Lions and tigers and bears -- oh, my! You'll find these creatures plus monkeys and turtles and alligators at Animal Creations. All sorts of fuzzy friends await you in this plush menagerie. Like the jungle, Animal Creations is home to a varied and diverse population. Say you're looking for a snake in this Year of the Snake, well, you have many to choose from. There are soft ones with silly cartoon tongues and droopy eyes, long ones that can wrap around you, and little ones that bend and keep their shape. As if this place weren't cute enough already, it also carries a decent sampling of Sanrio products.
From an unassuming shopping strip off Bellaire Boulevard, Francisco Garza offers customers "cures" for their heartbreaks and health woes in the best healing tradition of Mexico. His yerbería is chock-full of the teas, herbs, soaps and votive candles that folks believe will win them love, luck and even cures for diabetes and other ailments. Shelves overflow with a rainbow of perfumes, which include the scarlet-hued chango macho (male monkey) which believers say brings luck with money; and the deep blue Yo puedo, tú no (I can, you can't). The shop has an array of soaps like Ven a mí (Come to me), whose box features a picture of a woman dreaming about a man. There are big jars of herbs like epazote, and nopal-cactus powder for diabetes. Visitors will find a full range of saint statues, and votive candles in a variety of colors, dedicated to the likes of St. Anthony and Pancho Villa. Garza, who founded the store 11 years ago, says that many of his customers choose his wares over seeing a doctor.
Half Price Books Half Price Books rules this town when it comes to getting quality reads on the cheap, and the Rice Village store is the chain's monarch. Here you'll find volumes on just about any subject imaginable -- thanks to the area's college students, who consistently trade in their required reading for beer money. Whether it's your soul that needs mending or your carburetor, this store's got what you need. Fiction, travel, history, psychology, cooking, mystery, drama, sci-fi, antiques, self-help, computers -- these are but a few of the subjects crammed into every cranny of the store. There's also an ample foreign language section and volumes upon volumes on the arts, including painting, sculpture, dancing, architecture and, of course, dancing about architecture.

The ancient house ferret, Bandit, rummages among the boarding cages filled with loved ones. Pepi, a black mutt abandoned by his owners because his hind legs were paralyzed, bounds four at a time about the premises. Kate is back for another week's vacation, little evidence remaining of the jaw reconstruction necessitated by an encounter with a car several months earlier. Kowalski detours from his morning walk to get his daily biscuit and hellos, dragging his owner. When the animals insist on coming, you know that Southside Place Animal Hospital isn't your typical vet shop. Owner and chief vet Alice Frye maintains an atmosphere of controlled chaos, just the way the critters prefer it. Frye has a way with the beasts that reassures even the most inbred purebred, and as Pepi and Kate will readily attest, she's both skilled and a soft touch. The staff is friendly and firm, rare qualities in tandem but necessary when dealing with psychotic pet owners. The prices, while not the lowest in town, are quite reasonable. And like an ethical mechanic, Frye gives only the care and treatment that are necessary. Purr.
Haute 2 Trot If your pooch is tired of being in the doghouse of fashion, browse the Web site of local canine couture outfit Haute 2 Trot. Founded four years ago by interior designer Elise Winslow Kelly after she couldn't find any decent clothes for her pampered Chinese crested, Haute 2 Trot has become the ne plus ultra of four-legged fashion. And forget about argyle sweaters. Whether outfitted in Kelly's pink faux fur coats with diamond buttons, tasseled dresses made from Dupioni silk or diamond-studded collars inspired by Dior, Houston's dogs never looked this good. Kelly also offers monogramming, custom fitting and special services such as painting your dog's portrait on a leather jacket. So get with the program, dog people. Milk-Bones and tennis balls are, like, so 2000.

