Sound Exchange
Sound Exchange on Richmond and Black Dog Records were neck and neck for top honors in this category. Both stores have an exquisite collection of rare and long-lost vinyl LPs, often at affordable prices, and they both have their share of eccentric regulars who like to hip the knowledgeable employees to the latest conspiracies. For a while there, Black Dog was in the lead, thanks to its use of incense. But after a second look, Sound Exchange won because of its extensive bargain-basement selection. Yes, for one dollar each, you can get a bounty of lost vinyl treasures: R&B, jazz, Christopher Cross...Plus, the Exchange has a rep for letting local bands -- such as the Jewws and Freedom Sold -- do makeshift shows right next to the record players for sale. Like any good record store, Sound Exchange preserves the independent spirit of music. Now, if it could just add a couple of incense sticks here and there...

Can a pregnant woman find happiness in a clothing boutique? She can if it's Rice Village's Nine, the trendy maternity store where the trust-fund babies with babies on board come to shop. With an atmosphere that feels more like Neiman's than nine months in waiting, the little store caters to pretty young mommies-to-be with clothes that are hardly your mother's maternity outfits. Pregnancy Survival Kits (stretchy pieces you can mix and match) mingle with maternity eveningwear. And where else can you get a Japanese Weekend Maternity Thong?

The Briar Shoppe
Sisters Pat and Donna O'Connor have turned this store, which their mother opened more than 40 years ago, into a stogie smoker's oasis. With a 200-square-foot walk-in humidor featuring everything from Arturo to Zeno, you can't go wrong. The shop(pe) also features a wide selection of pipes, wine, liquor and smoking accessories such as humidors, lighters and cutters. And they hold a wine-tasting every Saturday. But the all-female, all-smoking staff prides itself most on its customer service.

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?
Face it: Unlike those poseurs at the mall pet stores, the animals here really need you. At any given time, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has 300 to 400 pets waiting to be adopted -- every kind of critter, from dogs and cats to horses and pigs. Your $65 kitty or doggy adoption fee includes spaying or neutering, health screening, leashes and cat carriers, and vouchers for initial visits to vets in the SPCA's network. Think a mutt (or mixed breed, as we like to call them) just isn't right for you? Check out the SPCA anyway: Twenty percent of the society's animals are pure-bred.
The Mad Potter
Even if your kid isn't a budding Jackson Pollock, he will be blissfully occupied at the Mad Potter. This place has birthday parties down to a science: Carefully smocked children joyfully smear clay animals, boxes and plates with paint while adoring adults sip cocktails. Helpful staffers dole out small blobs of paint to the tiny artists and help to keep clothes clean with plenty of wet paper towels. When it's time for birthday cake, staffers whisk away the painted creations for firing in the kiln. It's effortless, clean, artistic fun. The ceramics are ready for pickup several days later. Best of all, the little masterpieces make lovely party favors.
If you're hunting for hard-to-find videos and DVDs, Cactus is the place to go. Good luck locating, say, the Criterion Collection edition of Jim Jarmusch's masterpiece Down By Law at your local Best Buy. The store managers at the big chains lack the knowledge and taste to stock such relevant works. But at Cactus, there's an entire Criterion Collection section. Mainstream features are always in supply as well, but Cactus more than likely has that obscure foreign or indie film you're craving. If, by some chance, they don't, the employees are always willing to order something and especially happy to recommend their favorites.

When it comes to shopping for adult videos, it doesn't get much pinker or cuter than Cindie's -- the red-and-white awning covered in hearts, the frothy lingerie in the window. But don't let the candy-coated packaging of this adult novelty store fool you. Cindie's also stacks top-of-the-line adult videos and DVDs, guaranteed to get you in the mood. A $10 membership fee is required (movies are also for sale), but on Mondays and Tuesdays you can rent one and get the second for just a penny. There are films for every taste here -- although porn novices may want to start out with something other than Granny the Tranny on their first go-round. The best part about Cindie's is it employs many female clerks, creating a comfortable environment for women shopping alone. But don't worry, men are always welcome, too.

Where can you find rows and rows of hard-core gay porn -- and cheesecake? This place is like The Chocolate Bar meets the News Stand. It's like the Kroger Signature Store of the Hollywood stop-and-shop porn chain. Of all Houston's various XXX stores, this one has to have the most varieties of Wet (the lubricant gay men prefer, according to Sex Tips for a Straight Woman from a Gay Man by Dan Anderson and Maggie Berman). But next to the numerous lube and condom variations is an entirely unexpected case of tasty chocolate turtles and other sweets. In case you need even more juxtapositions, in the same Hollywood complex you can also hit the hair and nail salon, the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant, and the investment and realty store.

Too few tattoo artists do more than stencil work. Such is not the case with Dan Martin, an artist for Scorpion Tattoos, Houston's only shop to be published in a national tattoo magazine. A graphic designer for eight years, Martin worked at The Houston Post and elsewhere before taking to skin art. Now he specializes in color and neotraditional work, tricking out old-world designs like panthers, daggers and roses. Martin also came close to the world record for longest tattoo session last year, working on Henry Elliott for 27 hours and 27 minutes. But unfortunately, before verification could be made, a tragedy occurred. In November, Elliot suffered a heart attack and passed away. The record now lies in the British hands of Chris Goodwill, who beat Martin by less than six hours. Still, this inker is well within the top five artists on the planet, and more than enough reason for Houston pride.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of