Dogs, to many of us, are like non-speaking children. We feed them, bathe them, buy them toys, shower them with affection and take them on walks and to the doctor. They may have fur, but isn't that kind of like being naked? Don't you want your best friend to look stylish? A Dog's Life offers everything from funny little hats, hair bows and charms to designer collars and even sleepwear is there for the taking. You can even buy products that actually serve a purpose, like beds, bowls, toys and blankets. The only catch: The Sugar Land-based business doesn't have a storefront. But you can order products online, and the folks from A Dog's Life often set up shop at malls and festivals.
Pity the fool who hasn't browsed the rows of delightfully handmade and hand-harvested offerings at the Bayou City Farmers' Market. As local jazz players weave their way around the musical scale, shoppers move through the stalls in the parking lot behind 3000 Richmond, checking out fruits and vegetables, cheeses, blended teas and locally roasted coffees. Step up and sample a lovingly blended salsa or sniff a goat's-milk soap. Some of the most successful and established growers from Harris County and beyond make the weekly trek to this market. Some even do it twice, laying out their wares at the less-attended Wednesday gathering. For those just beginning the crossover from mega-farm chain groceries, be prepared. The carrots, cucumbers, radishes, squash and berries grown in regional organic Texas soils pack a wallop of flavor and texture that may take you by surprise. Proceed with caution.
Traders Village
You tried to just walk by, to leave the samurai weaponry and throwing stars alone this trip. Instead, you fondled a nocturnal flying squirrel from Tasmania and haggled a little too aggressively over a sofa set already priced beneath outlet prices. Hell, you handled every power tool in sight at this 60-acre flea market, the largest marketplace on the Gulf Coast. So even if the key you had copied at the makeshift locksmith shop didn't work -- despite the courtesy "valet notch" -- the $1 spent was worth the time away from entertaining your knife fixation. Inevitably, you start to move past the bluegrass band, hot dogs and piles of blue jeans. The weapons are drawing you in, you can feel it. But a flash from the ground breaks the spell. White block lettering stenciled on a black doormat reads "OH SHIT. NOT YOU AGAIN." You're laughing hard as you fork over a few more Washingtons, and you've completely forgotten where you were going. Nice save.
Readers' choice: Traders Village
Howard E. Butt knew a thing or two about designing grocery stores. According to the company's Web site, his motto was "He profits most who serves best." From the looks of them, some other supermarkets' mottoes appear to be "sell crappy food out of sketchy buildings." When you walk into an H-E-B, you'll get the feeling that you've never been to a real grocery store before. The produce is unbelievably fresh, and the seafood, meat and bakery counters are chock-full of quality stuff. The stores are huge and clean, the inventory well priced. There are even cool little kitchenettes where chefs demonstrate how to prepare everything from sushi to soup. H-E-B: Here, everything kicks butt.
Readers' choice: Whole Foods Market
You don't want to be dropping 40 or 50 bucks on a haircut, but somehow you're leery of what you'll look like after you walk out of one of those cheap strip-mall franchise operations. So instead head into L-N Hair Tech, where men's cuts are $8 (more if you have really long hair) and women's cuts are under $20. Ask for Candy. Walk-ins are welcome, and the wait usually isn't too long because -- another plus for the guys -- Candy works with lightning speed. And if you happen to fall in love with the wild furniture in the place, she can put you in touch with the designer -- it's her sister.
What are you looking for? A $175 wedding dress? Mexican-flag boxing gloves? A 500-pound brass statue of Buddha? Sunglasses? Perfume? A car stereo? Or maybe it's an action figure of dubious copyright, let's say, "Superheroic Man," a longhaired Superman riding a horse with a sword and a whip in his hand. You can find all that and much, much more in the shops and wholesale warehouses along Harwin, Houston's shadiest and quirkiest shopping hot spot. Want a wall clock that touts "Bebsi" or "7 Vp"? How about a "Kate Spate" handbag? They've got those too, all at a fraction of the genuine article's price. When speaking of this type of shady merchandise, the Brits like to say, "It fell off the back of a lorry." In Harwin's case, it would be more accurate to say this stuff fell overboard from a container ship -- most of it's made in China, and most of the stores are run by often-cranky Chinese women. Sure, some of the goods you buy down here may come apart as soon as you get them home, but the shopping experience is worth it. On Harwin, you never know what you'll find next. Can you honestly say the same about the Galleria?
Sig's Lagoon
Looking for that long-out-of-print Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty duet album? The new Calexico DVD? A painting of an albino with an Afro bowling? Sig's Lagoon, the latest musical addition to the thriving Continental strip at the Ensemble/HCC Metro stop, has all that and more. The shop takes its name from a column by Sig Byrd, the long-deceased chronicler of mid-20th-century Houston's seamy underbelly and street-level nightlife. Houston music is given pride of place here, which is no surprise, as owners Thomas and Jennifer Escalante are deeply involved in that scene; Thomas is the singer in the band Clouseaux. Lately, the CDs/vinyl/DVDs/books/novelties store has been dabbling in the art world -- the high walls are festooned with works by local and regional painters -- and in the coming year, the Escalantes hope to host small musical events as well.
Under a green canopy of trees, a stream meanders by a series of raised beds boasting a variety of leafy greens. Through the narrow aisles, volunteers' sandals and work boots pad along. The stream feeding the Local Organic Outpost is one of the last that flows over mud and clay rather than city-engineered concrete channels. It feels a thousand miles from nowhere, or at least a thousand miles from the wild pace of Houston traffic, but this urban gardening adventure is just a hop from both downtown and Interstate 10. Launched in 2001 by Joe Nelson Icet, the garden is fueling the boom in organic farmers' markets and health-minded Houston restaurants. It's also a resource for the organic minorities of Fat City, USA. Here is our town's true counterculture. Like the kale, it is vibrant and growing.
Ah, the rich caramels. The hints of chocolate, the earthy aromas and the lingering taste of exploited labor. As so many addicted Houstonians know, a good cup of coffee can be a lifesaver. But what about the extreme poverty suffered by plantation pickers? FairTrade labeling organizations and the high-minded folks at Taft Street Coffee want your cup of joe to be guilt-free. Serving only FairTrade, organic coffees roasted right here in Houston by Katz Coffee, Taft Street is putting its business principles where its mission-oriented mouth is. And the beans aren't suffering for the distinction. Deeply satisfying strains of Guatemalan, Sumatran and blended coffees are yours for the picking at $11 per pound -- without that guilty aftertaste.
For almost eight years, Marva's Psychic Fairs have been a staple of Houston's metaphysical community. The first Saturday of each month, a conference room at the Ramada becomes a veritable Galleria of the world beyond this mere dimension. There are astrologists, palm readers, reflexologists, iridologists, herbalists and tarot-card readers. (Here's an idea: Go to several different vendors and get them arguing about why each sees a different future for you.) There's also a wide selection of jewelry and books, all in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. If you've got any doubts about where your love life or career is going, Marva's fair will have answers. Maybe not guaranteed answers, but answers nonetheless.

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