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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

Like going through a dead person's closet, a trip through this dank, overstuffed resale mecca is both slightly unsettling and morbidly fascinating. Most of the digs are so dated even the hipsters wouldn't dare to try and pull them off — glittery space boots, flower-power clothes-traptions, blue tuxes, furry vests, Hunter Thompson-esque vacation shirts. There are surely salvageable items buried somewhere, but the place is mostly a history lesson on woebegone fashion, and a place to buy costumes — self-styled, or the actual (and similarly dated) ones available to rent or own in the back room, which include giant bunny, Barney and chipmunk furry suits, a slice of pizza, and Space Ghost. Bonus points for the speaker-lined egg-chair and working Weltron radio, though, sadly, neither is for sale.

The name on the building isn't just a nod to the epic Zeppelin riffer; there's an actual black Labrador in the back room snoozing while his owners hold court for Houston's vinyl lovers. The little store located on South Shepherd caters to the classic rock vinyl fetishist, with a collection of Beatles and Stones memorabilia that would make your dad beam. At Black Dog you'll also get a complimentary rock history lesson, as co-owner Cliff more than likely has a story for every record in the store.

You can get a cheaper wash at Mister Car Wash, but the $19.49 package is worth it for the number the place does on your car. It's a full-service wash — inside and out — that leaves your ride shimmering clean and, almost more important, spot-free. There's a quasi-gift shop inside, and with all the aromatic candles and cards, it's the perfect place to pick up a Mother's Day gift or anything last minute. You can also snack on the free popcorn while you get your shoes shined, and the glass wall is a big hit with the kids, who watch the cars get soaped up, scrubbed and rinsed. And the best part: If your car gets dirty in the 24 hours after you leave Mister Car Wash, you can take it back for a freebie wash.

Chances are, if you buy a lot of guns, you probably have a favorite gun shop, but even if you do, you'll be doing yourself a favor by checking out Collectors Firearms. The place is stocked full of any pistol, rifle or shotgun you could want and a whole bunch that you probably didn't know existed. If you're the militia type, the store has assault rifles that could push back the IRS. Going for the kingpin look? There are enough engraved .45's and 9 mm's to outfit the Gulf Cartel. And, of course, it's not called Collectors Firearms for nothing: There are a couple pistols that could get you an E series Benz (with the V-8) and at least one Colt revolver that would buy you a two-bedroom in the Heights. Seriously.

Best Of Houston®

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