It is not easy to choose a vendor at all the local farmers' markets as the best. There are so many, doing so many cool things right now. But when it comes to longevity and consistency, Animal Farm leads the pack. One talk with Gita Van Woerden will prove to anybody that she knows what she's doing. The organic, sustainable Animal Farm brings Houston chefs and restaurants some of Texas's tastiest baby arugula, juiciest heirloom tomatoes and unbeatable seasonal beans and peppers. Try the baby eggplants, and you'll be sold. Find Animal Farm at several Houston farmers' markets, including Urban Harvest and Highland Village.

Belden's

If you find navigating a cart through Central Market on a weekend to be too much of an emotional and physical workout, try Belden's in Meyerland. This refreshingly independent store is a treasure trove of surprises: hard-to-find baking supplies, steaks that eclipse anything from Outback, fresh baguettes put out warm each afternoon and a wine selection second only to that of Spec's. (Belden's has the cheapest prices in town for Shiner, too.) Normally, we steer clear of the grocery store's frozen section, but this is where we discovered Mamie's Famous Cheese Wafers, shipped in from Alabama. There's also Peet's Coffee by the bag, and the checkout line offers The Economist, not rags featuring 20 Ways to Lose That Belly Fat.

At Pearle Vision in the Galleria, optometrist Nadia Sledge and opticians Mehri and Bobbie brighten their customers' days, making it easy to do what is usually a chore. This is the place to go for stylish professional glasses that will still get compliments years later. And the level of care provided is exceptional. On a recent visit, when a customer started seeing floaters and flashers in one eye, the optician efficiently and immediately steered her to Houston Eye Associates. Pearle called the patient the next day to make sure everything was all right with the client's vision (it was). Pearle always has your back.

Brookwood is a local, nonprofit mini-chain of garden and retail shops with luscious plants that are in better shape than those at most nurseries. One season, they had a special breed of the bluebonnet, only it was maroon. (Surprise: Texas A&M cooked up that version.) Brookwood's not limited to native Texas plants only: It also offers handcrafted pottery and such made by adults with special needs and upscale garden and home accoutrements — at not so upscale prices. Someday, when we can budget time for a long, leisurely lunch, we hope to visit the store's fabled headquarters, The Brookwood Community in Brookshire.

With the economy's alleged recovery about as stable as Lindsay Lohan's psyche, it's not a shabby idea to seek outside help. No, not from a bank — they're probably why you're hurting in the first place. No, not a priest — ditto. Instead, get a life coach to help you get where you want to go. If you feel you need to recalculate your life — or your career strategy, at the very least — contact Cinda Johnson, a veteran placement counselor who's expanded her practice to teach skills that will help prevent your even needing a headhunter, not to mention unemployment benefits. Johnson counts CEOs, oil execs and other high-flying professionals among her clientele, but you'll never know who specifically, because she keeps her clients — and more important, their issues — mum. Quiet, empathic, sage, upbeat and proactive — Johnson helps her clients go far in life.

New Living

Going "green" has come to mean many things to many people, but to the folks at New Living, it is a social, environmental and economic lifestyle. The place itself, located in an old hardware store in Rice Village, specializes in building supplies, such as organic bedding, nontoxic paints and nontoxic children's furniture. Additional "green" services include chemical-free home cleaning, recycling pickup and professional consultations. Before stocking its shelves, New Living requires vendors to fill out a survey with questions about the social and environmental impact of their products, and asks about the companies' labor standards and ethics. New Living then fact-checks the answers and displays the results next to each product, so buyers can better know what they're purchasing. Local venues such as Beaver's Icehouse boast nontoxic paint from New Living, and the Moody Gallery used the store's tiles, made from 100 percent recycled glass, in its new kitchen.

Houston's Medical Center, considered the best hospital system in the world, is expected to be bigger than downtown Dallas in just a few years. Even if that doesn't happen, there's no doubt that all the aspiring doctors in Houston will need some tutors. That's where Varsity Tutors can help. Varsity has a staff of tutors with varied backgrounds, but most come from places like Rice, Harvard and Yale. Some are already practicing at Baylor College of Medicine. Varsity Tutors doesn't just cater to pre-med students — it preps high school kids, too — but it's good to know our future MDs are in good hands.

