Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Frederick August Otto Schwarz came all the way to Baltimore from Germany 141 years ago so that you could get some kick-ass toys. The least you could do is check out his store. So they're not local -- so what? The huge Houston location across the street from the Galleria is the quintessential toy store. If you need a plush bear or an obscure Barbie, they can't be beat. Plus, they pride themselves on their customer service -- they'll wrap your gifts and ship them anywhere in the world. They're also combating their somewhat snooty image by dropping their prices. Please, please, please, can we go?
Start clowning around -- it could earn you a cool 35 large a year. Instructor Larry Kibbey, 76, has been clowning since 1949 and has written seven books on the subject, so he's got the Bozo thing down pat. He's also the patriarch of what he calls the world's largest family of clowns and magicians -- 14 fabulous entertainers in all. Kibbey learned at the gigantic shoes of four of the most famous Ringling Bros. clowns of the past century, and now he's ready to show you the Way of the Honking Nose. For $600, you get seven two-hour courses on things like the history of clowning, costuming, makeup and balloon sculpting. Some of his goofy grads have found jobs working in Hollywood or for Disney. And lest you think that there's no moolah in acting the fool, Kibbey claims he once earned $49,000 for four days' work clowning around for alkies and crackheads at a state hospital. That's over $12,000 a day. Who's laughing now?
Did your understanding of Spanish stop somewhere between agua and adiós? Well, Leisure Learning Unlimited offers an imaginative way for you to habla mas espaol. For about $200, you can take LLU's accelerated Spanish classes, which combine role-playing, singing and dancing to maximize your learning potential. The small classes (12 to 14) meet once a week for three hours, for eight weeks total. At the end of each class, the teacher plays soft music and uses relaxation techniques to etch the day's lessons into your long-term memory. For those more accustomed to traditional book learnin', LLU offers other classes for around $80. So what are you waiting for? Vamos!
The sign in the window of Savers promises "4000 new items daily," and they're not kidding. This cavernous thrift store has every type of clothing, along with a variety of housewares and some furniture, on sale for cheap, cheap, cheap. Start your shopping trip by picking up one of Savers' complimentary shopping carts or big red-and-white bags so as to better collect your goodies. Then it's off to the hunt. Explore the entire wall covered in shoes, or check out the dishware (all mugs only 49 cents!). There are regular 50-percent-off sales, and unlike many thrift stores, Savers welcomes exchanges. The store is nice and clean, with huge aisles for easy strolling. Store employees have taken care to make sure the high-quality clothes aren't jammed in too tightly, so sorting through the hundreds of women's dresses or men's shirts isn't difficult. For those who think Savers sounds too highbrow to be a real thrift store, no worries. There are plenty of weird, hidden treasures to be found. How about a semi-bizarre framed painting of two flamingos titled Miami Nights for only $1.99?
Perhaps you've always craved a sterling silver tea set, or a vintage rhinestone brooch or a velvet couch. From the sublimely beautiful to the ridiculously tacky, the Guild Shop has it all -- and at great prices. Because parishioners at the upscale St. John the Divine Church donate their often valuable castoffs to this church-sponsored resale shop, fancy but outdated designer clothes, jewelry and sterling abound. Watch prices fall with monthly markdowns, but beware: Antiques dealers regularly scout for bargains and swoop down when prices drop. The mostly elderly volunteers are sweet if a little slow; patience in the checkout line is a must.
Tucked just a few blocks away from the main vintage clothing drag on Westheimer is Houston's best-kept resale secret, The Way We Wore. Its locale, an old Montrose home, gives the place heaps of character. And inside you'll find a resale shopper's dream -- the place is chock-full of high-quality outfits from the days when your grandmother still liked to party. To help keep the decades straight, owner Pam Nunnally has sorted her goodies into the Martini Room, the Love Room and the '70s Disco Room, so you'll know where to go whether you're in search of that perfect cocktail dress or a pair of swinging bell-bottoms. If you're the type who wants to dress up old-school only once in a while, The Way We Wore also rents outfits, so you'll be a one-of-a-kind at any prom or costume party. But the best thing about The Way We Wore, and the thing that's lacking from those giants on Westheimer, is the personal attention you'll get from Nunnally, who has a great eye for picking out the perfect outfit for any figure.
