The Guild Shop Walking through the doors of the Guild Shop is like being on stage with Monte Hall. On the price tags you'll find three prices. Next to each price is a date. The price goes down as the dates progress. So if you think you can hold out for a few days on buying that wicker wheelchair or matching set of tombstone salt-and-pepper shakers, you might save up to 75 percent -- provided no one else wants it. It's a tricky proposition. You may really want those vintage Star Wars bed sheets, but surely you can't be the only one. Should you get them now or wait a week and save $8? Let's make a deal, indeed.

A scratchy tape of "The Wedding March" blasts from a boom box in a room in Kipperman's Pawn Shop, the walls of which are painted pink and gold with a mural of flowers splashed across one wall in hues of Mercurochrome and MD 20-20. Owner Ted Kipperman, dressed in red vestments, has pronounced another couple man and wife. The wedding service, for which Kipperman provides a free Polaroid memento, also comes free if the couple buys their wedding rings (or a gun) at the pawnshop. During the mid-'80s oil bust, people were pawning everything, but they just weren't buying. Kipperman, who likes to stay on top of the times, came up with the idea, in part because rings and guns are the most expensive items in a pawnshop. He obtained a minister's license, and he has married scores of couples since he started. A few years ago the idea man took convenience to the next level, converting a guard shack at the shop into a drive-thru wedding chapel. Couples can use their own cars, or they can rent a limo from one of Kipperman's fleet of three. Roll down the window, say "I do" and roll down the road, either admiring your shiny new ring or packing your new piece. Kipperman likes to give people choices.
Academy Sporting Goods Whether you're looking for a Mossberg Maverick 12-gauge 28-inch synthetic shotgun or a Beretta U22 Neos 4.5 handgun, Academy is your place. With low daily prices on all hunting and protective firearms ($219 for a Smith & Wesson 22A; Rimfire is practically unheard of), they've got specialty gun shops around town beat by an average of $50, and enough ammunition in stock to make David Koresh green with envy. The knowledgeable gun staff will gladly help you fill out the 4473 ATF worksheet required by Big Brother. Once it's determined by the FBI that you're sane and of age and meet a few other state requirements (only Texas residents may purchase handguns in Texas, for instance), it's off to happy hunting land or target practice country or wherever the hell you want to go -- hey, you've got a gun now, it's your shot.

It kills us to let this secret out, but Houstonians with good taste already know it: Not only does Wherehouse Music have the most impressive collection of used, mostly pop CDs, arranged nicely and in a customer-friendly way (in alphabetical order and by artist) along a handful of 20-foot-long display rows, but the store also has the best artists. Makes you wonder if Wherehouse feels any shame paying up to $4 per used CD for what are obviously lost or, dare we say, stolen goods. What "person" in his right mind could have honestly let go of Imogen Heap's wondrous 1998 debut, I Megaphone? Yet there it sits, for the low, low price of $2.99, in the "H" section, right alongside Elton John's classic Captain Fantastic and Freedy Johnston's perfect This Perfect World. Either yokels are growing fonder of mainstream commercial radio pop, which explains their parting company with great music like the aforementioned, or something fishy's going on at Wherehouse. The latter is doubtful. Painfully so.
Like connoisseurs of fine wine, vintage shoppers have their high standards. While those in search of the perfect merlot might sniff the cork, hold the glass up to the light and sip with discernment, vintage clothing shoppers must know: Are there any noticeable stains? Does the zipper work? Do polyester pants make my ass look huge? Fans of these queries, take heart: The Way We Wore is the store for you. Friendly owner Pam Nunnally will be glad to help you find just the right smoking jacket, or honestly tell you if those '70s-style heart-shaped purple sunglasses make your head look freakishly large. The store (an old house in Montrose) is well organized, the clothes are in good shape, and the tremendous selection of '40s swing dresses, ruffled tuxedo shirts and '70s disco gowns seems to go on and on. And if you're looking for an outfit for a special onetime affair, you can rent instead of buying. Yes indeed, if The Way We Wore were a bottle of wine, it would be a $300 bottle of some fine chardonnay. Except when you leave this store, you'll be drunk with happiness and looking really sharp.
A few weeks back we heard a woman walk into the bakery and say she was new to the neighborhood and needed to find a good place to order a cake for her mother's upcoming birthday celebration. If there were such a thing as the dessert jackpot, this woman had hit it. She asked a few of the people in line about the bakery's reputation. One person gestured to some of the letters on the wall -- letters from a former governor and president, as well as one from a former governor-turned-president. Another person told her to walk into the dining area (Acadian Bakers also serves lunch) and take a look at the pictures on the wall. There are photographs of cakes in all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors, a sign that the bakers of Acadian are up for any decorative challenge. More than mere bakers, they are cake designers. So what can you get ready-to-go should your sweet tooth cry out for immediate satisfaction? Go for a lemon bar, but only if you're a lemon lover. If chocolate's your thing, try the brownie chocolate mousse cake. Those are the favorites of the woman behind the counter, and she should know.

