Sufferers of long-term neck and back pain will try anything to find relief, even if it's just temporary. At Relax The Back, you'll find all the equipment and reference materials you need to provide relief from pain and to help keep you in good shape. The furniture offerings include ergonomic office and leisure chairs, leather shiatsu massage chairs, mattresses and adjustable beds, massage tables and inversion tables. Cushions and pillows come in various shapes, sizes and densities. Support belts (an absolute must to protect the back) can be found in various strengths, and exercise balls in various diameters. Take a look at the heating pads and deep muscle massagers, including the Thumper, which looks like it could do more harm than good. But the most important thing at Relax The Back is not something they sell but something they give away: advice. For someone suffering with neck or back pain, a sympathetic ear can go a long way.

It's hard to figure out why the cars are crawling to a stop and little old ladies are fighting for parking along Dunlavy. With no obvious signs to flag you down, you could drive right by the Guild Shop without even noticing. Variety and good deals are the key to this thrift store's success. Items are marked according to how long they've been on the shelf, so the longer an item is there, the cheaper the price. This keeps the store packed with furniture, clothes, dishes, lamps, glassware, crystal, silver, artwork and a plethora of knickknacks. It's clean and well organized; you may have to scour through 50 crystal bowls to find the one you want, but they're all located in one section. There's no need to do the hard legwork of riding from one store to the next getting tired, dirty and disappointed. All you have to do is fight a few folks for a parking space in the Montrose.

It may be in the heart of River Oaks, but women from all over town know this is the place to buy those Sex in the City, midlife crisis, hot-date-tonight shoes. Divine Donald Pliners, gorgeous Goffredo Fantinis, majestic Mezlans and charming Charles Jordans, all to die for. Towering stilettos and stacked wedgies await. In this tiny shop the shoes never stop, with more and hipper designs every time you stop by. And the best part is there's always a sale in progress. They have clothing, too, but don't let that distract you. We know people who have left with five pairs of shoes. You can get $600 worth of footwear for only $200. And don't forget, fall is coming, even to Houston. Carrie Bradshaw would kill for some of the boots on display.

It's a delicate business, salvaging footwear that costs as much as a used Honda, but Barry and Ellen Croft handle the art of shoe repair with an aw-shucks mirth that cuts through the pomp of Prada. Barry, who started Shoe Savers years ago, has become the official cobbler for Inner Loop socialites, city officials, lawyers and the occasional visiting celebrity. A typical day finds Ellen beaming at the line of customers -- which often winds out the door of their no-frills shop in the Rice Village -- while Barry polishes, stitches and refurbishes countless Manolo Blahniks and the occasional work boot. The Crofts are saviors of the chic, holding exclusive contracts with Saks Fifth Avenue and other swanky shoe mongers, yet the couple manages to keep the high-maintenance egos in check. "Snooty people don't bother me at all," Barry grins from his overloaded workstation. "I just don't deal with 'em."

Maybe it's the goofy messages posted on the sign ("We Make Good Scents," for example). Or perhaps it's the odd collection of celebrities painted on the front of the building (David Letterman, Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne -- you figure it out). Maybe it's the cheesy rock stations permanently tuned in, continuously playing the lamest yet greatest '70s and '80s rock tunes ("Meet you all the way! Rosaaaaaaannnaaa!") Either way, this wash 'n' fold/Laundromat is an endearing, hidden gem, tucked under Highway 59 in the Museum District. If you want to do your own laundry, there's a convenience store next door so you can revive yourself with sodas and Pop-Tarts while you wait. Graustark has a thick selection of old magazines to read while you snack and wait for the spin cycle to finish. If you want to drop off your dirty things, the longtime staff will do their best to remember your name. And they have a remarkably quick turnaround time -- must be that upbeat music they work to.

Susan Jackson has one of those high-beam smiles that could blind you if it didn't make you feel so good inside. That's part of her power as a music teacher. There's also something about her tiny attic studio that makes you feel really, well, arty. It's filled with instruments, because Jackson doesn't teach just the wonderfully antiquated accordion; she will also help you and yours master the piano, guitar, violin and pretty much anything else with a string to pluck or a key to press. For a half-hour you'll get her undivided attention, always upbeat and positive. And even if you're not as fabulously talented as you wish you were, you'll leave class feeling like a true musician. And if you need some extra inspiration, you can catch her at one of her gigs around town, where she plays and sings like a fabulous she-devil with Beans Barton and the Bipeds.
Sister act Peggy and Maggie Lu run Instyle Nails like Donald Trump runs real estate. In the past four years they've had to add more spa chairs thanks to increasing demand. As any local woman knows, a spa (vibrating chair and foot whirlpool) mani/pedi is $25 at practically every shop in town. But the Lu girls have added a free neck and shoulder massage. All the women are experts at massage and quick as the wind with the clippers and polish. It doesn't hurt that the shop is next door to Ziggy's, either. If there's a wait, many customers will cool their heels with an iced tea and a buffalo burger. It's the best relaxation for the price, seven days a week.
A relative newcomer to the Westheimer vintage strip, Leopard Lounge is a welcome young upstart. The leopard-print motif and blaring hip-hop music let you know this is not your mother's consignment shop. The usual suspects are well covered: bellbottom jeans, '50s dresses, tight-fitting team T-shirts from the '70s and so on. But it's the quality of the Lounge that makes this store worth checking out. Finish browsing just one spinning rack of vintage pants and we guarantee you that you'll be headed to the leopard-print dressing rooms with at least five pairs you absolutely must try on. Sure, most of the staff has the requisite cooler-than-you look, but if you chat them up a bit, they'll be eager to offer opinions and assistance. On your way out, be sure to check out the large collection of dog-collar bracelets and chokers. Told you your mom wouldn't shop here.

Even if you don't sew, this fabric store is worth a visit. There's a whole room devoted to silks that makes you realize fabric designing is a true profession. The customers are dead serious in their searches. Brides-to-be walk dutifully, following their dressmakers with anxious looks and hands full of lace. Twenty buttons are scrutinized with a strip of fabric, and furrowed brows accompany questions to the employees. It's enough to make you want to buy a roll of stitch-witchery and make some pillows!
Want to find the styles of the moment? At Tootsies you'll be surrounded by crazy-cool clothes and CZ jewelry that's a great knockoff of the real thing. From Via Spiga shoes to Ralph Lauren haute couture, Tootsies has got you covered. Looking for that diamond horseshoe necklace that Carrie wears in Sex and the City? Just peep under the glass jewelry cases. And don't be put off by the armed HPD guard -- naturally, he's nice. As are the salespeople. Our fave is Miriam, who will run around looking for the perfect T-shirt until she finds it. In fact, Tootsies has the best T-shirts around: Michael Stars. They're not cheap, but they're flattering on everyone. And the sales, oh, the sales! Merchandise is sometimes marked down as low as 75 percent. Un-freakin'-beatable. But get there quick -- in a matter of hours, the merchandise is wiped out. The best strategy is to get on the mailing list so you'll be notified when the sales take place. Now excuse us, we heard there's a sale on. Bye!

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