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.
La Victoria Bakery
On weekends, cars wedge into the small lot of this service station-turned-panaderia, with most people hoofing it from distant parking spaces down the street. They know. They've been warring over parking spots every year for the last two decades or so to get at the pan dulce of La Victoria. The apricot empanadas with toasted coconut flakes catch your eye, but soon you notice the maranitos (gingerbread piggies) and the neon-colored galletas (cookies). They vie for your attention amid the other desserts, most of them variations with pia, calabaza, fresas, pacanas, manzanas and coco. Oh, yes, and azúcar. This is where you pick up your Day of the Dead breads, and if you can afford them, the fancy skeleton-shaped ones. But today you came here to pick up a birthday cake, because you know it is, hands down, the best cake in all of Houston, beautifully decorated in a spray of brightly colored fresh flowers. The cake will have to wait until later, but you sit down for a piece of melt-in-your-mouth tres leches to energize you for the walk back to the car.

Arandas Bakery

SSQQ Dance Studio
Before you get too excited, you should know that SSQQ stands for slow, slow, quick, quick, not sadomasochists squealing and quivering quietly. And instruction in "The Whip" has more to do with fancy footwork than learning how to inflict a blow that will hurt like hell without breaking the skin. But that doesn't mean SSQQ's Whip classes aren't hot. The Whip is a spin-off of West Coast swing, brought home to Texas by GIs returning from their California posts after World War II. But over the years Texas women put their own twist on the upright USO dance: They added a sexy hip swivel, and the dance went downhill (in the very best way) from there. The naughty whippers practiced to the music of Al Green, the Commodores, Barry White, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan in the dives and honky-tonks along Telephone Road. SSQQ owner Rick Archer honed his dirty dancing skills at one such club, the now-defunct Four Palms, a place with a sign advising you to "Check your guns and knives at the door." Now, in his much better lit Bellaire studio, he teaches The Whip complete with all the bumps and all the grinds. Try it out at a party. Jaws will drop. Just $36 for ladies and $44 for men gets you eight hours of classes, two hours once a week for a month. Schedules vary from month to month, so call ahead or check out www.ssqq.com.
The Galleria is filled with stores trying to sell you stuff that you never knew you needed, but at least there's one whose merchandise can help you learn a thing or two. The Discovery Channel store is, not surprisingly, an offshoot of cable's Discovery group of networks (which includes The Learning Channel and Animal Planet), a group that is home to lots of World War II documentaries and goofily addictive shows like Junkyard Wars, where two teams are locked into a scrap yard and compete to build the best cannon, or amphibious vehicle, or whatever, from materials on hand. The store is a perfect place to go if you have to find a birthday gift for some kid you barely know; there's everything from plush stuffed animals to Pond Scum Soap to informative scale models and astronomy kits. Since it's in the Galleria, by definition it's pricey, but a visit to the Discovery Channel store is a much better option than your standard toy outlet.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of