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.
This perennial favorite continues its stranglehold on this category for two simple reasons: They stock things you can't get anywhere else in town, and the staffers know their shit. Whether it's a Houston or regional title, import, long-lost record your granddad had, or an obscure EP by Death Cab for Cutie, you can find it at Cactus. If not, they'll order it for you. The store has also started a "Build a Better Music Library" sale that encourages patrons to check out original classic albums on CD rather than buying greatest-hits compilations. And though toys, shirts, videos and knickknacks take up a good chunk of floor space, Cactus still has the widest and most eclectic selection of music anywhere in Houston. Its LP and vinyl business has increased over the past year. Time to reorder those fuzzy black record dusters.
Forking over $15 or $20 for a new CD these days puts a dent in the wallet of many music connoisseurs. Thankfully, there's Half Price Books. Here, you can find used CDs of mainstream artists and popular indie acts priced anywhere from $5 to $8. Lesser-known artists show up on clearance racks, priced from $1 to $3 -- and music collectors should take note of this section. Between all the music that some might say isn't worth a dime, there are out-of-print gems that have gone undetected by the populace for months, many of which go for a lot more on eBay.

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