Best Of :: Shopping & Services
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.
Here in H-Town's funkier regions, strip malls, those much-maligned supposed harbingers of sterility and bland suburbanism, sure can have a hell of a lot of grit and soul. Take this doozy on the northside, just across the street from the site of the former Northline Mall. The actual strip looks to be about 50 years old, and it's a one-stop for just about all your H-Town needs. There's 'cue and CFS at the arched-roofed Hungry Farmer, ghetto Chinese at the rugged little red-roofed China Inn, and a shop where you can buy or even rent a boomin' system for your ride. Best of all, there's one of the last outposts of the once-mighty Soundwaves music/surf chain, and unlike the Montrose location, the Crosstimbers outlet does not force its primarily blues/soul, hip-hop, zydeco and gospel inventory to contend for shelf space with boogie boards and ding repair kits, so it's that rarest of things: a living, breathing record store. That's one reason that in looking at this delightfully run-down and lovably cheesily constructed strip from across the street, you could convince yourself it's any year between 1975 and 2010. Timelessness like that is often in too short supply in this ever-changing, ephemeral megalopolis.
The gas station at the northeast corner of Montrose and Richmond used to be a full-service garage and repair shop, meaning the retail part of it was as cramped as most Montrose convenience stores. Now it's a big, shining example of how to do gas stations right. There's 14 pumps — in the middle of Montrose! — but inside is where A to Z Food & Deli really comes through. Sparklingly clean, the store not only offers a great selection of convenience-store stuff, it features a not-bad-at-all kitchen and deli, with subs, breakfast tacos, Philly cheese steaks and other items. The staff is friendly and eager, too.
It wasn't long ago that River Oaks was considered the richest ZIP code in the nation. But time can take its toll, and even $15 million mansions need a facelift sometimes. During the last three decades, Houston's Exterior Worlds has helped with that. The company specializes in "high-end landscape design," repairing and building outdoor fountains, luxury swimming pools and even outdoor kitchens. That's along with the normal range of services. Exterior Worlds helps keep River Oaks one area that non-Houstonians can envy.
Smack-dab between the antiquing hotspots of lower Westheimer and West 19th Street there looms this 1895 carriage barn, with more than 5,000 square feet of trash 'n' treasure within. Lots of antique stores tend to cater to women, but Heights Station's multi-dealer layout features a couple of fun testosterone zones with their sports memorabilia and rock and roll collectibles sections. You can get that old chair just about anywhere, but only at Heights Station — the mother of all attics — can you also go home with a signed 8-by-10 glossy of Journey from their "Don't Stop Believin'" heyday and a Charley Kerfeld rookie card.
Just step inside this Heights shop and smell the difference. It's like taking a gourmet-shopping trip around the world. Want Vietnamese cinnamon? Tellicherry black peppercorns? Szechuan pepper salt? Mexican oregano? Yep, Penzeys has all that and more, offering spices, herbs, seasonings, gift boxes and some pretty cool pepper mills and saltshakers. It's a great place to buy gifts, and novices need not worry. The friendly staff will offer recipes and sniff tests. You could spend hours here just sniffing all the different kinds of chili powders. It's spice heaven.
Sticking out like a giant neon-pink boner, Zone D'Erotica's Galleria location is the perfect paean to no-zoning laws. So you wanna create a huge commercial district with a Container Store, Cheesecake Factory and plenty of nice hotels for dentistry conventions? Fine, we're going to build a big freakin' gaudy, obnoxious-looking place where you can buy edible undies and double-headed dongs. Somehow, shopping for these unmentionables in such a squeaky-clean corporate Green Zone makes the whole thing dirtier, and thus sexier. There are a million places in Houston to buy sexy whatnots (thank God!), but this is really the best place to get 'er done. Go see for yourself.
For some people, including us, Wolf's Department Store & Pawn Shop is as much a Houston institution as Spec's, the Astrodome or the Galleria. At Wolf's, you can find a nice selection of new Kangol and Stetson hats, and the pawn shop collection is light years better than the typical stock. Even better, Wolf's has been around since 1955 and still maintains a vintage look that's truly authentic. It's the kind of place that makes the Third Ward so unique. Wolf's would be a great loss if the area ever goes the way of other wards and becomes overrun with condos and coffee shops.
There's something fishy at the Whole Foods on Kirby. And we mean that in a good way. The fish section here is swimming with good buys, fresh fish and the coolest fishmongers in town. These guys and gals know their stuff. They stock only organic, sustainable seafood, and they'll tell you what's best and freshest and how to cook it. They also gladly go the extra yard for regulars. No crab-stuffed tilapia filets today? No worries, they'll make you some on the spot. And they'll shell and vein your shrimp and debone your Copper River sockeye (which, by the way, was cheaper here this summer than at that other high-end grocery store in town).
The name of this category does not begin to do justice to The Fish Gallery, which could almost pass for a museum of natural science — except for the comfy leather couches in a soothing pale blue. The Fish Gallery offers outreach programs as a museum would: a summer reading program for children and kids' birthday parties. This summer's kickoff party for the reading program drew 72 visitors — when was the last time you saw that many people in a library? The Fish Gallery, one of seven in a nationwide chain, offers custom-designed aquariums, freshwater or saltwater. Looking for a respectable handheld pool skimmer? Check. The delicate Discus fish? Check. Captive-bred or wild corals? Check. CO2 and H2O refill stations? Check.
Just like Madonna or Cher, our local hairstylist to the stars goes by one name only, thank you very much. Cerón's salon in Uptown Park (as well as his space at The Omni and his new Neiman Marcus shop in Dallas) caters to blue-hairs and socialites alike, but you don't have to be Becca Cason Thrash to get a color touch-up or blowout from a wonder in cowboy boots and tight-fitting leather pants. Anyone can get an appointment, if you book early enough. Cerón has been profiled in Texas Monthly and frequently appears in the party pages as arm candy for the rich and bold-named women around the state. But don't let that intimidate you. He's just a sweetheart wielding a blow dryer. Getting your hair done by Cerón is one of those things that should be on any Texan's bucket list.
If you ever get lost and you look over and see the world's largest anything, chances are you're in Houston. Fishing Tackle Unlimited helps with that, because the place is literally the world's largest tackle store. The good thing is, it's not an overdone Disney World-type place like other mammoth outdoor shops. The reel section alone is enough to make your head spin — especially if you check out the price tags. You can also "test drive" kayaks in the store's outdoor pool. Put it this way: If you're working on a research paper about fishing, skip the library and head to Fishing Tackle Unlimited.