Make this one plural, as in Best Shops. The Houston Museum of Natural Science severs the traditional museum gift store into a parent-and-child participatory sport. Mom and Dad -- or just those without children -- get their consumer time in the fairly upscale Collector's Gift Shop. The quiet confines with classy thick wood accents offer up genuine collectibles and quality goods, ranging from luminous butterfly wings pressed into glass to C.L. Whiting's "leaf leather" purses and accessories. And the museum's special exhibitions, such as the "Kremlin Gold" display of jewels, have a gift shop all their own. Meanwhile, Junior gets his separate hunting ground in the kids' shop. Children can roam this area, grabbing at the vast arrays of rubber dinosaurs and other educational toys, both Stone Age and futuristic. Of course, kids of all ages snap up the "Space Mucus," a gooey, glow-in-the-dark steal at $2.75. At the unique shops of the Museum of Natural Science, to each his (or her) own. To own. That's the way it ought to be.
The problem with soy is that it's kind of boring in its natural state. That's why you need to get to a place that will take this brilliant source of protein and transform it into countless mouthwatering, delicious edibles. Okay, so Whole Foods doesn't actually do the transforming. But it does sell the stuff in all of its glorious incarnations. Whether it's fake buffalo wings and "chicken" nuggets or those strange-sounding "tofu pups" (hot dogs made from soy), Whole Foods Market offers quite the variety of soy stuff. And we haven't even mentioned the many different options of soy milk (vanilla, chocolate or plain!). For the soy neophyte, Whole Foods is no doubt the most convenient, accessible way to learn about the wonders of the food that has been credited for lowering cholesterol, fighting kidney disease and even easing menopause's hot flashes. And with the selection at Whole Foods, it's not so(y) boring after all.

Her name tag reads "Dawn," and she's always there with a smile. This very small Fiesta is in a transitional neighborhood, so the customers cross a wide income range, with a variety of demands. On one busy weekend, Dawn was working all by herself. The line was long, and several people needed a number of things sliced or served into containers. Some in the line were noticeably irritated, and several took out their frustration on Dawn -- with heavy sighs and choice words. Somehow, though, Dawn just kept smiling, filling their orders as requested. So now, every time we see her, we try to return that smile along with our patience.
All freedom-loving people would be inspired to walk into the Menil Collection Bookstore and see, front and center on the largest display rack, an art-book cover photograph of a very lifelike sculpture of an erect penis -- and directly across from the children's section, too. Perhaps it's an up-yours salute to the outgoing senator and philistine from North Carolina. More likely, it simply struck manager and book buyer Patrick Phipps as an arresting image, of which this little gray building is chock-full. Phipps and his assistant, William Willis, are themselves artists. That's probably why the Menil bookstore cannot be compared to the self-absorbed, kitsch-filled truck stops that are most museum gift shops today. In addition, nobody's lips move when they're thumbing through the stock. Indeed, the hypnotic array of imagery -- books, postcards and posters -- is dedicated only partially to what's currently on display in the Menil Collection. Perhaps the most appealing part of the bookstore is hanging on the walls: paintings, collages and prints by Houston artists. Although they are for sale, they represent a kind of second, rotating collection of local talent to supplement the masterpieces across the street.

The Houston makers of this device tout it as "the ultimate tailgate barbecue pit." What you have is your basic steel drum-style cooker that you can use in your backyard or attach to the back of your car or truck and haul to the beach, park or ball game. Apparently you can cook while you drive. The mobile version of the contraption looks like a combination grill and unicycle. The Gator Pit has 420 square inches of cooking surface and 222 square inches of work surface. It's yours for a mere $399.99 plus shipping. You can order by phone or on-line at www.gatorpit.net.
Local artist Joan Bristow has works on display at Black Heritage Gallery, a venue she likes for its diversity. Bristow hails from Trinidad and paints images on silk. She is having some framed at the store, which is how we learned about the small space cozied up next to Green's Barbecue on Almeda. A friend of ours from Austin was having a work framed at Black Heritage Gallery and asked us to pick it up. We walked in and were mesmerized by the beautiful artwork for sale. Owner Robbie Lee says the store has been open for 24 years, 15 in its current location. Other noted local artists include Leshaun Beal, known for painting beautiful black women with flowers; Patricia Perry Sinex, whose paintings have a Grandma Moses feel to them except they feature African-Americans; Lionel Lofton's ink drawings; Gail Penrice's whimsical silhouettes of black women; and the bold and colorful watercolors of Andrew L. Thompson. The art is for sale, and the shop also carries reasonably priced masks, jewelry, ornaments, dolls, greeting cards and other knickknacks with African-American-inspired images.
Scott McCool is Houston's florist to the stars. He won't name the names of the socialites on his roster of 1,800 accounts, but he will tell us that his designers have spruced up events at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Alley Theatre and the River Oaks Country Club, with fabulous arrangements of roses from Ecuador, lilies from Chile and orchids from Singapore. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg on a wedding or a fund-raiser to do business with In Bloom, though. The minimum order is only $35. So treat yourself to some fancy flowers, just like the rich and famous.
So, your boyfriend went back to his wife? Your shrink's out of the country? Someone else won your Pulitzer Prize? For every reason you have to get a tattoo, there's a place in town that can do it. But if you wanna get inked right, we suggest you head straight for Miss Fortune. Don't let the punny name scare you -- they've been permanently decorating Houstonians for almost a decade now. And with thousands of designs to choose from, they're sure to have just the right embellishment for your epidermis. But remember: While most of life's misfortunes are temporary, a tattoo is forever.

Where else but on the gentrifying Washington Avenue can you find a slick Bank of America a stone's toss from junkyards, dive bars and diners? With 11 (yes, 11) drive-thru slots, this drive-up darling in the shadow of downtown fills up around lunchtime and quitting time. It's a fun place to people-watch from the comfort of your car, as drivers piloting everything from de rigueur SUVs to art cars to hot rods to jalopies rush through to deposit, withdraw and cash out. Soccer moms, blue-collar types, executives, teens, garden party luncheoners and sweaty runners from nearby Memorial Park wait in line for the next available teller, who can probably tell tales about the characters who spin through this colorful hodgepodge patch of Houston.
God only knows who would sell their copy of End on End by Rites of Spring, but aren't you glad somebody did? Because CD Warehouse had this kick-ass Washington, D.C., rock band priced at only $3.99, just one of the many treasures buried in this chain of discount CD stores. The stores are well organized and understated -- forget sales clerks in matching shirts and Backstreet Boys music blaring in the background as you shop. You can listen to the CDs before you buy them, and the price of most used CDs hovers just under $10. Sure, you might have to flip through Joey Lawrence's debut album (fairly priced at $1.99) to get to the good stuff. But isn't the search half the fun?

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