Toys to Love

Everything about Toys to Love is a surprise. It's in the city's Galleria area, surrounded by towering new condos and upscale shops like RDG + Bar Annie and Pinto Ranch Western Wear, so you might expect to find an expensive, pretentious toy store. But you won't. Toys to Love actually seems more like a dollar store on first glance. Regardless, it's full of wonderful stuff. There's a great selection of educational toys, like "Mind Blowing Science" and "My First Weather Kit," and even the standard stock — remote-controlled cars, dolls and costumes — is different from what you'll find anywhere else. The Puparazzi pet toys also seem to be a hit. And Toys to Love is locally owned, which is always a big plus.

Started in 2008 by Manish Puri and his wife Ashmin Nisha, Nisha's Quick-N-Ezee Indian Food is always one of the most popular stalls at Houston's farmers' markets. They accommodate meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike and use local ingredients whenever possible. Though you cannot find Nisha's deliciously authentic Indian dishes in any store or restaurant, it is always worth a trip to the farmers' market to bring home a sack of vegetable samosas and tubs of cilantro peanut chutney and chicken tikka masala. Luckily, they try to hit all the local markets every week, upping your chance of taking home some of the best Indian food in the city.

Readers' Choice

Best Asian Supermarket

Hong Kong Market

Multiple locations

Best Bakery

Three Brothers

Multiple locations

Best Bike Shop

Bike Barn

Multiple locations

Best Bookstore

Half Price Books

Multiple locations

Best Car Wash

Bubbles

Multiple locations

Best Farmers' Market

Urban Harvest

2311 Canal St.

713-880-5540

Best Florist

Lexis Florist

6102 Skyline Dr.

713-774-8080

Best Liquor Store

Spec's

Multiple locations

Best Maid Service

Molly Maid

Multiple locations

Best Mechanic

Tech Auto

Multiple locations

Best Newsstand

Books a Million

1201 Main

713-353-5496

Best Place to Buy Music

Cactus

2110 Portsmouth

713-526-9272

Best Sexy Lingerie

Erotic Cabaret

1222 Westheimer

713-528-4565

Best Shoe Store

DSW

Multiple locations

Audio Video Plus
by Paul Knight

The best approach to finding a movie at Montrose's Audio Video Plus is simply browsing, because browsing here is better than Google.

Take the Burt Reynolds section. We were marveling at these gems from the '70s and '80s when there, staring us in the face, was Reynolds. Pictured from the waist up, he was dressed in what appeared to be a velour track suit that was certainly unzipped to mid-chest.

We were in heaven. The glimpse of Reynolds's tan body came from the cover of 1981's Paternity. Tagline: "He wants you to have his baby."

We figured that would be impossible to top, until we stumbled upon the Chuck Norris section. We're not talking Delta Force or Missing in Action Norris, we're talking Forest Warrior, a mid-'90s flick that stars Norris as John McKenna, "a spiritual being who is able to transform into bear, wolf or eagle."

And the only thing that made all this better was that both movies, like all movie rentals at Audio Video Plus, were old-school, VHS format.

This store has to be one of the most unique places in Houston, and it's managed to survive relatively unchanged since it opened in the mid-'80s. It's even more impressive considering that the movie rental industry, when real estate is concerned, is crumbling across the country.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know of a neighborhood Blockbuster that has shut down in recent years, and when Houston's Hollywood Video called it quits, the city was left with few options.

But Audio Video Plus hasn't flinched.

"I think [our customers] like the niche," says Shawna Nutley, who has worked at the store for about a year and a half. "It's just all the odd things you never thought you'd be able to find. All the weird documentaries or television shows from the '80s. When I saw we had Jem and the Holograms, I was like, 'Yes.'"

There's bound to be more than a few odd finds, since the store offers 70,000 different titles, according to Nutley. There's a small side room filled with DVDs, but those are to buy, not rent.

Almost everything at the store is a bit odd. When you're browsing at Audio Video Plus, for example, you carry a little piece of paper and pencil, marking down the identifying numbers of the movies you want. Then the clerk disappears to the massive storage room to get your tapes.

There's not even a modern-day computer in the store, only an electronic database machine that was probably used during the Cold War to store Soviet coordinates.

You can also find evidence of how the VHS industry has changed, because a lot of the movie boxes still carry the original price tags. Class of Nuke 'Em High 3, for example, was marked down from $99.98 to $14.98.

And then there's the porn. It only takes up a small amount of wall space, but according to Nutley, a lot of first-time renters come to the store with the misconception that it's primarily an adult video store.

"I think anytime there isn't Blockbuster in the name, people have that idea," she says.

Audio Video Plus is open seven days a week, and they have a special of $5 for five rentals, which you get to keep for a week. Just make sure you have a VCR.

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