Retropolis From the sidewalk, Retropolis looks like a sliver among the boutiques and antique shops on the Heights' main drag -- a skinny little closet of a boutique worth a quick peek on your way to the nearby gelato parlor. But step inside, walk up the wood-plank stairs at the back, and the store's name starts to click. On the expansive second story you'll find enough retro fashion to outfit a whole city of James Deans, Jane Fondas and Burt Reynoldses. The selection outranks that of the Salvation Army, and it's ordered better than the driveways on the set of Leave It to Beaver. Check out the rad collection of '80s tennis shorts, a rack of '50s prom dresses with crinolines and the expansive cowboy boot section. An immaculate '30s dress with a lace collar looks like it came straight off Olive Oyl. Some prices are surprisingly forgiving: A fuzzy cloche sells for $20, and a red belt with a butterfly clasp goes for $7. So next time you go shopping, throw away your map, forget the mall, and head to Retropolis.

Texas Art Supply Longtime Houston staple Texas Art Supply wins by sheer volume. And since its only real competition -- Montrose's other locale for all things arty, Utrecht -- shut its doors earlier this year, Texas Art reigns supreme in anything an artist needs: rubber stamps, canvases, paints, stencils, clay, markers, easels and desks. Daily discount prices make Texas Art the place to go when inspiration strikes and you can't find a brush. Its affiliation with the Texas Arts League makes for constant art-class offerings in such areas as painting or resin-mold making. The place can turn a clueless novice into a budding Dalí.

Salon Essie It's been almost 20 years since Essie set off for a three-month vacation from Iran. She decided to stay here, and seven years ago, she opened her salon on Richmond. You'll still catch the enchanting lilt of Farsi fluttering through the store in between casual banter with her customers. Men's haircuts all too often become a painful exercise in forced pleasantries or chillingly apathetic silences. Salon Essie soars above all of that with gracious, swift service. We especially miss the departed Paul -- the gregarious Lebanese stylist who's quite possibly the nicest guy in Houston to snip, shave and shape our locks. Dudes might still balk at the prospect of getting trimmed up anyplace without a candy-cane barbershop pole outside; but let your inner metro open the door, and Essie will take care of the rest.

Note that this category is called Best Place by Buy Doughnuts, not Best Doughnuts. If we were picking the best doughnuts, we would have to give the nod to Krispy Kreme again. But our favorite place to buy doughnuts is Shipway Donuts, at Telephone Road near the South Loop, a tiny, poorly air-conditioned doughnut shop/loncheria that stands head and shoulders above Krispy Kreme as a total culinary experience. Why? Well, first of all, Shipway Donuts also sells egg-and-chorizo breakfast tacos. We don't know about you, but we like an egg taco appetizer before we dig into the doughnuts. And the egg tacos at Shipway come with homemade hot sauce on the side. (Ever seen any hot sauce at Krispy Kreme?) Second, Shipway has better horchata. Oops, we forgot, Krispy Kreme doesn't sell horchata. Last, and probably most important, on Friday and Saturday Shipway sells fresh homemade tamales. We got a dozen chicken tamales and sampled a couple after the egg-and-chorizo taco with a little of that homemade hot sauce. The tamales were spicy and melt-in-your-mouth creamy, with lots of chicken in each one. After the tacos and tamales, you might not have much room for doughnuts, but the doughnuts here are only average, so who cares?
Cactus Music and Video Regulars stop by Cactus to browse used vinyl and check out the magazines, clothing and rock-music action figurines. They also show up when local or touring musicians drop by to perform. Oh, yeah, and they go to Cactus to buy CDs. During the past 12 months, general manager Quinn Bishop has brought renewed focus to the CDs sold at the store, pursuing both independent artists and national acts whose CDs were previously for sale only on the artists' Web sites. Alejandro Escovedo's live Por Vida album and a live Marcia Ball CD recorded at Waterloo Records in Austin are just a couple of these new arrivals. Best of all, at Cactus you won't find snooty clerks like Jack Black's character in High Fidelity. But the staffers do know what's up -- five of them have more than ten years' experience at the store. "They just truly love music," says Bishop. Imagine that.

So you want to watch a good movie on your VCR, but your mind is a blank as to what to pick? Just tell St. Clair what you're in the mood for, and he'll rattle off a half-dozen or so suggestions. If that's not enough, he'll come up with more. St. Clair never fails to help us find something unusual and entertaining, and often it's something we've never heard of before. Why does he do it? Says St. Clair, "You work eight hours, you might as well help someone." Cactus rents videos for a buck a day, so long as you're not looking for a new release. And if you happen to stroll in on a Monday, it's two for the price of one.
Stop rummaging through the local comic-book stores in town looking for that rare orange-carded TIE Fighter Pilot with the "Warning!" sticker on the box. When a store catering to obsessive SF fans (which means sci-fi, for the uninitiated [which stands for science fiction, for the very uninitiated]) is locked away in an antique market, chances are that even the most die-hard toy collectors haven't stumbled into this hidden geek heaven. Many of the major toy store chains have become so annoyed with Kenner's distribution tactics that they won't even carry the new figures anymore, so Jams Collectibles soon may be the only place around to find the newest stock, in addition to the obscure variations and priceless factory screwups. Culled mostly from John Giogaia's own private collection, even the rarest of Star Wars action figures can be found beside Spawn figurines, Hot Wheels and other collectibles, and for a reasonable price. This store is run for love alone, so you can wander in only on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or Sunday from noon to 6 p.m., when the guys in charge are off work.
The Galleria While the fashionistas burn up Daddy's credit card and waddle under the weight of their bagged purchases, you'll be the practical one. There's no guilt when it comes to window-shopping, and the Galleria is the hottest spot for it. All the names are here: Betsey Johnson, Kenneth Cole, Versace, Abercrombie. You can scope the United Colors of Benetton after perusing the nothing-but-black racks of Tom Ford. Drool at the rocks under lock and key at Cartier. Peer at the posh sweetery Dylan's Candy Bar, or the "I don't need it, but I want it" inventions of Brookstone. Then -- after you've done your out-of-reach sight-seeing -- head to the outlet mall.

Soundwaves So, yeah, the commercials are horrible and the Hummers a bit gauche, but when it comes to selling used CDs, Soundwaves reigns supreme. They offer as much as $5 for newer CDs, so it's a good place to get the albums you never listen to off your hands -- it's like a pawnshop full of music geeks. The fact that Soundwaves is independently owned helps the used-CD selection tremendously, since pressure from record company bean counters doesn't work here. Its larger locations (Montrose, South Main) have sections of used music that dwarf other stores' entire libraries. Don't want that Britney Spears at (gasp!) $16.99 just to listen to "Toxic" on repeat? Chances are you'll find it here for $10.99. You can find older artists no longer enjoying chart success (read: good ones) for as low as $5.99. Those kinds of steals are reason enough to say, "See you at Soundwaves."

French Gourmet Bakery French Gourmet Bakery serves up a bounty of goodies: warm loaves of cinnamon-apple bread, strudels, decadent chocolate cakes (great for parties) and box lunches containing buttery croissants with chicken salad. Need treats for the office or classroom? You can't beat the fresh cupcakes slathered in homemade frosting or the iced ginger star cookies. Even better, the sugar and ginger cookies will soon turn pumpkin-shaped with orange and white icing. Now, if they would just let us lick the bowl…

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