The Return of Cactus Music and Video

Early last year, with good reason, we called March 31 "a day that will live in Houston music infamy." That was Cactus Music and Video's last day of operation.

Social scientists speak of "third places," by which they mean informal anchors to community life. These places are neither home's first place nor work's second, but somewhere in the middle.

Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term, maintained that true third places have to be either free or inexpensive, should offer food and drink, be easy to arrive at (preferably walkable) and have a sturdy bulwark of regular customers.

Especially when it hosted in-store concerts, Cactus functioned as a third place for a good portion of Houston's music scene, a convivial meeting spot that was neither home nor a bar. Sure, it wasn't the cheapest place in town to buy CDs, but think about the atmosphere on in-store nights: Where else could you enjoy free music and bevies with dozens of your closest friends?

Back when Cactus closed, we harvested a number of eulogies from Cactus employees and customers and prominent figures in the local industry, and the statements made for heartrending reading.

Brad Turcotte, then president of Compadre Records, and now both the president of Compadre and an executive vice president with Music World Entertainment, called it "a huge blow to the music industry, not just in Houston, but for the nation."

Local musician Rob Mahan unconsciously articulated the "third place" concept. He remembered it fondly as a fine spot to while away a hungover afternoon, "when you needed to get out of the house but didn't have any place to go or anything to do or much desire to put on a clean shirt or tie your shoes."

Cactus was the place to go, he said, when "you didn't want to see anybody or be seen by anybody, but didn't mind running into someone else in the same ­condition."

Former Southwest Wholesale sales manager Paige Mann remembered it as a place where you could meet both your friends and your idols, ask a staff member for a recommendation and have a solid one delivered with both passion and conviction. "Cactus never sold music," she said. "Cactus was music."

And will be again. Cactus Music and Video has returned from the dead. The store's soft relaunch is this week, just in time for holiday shopping.

"We wanted to wait until February for the official grand opening," says Quinn Bishop, now as then the store's general manager. "But there's been so many people nipping at my heels for us to reopen sooner, that I just thought, 'The hell with it. Let's go ahead and do it.'"

The store has migrated about a half-mile south of its former home on the corner of Shepherd and Alabama. New Cactus is in always-­hopping Shepherd Plaza at 2110 Portsmouth.

"Thursday through Saturday nights, it's like little Las Vegas around here," says Bishop, indicating the foot traffic from bars such as The Stag's Head, McElroy's Pub and The Davenport. "Our old location had gotten kind of stale. There's nothing local up there anymore, and there wasn't much foot traffic around there at night. Around here, even the chain restaurants — James Coney Island and Whataburger — are local, or at least Texas."

New Cactus is roughly the same size as old Cactus. "It's the same exact footage if you subtract the video area," says Bishop. Looking around the new digs, as a few familiar faces stocked the shelves, you can see that Bishop has brought back not just the same bins and carts but also many of his old employees.

"The Cactus All-Stars will be back," he says, though when asked, he revealed that the return of George St. Clair the Video God is still not certain.

As with the old location, there will be a performance stage and many in-stores. In fact, instead of hosting live events on an ad hoc basis, new Cactus will have them routinely.

"There will be live music every Thursday and Friday," Bishop says. "On Saturdays, we hope to have at least two events, beginning in the afternoon and running through the evening. We want to have things on Sunday, too. It's not gonna be like it was, where we would have none one week and four the next."

In addition to more live music, new Cactus will have a greater emphasis on both vinyl and visual art. The Record Ranch, as Bishop has dubbed a second room adjacent to the main space, will allow customers to rummage through an expanded selection of LPs and music-­oriented paintings and drawings. Already there's some prize vinyl on the shelves — Bishop uncovered a trove of still-sealed LPs from Crazy Cajun Records, including albums by Roy Head, Lowell Fulson, Tommy McLain and Joe Medwick.

The Record Ranch is the new locale's crown jewel. In fact, it's one of the most appealing retail spaces I have ever been in. The floor is tiled in warm earth tones, and both the vinyl in the racks and the art on the walls — the first exhibition is a collection of Day of the Dead-themed paintings of deceased rock stars by Flamin' Hellcats drummer Carlos Hernandez — is a repast for the eyes. The LPs in the racks and the paintings on the walls conspire to form a symbiotic, welcoming vibe that is more than the sum of its parts. In short, the Record Ranch feels as warm and inviting as an LP played on a quality hi-fi sounds.

"We have a 35-foot wall here and two other ten-foot walls in this room," Bishop notes. "Music-themed art always gets underestimated, and we want to change that. Take those '60s posters, for example. They are fine works of art. But then somehow by just putting a band's name on there, somehow that makes them something less? I don't think so."

The store's return marks a triumph of localism over the endless march of bland retail. The past few years have seen numerous local institutions bite the dust, as an insipid march of branch banks, Walgreens and CVS outlets, cell-phone shops and other such generica gunks up our cityscape and threatens to utterly de-funkify the city.

The Gallant Knight was razed, its site soon to be home to yet another branch bank. The Hofbrau has been Fertitta'd into yet another Saltgrass Steak House. Worse still, they are now even talking openly about tearing down the Eighth Wonder of the World, not to mention every old movie theater from the River Oaks to Pasadena.

The reblooming of Cactus is a significant counterpoint to all that jive dynamism. Businesses don't get much more Houston than this: The Cactus pedigree stretches back to 1933, when a 31-year-old former Marine, Southern Pacific tax accountant and baseball player by the name of Harold "Pappy" Daily got into the jukebox trade, opening a local outlet of Chicago-based Bally Entertainment at 1419 Travis.

In 1946, Daily branched out into music retail with a store in The Heights called The Record Ranch. Hank Williams once made an appearance there, as documented in the photo that once hung over the register at old Cactus.

Ten years after that, Daily expanded further still into owning a label. Starday, the label he shared with Jack Starnes, went on to become at least for a time the home of artists like George Jones, the Big Bopper, Roger Miller, Jimmy Dean and Hank Locklin.

D Records, another of Daily's labels, had a working agreement with Mercury and was home to the young Willie Nelson and George Strait, also releasing polka, Tex-Mex, Cajun and Western swing sides. Glad Music, Daily's publishing company, still controls the rights to "Night Life," "The Party's Over," "She Thinks I Still Care," "Chantilly Lace" and "White ­Lightnin'."

Daily's sons Bud and Don had long before gotten into their father's business, and the two brothers opened Cactus in 1975. More than any external factor, it was their decision to retire in 2006 that marked the end for the old location. The Daily brothers are both in their mid-­seventies and have long lived near Wimberley, and their age and distance from Houston made it harder and harder to stay involved in the operation of the store.

Bishop had run Cactus for the last 20 years of its existence under the Dailys' tenure, so the new Cactus will be under new ownership but the same management. "The Dailys have quite graciously allowed us to use the name," Bishop says.

The new owners are a Houston-to-the-bone partnership consisting of Bishop; St. Arnold's Brewing Company; Bruce Levy, senior vice-president and C.F.O. of Rice Epicurean and a grandson of that supermarket chain's founder; and longtime Houstonian George Fontaine, the head honcho of Austin/Los Angeles roots-rock label New West Records.

Bishop says that these "not-so-silent partners" were the people who truly kept Cactus alive. "After we closed, I thought I might try something different, but the partners pushed me toward this, and I am very excited about it."

And so are we. To mangle the words of both Paige Mann and Led Zeppelin, here's hoping that what was music in Houston should ever be music in Houston.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax