Soundwaves - Montrose
To be the best, a music store has to carry a vast selection. For those whose tastes run all over the board, you can find everything from your favorite Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins spoken-word CD to Peter Allen's At His Best. You also will find everything in the middle -- jazz, hip-hop, industrial, rock, R&B, dance, rap, blues, imports, boxed sets and, of course, Elvis. Whoever orders the Latin music should get a raise; it's not limited to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. Soundwaves also boasts one of the largest, if not the largest, preowned CD selections in Houston, which you probably already know from the buxom yet "flat-busted" women from the television commercials. The store also has a peculiar section with skate and surf merchandise, but before heading over, you may want to surf to www.soundwaves.com and pick up the $1 off coupon.
Now that there are several stores catering to the large and growing Russophone community of Houston, it's possible to pick the best one. This little spot, located in an obscure strip center in southwest Houston, is a true general store in the American sense, selling foodstuffs, prepared to-go items, CDs, videotapes and even Russian-language editions of Playboy and Good Housekeeping. Those nostalgic for a taste of home cooking as it was prepared in Minsk, Pinsk or Minusinsk can acquire such hard-to-find items as unfiltered sunflower-seed oil, canned cod livers, Georgian sour plum sauce, salt-pickled mushrooms and jellied veal. Those non-Russophones who find themselves in need of a bit of shopping advice can turn to co-owner Aleksandr Kogan. He's a walking encyclopedia of a man who can discourse authoritatively on Russian and Soviet food, with forays into topics such as history, literature, electron microscopy and even the poisonous reptiles of Kyrgyzstan. For further research, one can browse a Russian-language lending library in a back room. An adjoining storefront houses a Russian folk-dance school, and the store sells tickets to Russian concerts, plays and even the odd Moscow cat circus when such undertakings find a Houston venue. And you thought synergy was an English word.
It kills us to let this secret out, but Houstonians with good taste already know it: Not only does Wherehouse Music have the most impressive collection of used, mostly pop CDs, arranged nicely and in a customer-friendly way (in alphabetical order and by artist) along a handful of 20-foot-long display rows, but the store also has the best artists. Makes you wonder if Wherehouse feels any shame paying up to $4 per used CD for what are obviously lost or, dare we say, stolen goods. What "person" in his right mind could have honestly let go of Imogen Heap's wondrous 1998 debut, I Megaphone? Yet there it sits, for the low, low price of $2.99, in the "H" section, right alongside Elton John's classic Captain Fantastic and Freedy Johnston's perfect This Perfect World. Either yokels are growing fonder of mainstream commercial radio pop, which explains their parting company with great music like the aforementioned, or something fishy's going on at Wherehouse. The latter is doubtful. Painfully so.
Pandan, also called screwpine leaves, is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. Its floral flavor and intense green hue usually enhance rice and pudding dishes. But at Goodness Cake House, pandan also makes a surprisingly good cake flavor, along with coffee, vanilla and chocolate. The choices may be few, but really, how much cake can you eat, anyway? Most popular with the cake shop's Cantonese clientele is a light, fluffy vanilla cake covered with a white cream (not hyper-sugary) frosting and layers of thinly sliced strawberries, kiwis and pineapple. Sometimes this type of cake can turn out sticky. But the bakers at the aptly named Goodness are careful not to let the fruit juice drip all over the cake, soaking into messy gloppiness. The cake itself possesses a satisfying carbohydrate, complex-sugar sweetness, not an easy, simple-sugar sweetness. And should you become bored with cake, Goodness also bakes chocolate cake rolls, coconut bread, cheese bread, pineapple bread, raisin bread and a variety of Asian pastries and buns.
Well, okay, $3,000 isn't cheap. But for, say, a drawing by James Surls or a painting by Vernon Fisher -- both of which would likely fetch at least $5,000 elsewhere -- it's a bargain, to be sure. Held every spring (the next one is May 4, 2001), the Glassell's annual fund-raising auction attracts serious collectors with an eye for contemporary works, which are solicited from a rotating list of about 150 local and regional artists. Also available -- and here's where those with less disposable income can participate -- are pieces by students in the school's Core Residency Program.

The ancient house ferret, Bandit, rummages among the boarding cages filled with loved ones. Pepi, a black mutt abandoned by his owners because his hind legs were paralyzed, bounds four at a time about the premises. Kate is back for another week's vacation, little evidence remaining of the jaw reconstruction necessitated by an encounter with a car several months earlier. Kowalski detours from his morning walk to get his daily biscuit and hellos, dragging his owner. When the animals insist on coming, you know that Southside Place Animal Hospital isn't your typical vet shop. Owner and chief vet Alice Frye maintains an atmosphere of controlled chaos, just the way the critters prefer it. Frye has a way with the beasts that reassures even the most inbred purebred, and as Pepi and Kate will readily attest, she's both skilled and a soft touch. The staff is friendly and firm, rare qualities in tandem but necessary when dealing with psychotic pet owners. The prices, while not the lowest in town, are quite reasonable. And like an ethical mechanic, Frye gives only the care and treatment that are necessary. Purr.
No job is harder than teaching public school. So how does Jamie Scott, the integrated-physics and chemistry teacher at HISD's Hamilton Middle School, make it look like so much fun? The big, blond, smiling bear of a man is clearly doing something right. His students come home from citywide science fairs covered with ribbons and beaming with pride. But even Scott must have been overwhelmed by his eighth-graders' success this past summer. All year long Allison Carr, Jonathan Lew, Haley O'Neil and Skyler Schawe worked under Scott's supervision on a project for the Bayer Corporation National Science Foundation for Community Innovation Competition. The kids called their project the Science Squad. It was an amazingly elegant idea. The four eighth-graders developed a series of mini hands-on lessons that they could take into elementary schools and thus inspire fifth-graders to get excited about all those science classes they'd be taking once they got to middle school. The Science Squad won at each level of competition, and the students finally found themselves competing this summer at Walt Disney World, where not only did they bring home a second-place trophy, but they and Scott won a $25,000 grant to fund the training of future Science Squad members. Teaching really doesn't get any better than this.
Houston has a special fondness for its firearms. That's obvious from the sheer number and variety of outlets, from Carter's Country -- that Wal-Mart of weaponry -- to other high-profile retailers. Top Gun takes a different, specialized tact. Just like most golfers know they shouldn't buy clubs until they test them out, Top Gun realizes that live-fire is the only sure way for a shooter to know that this gun's just right. Tucked away in a small building a block south of Richmond, Top Gun has one of the rare indoor (and air-conditioned) shooting ranges. The state-of-the-art 15-lane facility can be used to test-fire potential purchases. And there are special bargains for those who want to buy the rental weapons. There isn't a huge on-site inventory, but the veteran staff can help novices find the best-suited guns for them, and soon have 'em ready. And with the upscale range awaiting, you can be assured of always hitting the mark on purchases. Top Gun's approach is right on target.
The nice thing about having a mall like Town & Country crash and burn is that rent plummets to the point that more obscure independent stores like Toys for All can move in. Specializing in vintage toys and games spanning the entire spectrum of obsessive-compulsive hobbies, from Beanie Babies and Barbies to board games and Hot Wheels, this store even manages to carry a larger selection than the average chain mall stores. The only downside is that the place serves adult clientele more than the under-12 set. Still, the shop carries enough of the latest toy lines and harder-to-find items from the current fads to keep the little ones smiling. Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Stacked unceremoniously under the sale racks at the back of Vanessa Riley's boutique are sheets and sheets of drawings of chic, oh-so-European women in slinky, oh-so-European suits and gowns. Their haphazard nondisplay belies their significance. This is no ordinary designer store where some anonymous underling in a faraway fashion house conceives the ready-to-wear fare. In this boutique, the woman who drew those sketches is standing in her red suede stiletto boots amid her three-dimensional creations: feather-boa-topped jackets, ankle-skimming coats, sharply tailored pinstriped suits and sensual silk spaghetti-strapped dresses. Riley runs about the shop asking in her brassy British accent if she can help you find something. And if you don't find something you like, well, Riley will just whip up something special for you. For an extra $45, any of her designs can be custom-cut to fit you in nearly any fabric you choose. Pinning and tucking and draping and complimenting, Vanessa Riley will make you feel like a supermodel, only shorter. Fabulous, darling.

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