No job is harder than teaching public school. So how does Jamie Scott, the integrated-physics and chemistry teacher at HISD's Hamilton Middle School, make it look like so much fun? The big, blond, smiling bear of a man is clearly doing something right. His students come home from citywide science fairs covered with ribbons and beaming with pride. But even Scott must have been overwhelmed by his eighth-graders' success this past summer. All year long Allison Carr, Jonathan Lew, Haley O'Neil and Skyler Schawe worked under Scott's supervision on a project for the Bayer Corporation National Science Foundation for Community Innovation Competition. The kids called their project the Science Squad. It was an amazingly elegant idea. The four eighth-graders developed a series of mini hands-on lessons that they could take into elementary schools and thus inspire fifth-graders to get excited about all those science classes they'd be taking once they got to middle school. The Science Squad won at each level of competition, and the students finally found themselves competing this summer at Walt Disney World, where not only did they bring home a second-place trophy, but they and Scott won a $25,000 grant to fund the training of future Science Squad members. Teaching really doesn't get any better than this.
For more than 30 years the Wheeler Watch Clinic sat near the grubby corner of Wheeler and Main. Now it's nowhere to be found on Wheeler. Don't worry. It kept the name, but moved down the street more than a year ago. Now the modest little shop sits at Main and Anita and watches as Metro tears up the street in front of it. Wheeler Watch Clinic is a family affair; it's not unusual to see three generations of the Galvan family in the store at any given time: Grandpa and Grandma, the couple's sons, and wide-eyed toddlers who take shaky steps around the shop. The Galvans have built this business on honesty, and the prices prove it: They're so reasonable. Getting a battery changed costs $6.50 for most models. One customer reports that she had her watchband fixed there for a mere $2. "Two dollars!" she enthuses, "You can't buy anything for $2 anymore." Wheeler Watch Clinic also has a little pawn-shop area and is an authorized Pulsar dealer, but the selection of watches is not as good as the service.

Vitalis Onu recoils at flowing, overelaborate garments that prompt onlookers to query, "Who's that prince?" For Onu, the creator of the fashion line Citalis, the key is graceful simplicity. That principle is evident throughout the native Nigerian's vibrant showroom in an office building on Richmond near Hillcroft. The racks overflow with robes, caftans and woko suits made of silk, linen and other materials in a variety of shimmering colors. Each piece bears Citalis's stunningly elegant embroidery work. A lovely dark gray caftan comes with swirls of blue stitching down the front. A checkered silk robe features olive-green squares set against a pea-green background. Citalis offers men's and women's wares, custom-made and off-the-rack. Prices for blouses with matching skirts, and for men's outfits, range from $200 to $350. The store also offers velvet hats decorated with lace. While distinctively African, Onu's designs include crossover lines for American buyers. His wares can be found in stores like Festari for Men in the Galleria area. A tall, elegant man dressed in a gleaming black woko suit, Onu summarizes the exacting standard to which he holds himself: "If I can't wear my clothing, I can't sell it."
For selection, you just can't beat Planet Anime. This Rice Village store has more than 2,500 tapes for rent, and many for sale, though approximately 400 were destroyed by the flood. Looking for Cowboy Bebop, BubbleGum Crisis, Martian Successor Nadesico, Ranma 1/2 or Tenchi Muyo? Planet Anime has got them in subtitles, so you don't have to watch bastardized, dubbed American versions. The small store, which also does mail-order business, carries manga (comic books), T-shirts, wall scrolls, action figures, stuffed animals and other enticing imported goodies that won't let you get away without paying through the nose. Where else can you get an adult-sized costume of a furry animal from one particular anime series? (And where else could you spot a store clerk wearing one of these?) Perhaps the oddest touch is the TV behind the counter that often blares music videos by the Japanese versions of 'N Sync and Blink 182 with nonsensical English names like Bump of Chicken and Da Pump.

Houston has a special fondness for its firearms. That's obvious from the sheer number and variety of outlets, from Carter's Country -- that Wal-Mart of weaponry -- to other high-profile retailers. Top Gun takes a different, specialized tact. Just like most golfers know they shouldn't buy clubs until they test them out, Top Gun realizes that live-fire is the only sure way for a shooter to know that this gun's just right. Tucked away in a small building a block south of Richmond, Top Gun has one of the rare indoor (and air-conditioned) shooting ranges. The state-of-the-art 15-lane facility can be used to test-fire potential purchases. And there are special bargains for those who want to buy the rental weapons. There isn't a huge on-site inventory, but the veteran staff can help novices find the best-suited guns for them, and soon have 'em ready. And with the upscale range awaiting, you can be assured of always hitting the mark on purchases. Top Gun's approach is right on target.

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