your local sex shop. What will you do? The caring people at the AIDS Foundation Houston know what it feels like to be caught up in that dilemma. So in their complimentary condom bowl in the reception area, they have a well-stocked collection of tasty jimmy hats among the LifeStyles and Trojan Ribbed brands. What flavors do they have, you ask? Well, there's vanilla, banana, grape, other assorted berries -- and let's not forget everybody's favorite, chocolate. The party crew Evolve used to provide safe-sex packets including the flavored raincoats for their now-defunct "Delicious" night over at Spy. Since that shindig is over, you may wanna flock down to the foundation's headquarters over on Weslayan and snatch up a few. Get 'em while supplies last -- the chocolate ones are getting sampled like they're, well, chocolates.

"My business is words. Words are like labels / Or coins, or better, like swarming bees," writes Anne Sexton, in Said the Poet to the Analyst. The shrink may have tried Thorazine to subdue Sexton's swarm, but the tenacious buzzing persists. Her works and those of many of the giants of world poetry line Bookstop's well-stocked shelves, poised to unleash their fury on readers. Many of the offerings -- Eliot, Frost, Whitman, Byron, Chaucer -- are standard English-class grist. But you'll also find more than 20 volumes by Pablo Neruda; works by Baudelaire, Vallejo, the beats, James Wright, Weldon Kees, even Patti Smith; and an extensive collection of anthologies, including ones dedicated to African-American, Civil War, French and English verse. The store makes some attempt to keep current with works like Seamus Heaney's recent translation of Beowulf, Ted Hugh's Birthday Letters, and newer books by Charles Simic and Sharon Olds. Younger poets most likely will be found in anthologies, with one notable exception: pop singer Jewel's A Night Without Armor.
Bean curd doesn't have to be tasteless, especially if you can buy it fresh. Thanh Son-Hien Khanh makes its tofu daily. Unlike the packaged stuff, which can have a tinge of sourness to it and behave with the consistency of an eraser, this tofu is soft, silky and as fluffy as tofu can possibly get. Poke it, and it wiggles back; panfry it, and it darkens to a healthy gold. Or don't fry it -- Thanh Son-Hien Khanh sells deep-fried bean curd as well. This tiny strip-mall store also offers soy milk by the gallon, colorful Vietnamese desserts and the closest thing to tofu pudding you can get without flying to Hong Kong. Served with ginger syrup, the pudding isn't creamy and sugary like the western kind, but more solid and wholesome, and tastes like, well, sweetened tofu.
Okay, we're cheating here. Obviously you can't buy -- in the traditional sense of the word -- CDs at this Web site. What you can do, however, is find MP3s of local and regional bands, then with a few mouse clicks, make a purchase. The site is essentially an MP3.com for Houston acts, but better. It's Houston-based, run by ex-local band geek James Lewey, who knows his shit, and also provides for the sale of T-shirts and other assorted local band paraphernalia. Participating bands, which number about 100 at this point, don't have to worry about huckster surfers logging on and absconding with MP3s. Lewey gives away only about half of every song -- just little samples. Surfers who are enticed and crave an entire meal need to whip out their credit cards. The future of local music commerce is in our backyard.

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