The Briar Shoppe

A past champion reemerges! Nestled in Rice Village, this tobacconist treasure trove has been in business since 1962. Bulk, chewing, rolling, canned — they can meet all your tobacco needs. And if it's a cigar you're after, they have one of the biggest selections in the city. You can find anything from Arturo Fuente to Zino. Ye Olde Shoppe also has pipes, wine, accessories, gifts — it's textbook one-stop shopping. Whether you're a connoisseur or just getting into the smoking groove, the salespeople will help you find what you're looking for. Now, sit back, relax and smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Domy Books

Don't let the name fool you into thinking this Montrose-area store is merely some sort of Barnes & Noble-like local. Domy offers their customers the latest in specialty artist-designed toys. It's one of the only places in town to find a random assortment of Bearbricks or Kid Robot designs. From limited-edition vinyl figures by Kaws and Futura to hand-sewn plush ninjas, Domy makes collecting Star Wars toys look like the child's game it is. Since it opened, it has continued to serve local toy junkies with a wide assortment of some of the finest and most intricate toys imaginable.

Mathematician Ellen Clardy, who got her Ph.D. in economics from Rice University, has a love of logic. It shows most astutely when she recommends that potential pupils consider a tutor before October hits — when it's often too late to turn around a lousy semester in algebra. If you really want to conquer algebra (a baffling yet required math course for many), meet with her early for a few sessions of pre-algebra. Clardy says not to feel alone if you feel inadequate with word problems — that's everyone's bugaboo. After her soothing instruction, you'll likely never again scratch your head at those "If two trains are traveling at the same rate of speed, what color is the sky on Neptune's moons?" ­conundrums.

Antique Warehaus

"Trash and Treasure since 1947," the slogan for Antique Warehaus, says it all. The Montrose-based dive is stacked from dirty floor to raftered ceiling with everything from leather couches and ottomans to flatware and glassware, lamps, old cameras, bar stools and picture frames. It's the city's best, most affordable and unpretentious antiques store.

We know a driver who fell victim to one of Houston's notorious potholes, leaving half the front underside of his car dragging ominously. He took it to the nearest garage, where they helpfully jury-rigged a solution but told him to get a permanent fix at his regular mechanic. So he took it to Shepherd Square Tire & Auto, near Shepherd and Westheimer. They took a look at it and said they could replace the jury-rigging with factory parts and charge $300 or so, but it wouldn't be any better than what was on there now. Three years later, he still hasn't had any problems. The guys at Shepherd Square are straight-shooters who won't try to upsell you and will do the work they promise at the price they promise. An oil change brings with it an inspection of your car that's not designed to bilk you but to keep you safe. Plus, it's right next door to the Brown Bag Deli, so waiting for the work to be done is a snap.

Maybe Halliburton can't run a war — much less a country — but one of its former civil engineers can whip your skin into shape! Mahssa burned out on her former career but, lucky for us, became an esthetician and makeup artist. She's as bubbly as you'd expect for someone in the glamour trade, but her grasp of science and how things work gives her uncanny insight into ridding us of weird bumps and hairs (she does waxing and chemical peels, too). Mahssa is a bit of a freak, because her own skin just might truly be made of porcelain and therefore need no TLC — unlike most of the rest of us. She personalizes each skin treatment, keeps lengthy customer files (don't worry; Halliburton can't access them) and is the next best thing to a dermatologist. One woman we know with chronic acne saw a complete turnaround. And we've been told we are aglow — days after a session. Throw in a hand and arm massage, and get a quickie lesson in minerals makeup, and you'll glow, too. We won't trust our hide to anyone else. A caveat: You'd better be using sunscreen year-round, or prepare yourself for a drubbing.

Farmers' markets are hard to come by in Houston, which is why Bayou City Farmers' Market is such a find. It's tucked away on a side street in the Upper Kirby district, and growers and artisans alike come to peddle their goods every Wednesday and Saturday. Aside from produce, you can find grass-fed beef, fresh baked goods, organic salads, artisanal cheeses, locally made honey and coffee. If you're lucky, there may be some live music playing as you make your way from vendor to vendor sampling their offerings and wondering why you didn't find this place sooner. You can also sign up for a mailing list that keeps you up-to-date on fresh food happenings around the city.

It had to happen — a chain offering massages at discount rates. And we tired, poor, huddled masses say, "Bring it!" Of 660 clinics nationwide, 20 or so are in the Houston area, lending credibility to the rumor that our city's traffic really does suck. We go to the one in Meyerland; a coworker swears by a skilled masseuse's Swedish technique at the Sugar Land location. First visit's $39 per hour! Check out the Web site, where you'll learn about the different massage types — we learned that there is no authorized use of a peacock feather in any of the salons. And to think we once paid a guy for that at a sports club downtown! We love the standardized, cookie-cutter reassurance of Massage Envy.

If you want to snap up a cute lil' chihuahua, get a really big dog for protection or even snare one of the new hybrids, like a Puggle, for cheap from the Houston SPCA, first you gotta pass muster with the gentle folks there. The organization has you undergo a bit of counseling and education. You'll also have to cough up the fee for the animal to be spayed or neutered before they'll release your new pet. But the cost — under $100, depending on the animal's size — includes deworming and the first set of vaccinations. All this is designed to make a happier family for pets and humans. The kind SPCA volunteers have been known to adopt a pet or two of their own, which says a lot about the animals and even more about the folks who donate their time.

Kronberg's Flags and Flagpoles

Want to strike terror into the heart of that idiot doing a mere 75 miles an hour in the fast lane on the Katy Freeway? Hoist a Jolly Roger from your car's mainmast — that ought to get them the hell out of the way. Kronberg's Flags and Flagpoles carries the classic, black skull-and-crossbones banner in stock. The real pirates of yore each had their own flag, so you might want to customize your own. Kronberg's has you covered there too — you tell them what you want, and they'll make it for you.

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