There are two different types of shoppers. There are people who shop because there are things that they need; for instance, they need a pair of khaki pants to go with their boring white button-down shirt. Then there are people who shop for the thrill, the joy, the adventure, the hunt. If you're a can-you-get-this-in-my-size kind of shopper, this is not the store for you. But if you like Easter egg hunts, come on in for a huge selection of brand-new dirt-cheap shoes. Phil's is a big depressing warehouse-style space that looks like it might be filled with lots of depressing no-name shoes. But at this clearance store for Rack Room Shoes, there's buried treasure: stylish Nine West boots, wicked-cool BCBG heels and super-comfy Aerosoles. (Be careful, though. Some of the shoes are knock-offs with sneaky names; on first glance, Jammin' New York looks like Jones New York.) And it seems that Phil is always sweetening the pot: First the sale will be half off the lowest clearance price. Then, he'll add a third pair of shoes for a penny. On our most recent trip, the sign said 80 percent off the lowest price. God bless Phil, whoever he is.
You can create a truly interesting wardrobe created without a huge expenditure -- if you have the time to sift through thrift stores, garage sales, discount shops like T.J. Maxx or Loehmann's and sales at fancy stores. But sometimes there's just no time to mess around -- for example, when you realize you hate every single item in your closet two hours before a date. Race to good old Urban Outfitters. That store does your thinking for you; just call it quirkiness in a bottle. You'll find funky accessories and clothes with a punk edge, but, of course, you'll have to pay a little more for them. And keep in mind that you might bump into someone wearing the exact same off-the-shoulder, black-and-white-striped top decorated with red sequins. In other words, dressed head to toe in Urban gear, you risk getting busted by the authenticity police. But chances are, you'll look damn cool.
Just when you thought the days of helpful salesclerks and expansive racks of interesting goodies were gone to all but the very rich, Nordstrom department store moves into town to save the day. Not only do they have astonishingly kind clerks, great merchandise (some of which is actually "affordable," as one saleslady so delicately put it), and one of the best shoe selections in the city, but they've also got a live piano player calmly tickling the ivories during store hours (no raging rap or blaring boy bands, thank you very much). Shopping's never felt so good.
They have their own label of bottled water. Need we say more? This swanky shop sports Betsey Johnson frocks and darling sequined Ts along with retro Gigi dresses that work from day to evening and Charles Chang-Lima separates made of wonderful fabric. It's the perfect place to nab a little cocktail dress that you won't see yourself coming and going in.
The only thread that connects the various and sundry goods at Sloan/Hall is taste. Very good taste. Owners Marcus Sloan and Shannon Hall seem to stock their store not with what they think their customers might want but with what they themselves like. The result is a smorgasbord of interesting (and expensive) items like Comme des Garçons fragrances, Mariage Frères teas, TASCHEN books, Marie-Papier stationery, Lomo cameras, Lucien Pellat-Finet cashmere Ts and, of course, Prada shoes. It's one-stop gift shopping for the people who already have everything.
This place is so mod, it could make Andy Warhol's blond-wigged head explode. Those with an eye for design, retro-chic and clean lines (and a mother of an expense account) will likely climax here. Fortunately there are plenty of groovy chairs to relax in afterward, like Gaetano Pesce's line of whimsical yet functional translucent rubbery molded plastic furniture. Lovers of minimalist Japanese designs will find all sorts of elegant wooden creations for the home. Even the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston approves of the furnishings here, having placed the totally clear plastic "ghost chair" from Kartell within its walls.