Here's an only-in-Houston experience that defies easy explanation. The owner dresses in authentic Nigerian garb, and the music pulses with the beat of big African drums. And the place sells African, Caribbean and Yucatecan cooking ingredients. If you're wondering what East Mexican and West African foods have in common, check out the shelves of this little market. You'll find all kinds of peanuts, plantains and fresh herbs common to the two cuisines, and things you've never seen before. Like giant dried fishes and little bags of dehydrated wild greens. Mex-African Foods also is a popular place to rent the latest African movies and buy African music on cassettes.

Pandan, also called screwpine leaves, is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. Its floral flavor and intense green hue usually enhance rice and pudding dishes. But at Goodness Cake House, pandan also makes a surprisingly good cake flavor, along with coffee, vanilla and chocolate. The choices may be few, but really, how much cake can you eat, anyway? Most popular with the cake shop's Cantonese clientele is a light, fluffy vanilla cake covered with a white cream (not hyper-sugary) frosting and layers of thinly sliced strawberries, kiwis and pineapple. Sometimes this type of cake can turn out sticky. But the bakers at the aptly named Goodness are careful not to let the fruit juice drip all over the cake, soaking into messy gloppiness. The cake itself possesses a satisfying carbohydrate, complex-sugar sweetness, not an easy, simple-sugar sweetness. And should you become bored with cake, Goodness also bakes chocolate cake rolls, coconut bread, cheese bread, pineapple bread, raisin bread and a variety of Asian pastries and buns.

Best Place to Buy an Engagement Ring

I.W. Marks A quarter-century in the making, this jewelry emporium in Braes Heights Center has ten -- count 'em -- ten cases of engagement rings. There are diamond solitaires set in platinum, loose diamonds and the wildly popular three-stone engagement rings. Want to treat her like J.Lo with a pink, yellow or blue diamond ring? I.W. Marks has it. In fact, there's enough bling in this place to cause serious eye damage if you're not wearing shades. Have you found the stone but not the setting? If they don't have the style you want, they'll make it for you. And the best part is, they have remarkable seasonal sales. But no need to tell the little woman that.

If they don't have the kind of cheese you want, and it's available in the United States, they'll find it and order some. That's one mighty big if, though, with a selection in the neighborhood of something like 500 different cheeses, with 588 ("weighed" and "not weighed") listed on their Web site. If you haven't found the section of Spec's dedicated to gourmet foods and the deli, you haven't truly experienced Spec's. Uwe Perschke is the buyer for specialty foods and cheese. His favorite is from his homeland, the German Tilsit. That's just one of the many imports Spec's carries, along with countless domestics. They've got hard cheeses, soft cheeses, semisoft, hard rinds, various different fat contents, dessert cheeses, goat cheeses, Brie -- the list goes on and on. The most expensive cheese in the refrigerated cases is the Roquefort, owing in part to the tariffs from France. The nutty but sweet Emmentaler, a cheese from Switzerland (with holes, natch), is the most popular, although sales of the creamy English Stilton have classified it as the "yuppie cheese." Even if you don't know much about cheese, Spec's employees can look up what cheese goes with a particular wine. Your secret's safe with them.

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