Cactus Music

What more can you ask from a record store than free beer and free concerts? Every weekend, Cactus Music offers up heaping cups of suds from Saint Arnold's and lively, intimate sets from some of the best touring acts in the land. Just this past May, Steve Earle pounded out an hour-long set of his own tunes and those of his mentor Townes Van Zandt. Cactus has returned stronger and better than ever after a two-year absence from the Houston scene, and owner Quinn Bishop has embraced the new vinyl music movement with ferocity. He's devoted a whole side of his space to new and old sides of indie and country and all things in between.

American Apparel

Admit it, one of the best things about American Apparel is the ads featuring scantily clad hipster chicks in big glasses sporting vacant glares. The Los Angeles-based clothing chain caters to the young and irrational, who are more than willing to pay close to $40 for a mere plain white T-shirt. We love going to AA to pick up socks and catch up on all the lower Westheimer gossip, live and in person. Sure, we could hit up Wal-Mart, but what's the fun in that when we could hear Animal Collective blaring over the cackles of Nylon magazine come to life?

Sweetwater Pool & Patio is aces at pool cleaning, repairs or remodeling. Need a pool refinished, but dread the ordeal of draining, refilling and all the horrendous chaos in between? Manager Cesar Tena and his crew sweep in and out, leaving nothing behind but a sparkly, concave pearl of a hole in the ground. Tena will patiently walk his clients through the how-tos of caring for a swimming pool, and his cleaning services are prompt and thorough. The storefront has the cleaning and upkeep materials you'd expect, but — no doubt owing to its Bellaire location — considerably more pool accessories. The "Patio" portion offers up some juicy barbecue accessories as well.

You usually have to be a psychic to find a good psychic — but we've done the legwork for you: Diane Gremmel, a medium who teaches psychic development courses at Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment Health Center & Spa, really cares about mentoring people. "There's no such thing as bad info, just info that's out of time," she says. Gremmel's client readings are empowering, and she doesn't rely on parlor tricks like using info easily found on Google. Plus, she looks like an angel. Look for her also the first Saturday of each month at Marva's Alternative Health & Psychic Fairs, at the La Quinta Inn Galleria, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For more than 25 years, Houston native Mike Copenhaver has been getting people into homes and leaving behind him a trail of satisfied buyers, sellers and renters. Energetic, honest and deeply knowledgeable about Montrose, Bellaire, West U and other parts of town, he's become the go-to guy for people seeking a guide through the current economic minefields of homebuying. Yes, he's an Aggie, but some things can't be helped.

Lone Star Culinary

Located just across the street from the open-air vegetable market on Airline in the Heights, Lone Star Culinary has more than enough spice to complete any meal. There are troughs of dried chiles, shelves stacked with hard-to-get items like Steen's cane syrup, and a wall that stretches the length of the warehouse-like building piled high with dried spices and roots. They've got everything from allspice and aniseed to verbena and sarsaparilla. But if the variety is overwhelming, they also offer up homemade spice blends ready to go, including seasonings for hot wings, tamales, carne guisada, a lemon fish fry and pickling. Plus, what other spice store gives you the option of buying a piñata on the way out the door?

The Briar Shoppe

The Briar Shoppe, a perennial Best of Houston® winner in tobacco-related categories, has all the things a tobacco shop is supposed to have: a great selection of cigars in nice humidors, a wall stocked full of pipe tobacco and tobacco for rolling your own cigarettes, and the complete spectrum of smoking supplies. But what sets this place apart is the staff, ready to tell you anything you want to know and sample just about anything worth sampling, whether you're buying or browsing and whether the store is empty or busy. On a recent trip, we wanted to try something a little different than just some cigar with a crazy name, and the saleswoman suggested nasal tobacco to snort. We were skeptical at first, but the woman walked us through the process, tapping out a fine powder on our hand and instructing us to snort. As always at the Briar Shoppe, we were steered in the right direction.

Lakeshore Learning Store

This is where a kid can not only be a kid but be a smart kid, too. The store's shelves and aisles burst with colorful and fun games aimed at teaching and helping children develop their language, math, science and social studies skills. There are no video games or war toys here. Instead, shoppers find puzzles and books and every type of arts and crafts under the sun. The staff, who include many former preschool teachers, are helpful and friendly and chock-full of inventive suggestions. The store even hosts free arts and crafts for kids from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday.

It says a lot when you take your doggie back to an animal hospital that fed him poison — only for him to wag his tail, happy to see the staff again. (The poison was a form of arsenic, used to treat advanced heartworms, and the caring crew at Westbury successfully nurtured pet and owner through the ordeal.) The staff at Westbury truly and cheerfully provide 24-hour nursing care. It's a pet lodge, complete with VIP suites and a full medical facility featuring a gamut of services ("Senior Care," "Pain Management," "Pharmacy"). Westbury opened in 1958, but under owner Dr. L.D. Eckermann, recently went through a snazzy facelift, adding a soothing courtyard — and honors as Veterinary Economics magazine's Hospital of the Year for 2009.

Movies! The Store

Okay, cue that movie trailer voice-over guy...In a world where Netflix and dollar-a-day DVD kiosks seemingly rule the world, one man has the guts to open an independent video store and actually interact with customers. All right, we just had to get that out of our system. The first time we walked into Movies!, owner Rob Arcos greeted us with a smile and an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. And the second time, he remembered us — he asked us how we liked our rentals and then suggested a few others, which we promptly watched, and which of course kicked ass. He's also asked us if there were movies we'd like him to add to the inventory – basically, the dude is a ninja in the fading art of customer service. Movies are his passion, and opening an indie store in this day and age was a big risk. We're grateful he took it.

Best Of Houston®

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