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.
Anybody who has tuned in to PBS's Antiques Roadshow marvels at how veteran appraisers quickly scan somebody's closet clutter and come up with rich histories and details on such obscure items. Paul F. Wishnow takes it one step further. Each Sunday morning on KPRC Radio (950 AM), he delivers a wealth of information without even seeing the items of interest to callers. He guides them through a thorough examination that usually yields the elusive answers to the value and heritage of the possessions. Time has increased their worth -- and it certainly has added to his expertise. His dad had Houston's oldest antique shop (it opened in 1922) when Paul was born. Wishnow Furniture and Antiques is still going strong (his father died in 1958). In 1974 Paul picked up his accreditation from the recognized U.S. and international appraisers' societies, and has been gleaning the gems from the junk ever since.
Though not expected on the market before early next year, FrogPad, developed by Houston-based FrogPad L.L.C., could revolutionize the exploding market for wireless Web technology. While the gadgets -- smart phones, handheld PCs and personal digital assistants, like the Palm -- are getting smaller and more sophisticated, manufacturers have yet to figure out how to incorporate a practical, easy-to-use keypad that allows the full range of letters and numbers to be entered. Smaller than a pocket paperback, the FrogPad offers the same functions as the traditional 104-key "Qwerty" keyboard, but with only 19 keys. The secret is in the location of keys for the 15 letters used most frequently, which, combined with four secondary keys, allows for easy one-handed use. FrogPad is relatively effortless to master: Users can learn how to type 40 words per minute in ten hours, compared to the 56 hours it takes on a traditional keyboard. The first widespread use of FrogPad likely will be on cellular phones. Inventor Kenzo Tsubai and his partner, Linda Marroquin, recently met in Helsinki with representatives from Nokia, whose strategy, according to its 1999 annual report, is to combine mobile phones and PCs into a single "personal communication tool."
Jerry Turner doesn't fit the wrecker-driver profile. Towing cars is a cutthroat kind of business, but Turner just isn't a cutthroat kind of guy. He'll advise drivers at accident scenes, for example, of their right to refuse his assistance and to select the wrecker company of their choice. If he sees a towing scam at a sporting-event parking lot, he'll warn unsuspecting drivers of the danger. If he hooks you up and you have a legitimate excuse, he won't shake you down for the tow fee before releasing your car. If he does tow you, there are no hidden fees or extortionate prices to confront. He can recommend a good, honest mechanic. He's even an interesting conversationalist with an engaging laugh. Despite these qualities, or perhaps because of them, Turner has built a following of breakdown victims who insist on dialing his number when the engine quits.
Every shop's stock of booze pales in comparison to the famed downtown Spec's, where enthusiasts can spend hours browsing among the thousands of bottles of wine from every region of every alcohol-producing nation in the world. But most people don't have hours to browse, and the massive selection can overwhelm the average couple-of-liters-a-week consumer. Not to mention, for example, the impossibility of distinguishing between the 436 varieties of cabernet with hints of currant and blackberry, or calculating the subtle differences between a 90 and a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. A more manageable but equally satisfying option can be found at the satellite Spec's on Holcombe, which offers no small selection of vintage wines, real ales and superior spirits to choose from, yet can be navigated during a lunch break or rush hour. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the place retains the snobless, relaxed atmosphere of its big brother. Though ideal for that perfect, affordable complement to the evening meal, the Holcombe Spec's is happy to accommodate if only a three-figure burgundy, rare single-malt scotch or other showpiece will do.
Black-haired, pale-skinned and soft-spoken Byriah Dailey has earned a reputation as a clean, safe and super-professional piercer at his seven-year-old shop, Taurian. But with the addition of piercer Steve Joyner, who relocated to Houston earlier this spring from Obscurities Precision Piercing in Dallas, some of the best Texas piercers now work under the same roof. Joyner, who credits his Native American heritage with his interest in tattoos, piercing and scarification, is vice president of the Association of Professional Piercers, of which all piercers at Taurian are members. He also worked with the state health department to write Texas's regulations for the piercing industry. And at Taurian, they follow those guidelines strictly. No ID? No tongue ring for you. Had a drink or two beforehand? No eyebrow ring for you because of the risk of bleeding. "If someone isn't anatomically right for a certain piercing, we're just not going to do it and put in whatever jewelry they want. It's not 'cause we're trying to be assholes," Dailey says. "We're concerned about the safety of piercing." Taurian also makes 70 percent of its jewelry in house and offers a collection of hand-carved bone jewelry imported from Indonesia.

Brazos Bookstore
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.
Hong Kong Market No. 4
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.

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