As he tries to pry his beak through his cage, a blue and orange parrot named Chivas offers some background vocals to a twangy Hank Williams, Jr. tune.
"All for the love of sunshine... " croons Hank through the speakers.
"Hello," croaks the parrot.
"All for the love of sunshine..."
As this surreal duet plays on, there's a serious game of dominos going on in the front of the Wabash Feed Store. It's the first ever Wabash Ice House night, and Cassidy, Devinn, Deborah and their pals egg each other on with some friendly trash talk. It gets quiet every few minutes as domino tiles slide along the long table and folks hunker down to their game. When someone wins, there's a burst of laughter as they clink their longnecks in celebration.
"Uh-oh," says Deborah, motioning to Devinn. "We have a problem." The laughter stops. Cassidy points under the table.
Time out. Devinn's miniature horse, who's been quietly sitting at the table the entire time, has just taken a massive dump on the floor. Everyone loses it.
It's quite the down-home, country scene here at the cozy Wabash Feed Store, which looks like it's been plucked off a dirt farm road in Fulshear. Dried grass is strewn along a wood-plank porch. Iron-wrought rocking chairs and a big rooster sculpture sit next to a pile of pumpkins and a stack of firewood. Every wall is covered with various pieces of Texana, such as longhorn skulls and iron Lone Star sculptures. An ornery white cat with a stubby tail lounges at the front door, eyeing everyone suspiciously.
But this country feed store is smack-dab in the big city. Wabash anchors a slew of townhouses that seem to sprout up as frequently as Naomi Campbell assault cases. The store is neighbor to yuppie-fied spots like the Cova wine bar, Catalan, a chic new food/wine spot, and El Tiempo, a fashionable Tex-Mex hang. These three places have created a sort of entertainment triangle for the Rice Military District and surrounding areas on Washington Avenue.
Wabash owner Betty Heacker recently had an epiphany: She could create a regular ice house night at her feed store. "I've always loved the West Alabama Ice House and the sense of community it created in that area," says Heacker of the venerable Montrose watering hole. "You have people from the neighborhood with their kids and their dogs. We're not trying to be the next West Alabama, but I'd certainly love to create something like that in this part of town."
It's a grand plan with community building and goodwill at its heart, but considering Wabash's luck, it's probably gonna piss someone off pretty soon.
In a past life, in the early 1900s, the store, called Consumer Grain and Fuel, was a fixture on Washington Avenue. Seventy years later, antiques dealer Manning Mann bought it and turned it into a posh shop: Washington Avenue Bric-Brac, Antiques, Sundries and Hardware -- or Wabash. He got a beer license, with the grand scheme of getting customers tipsy so they'd spend tons of money at his store.
It didn't work.
Heacker bought the business, and in 1990 moved the store to its current location in what was essentially a barrio at the time. It was there that the store became a halfway house and ER for neighborhood pets. "People who lived here, mostly hard-working Hispanics, looked at dogs as security, not really as pets," she says. Residents would bring in sickly and dying puppies who were in the final stages of parvo, an insidious canine disease. "These were the kinds of people who'd never set foot in a vet's office," she says. "So we'd beg them to at least take them to the vet to euthanize them." Her store became a kind of puppy ER, so Heacker started inoculating animals. "We just didn't want these animals to die," she says. "People trusted us, and we were cheap."
Her staff would inoculate or teach people how to immunize their animals, and a visiting vet would immunize and treat pets every Saturday. What started out as Wabash's practical public service soon became a tradition; people of all ages, races and tax brackets brought their animals in for shots. "We were happy to do it," says Heacker. "It's never been about the money. We just love animals and want to help our neighbors."
Until one day late last year, when a local veterinarian called the store and was put on hold. Hearing on the hold message that Wabash offered immunizations and immunization classes, the vet called the State Board of Veterinary Care and filed a complaint. The State Board issued a cease-and-desist order. Heacker's lawyer told her to relax; she and her staff weren't doing anything illegal. But then HPD officer L.R. Dees showed up in January, ready to arrest her onsite.
"Well, he didn't arrest me," she says with a laugh. "He said he knew we were trustworthy and took care of our animals." She didn't get cuffed, but she was now facing a civil case. "And this vet, who had such a problem with what we were doing, was never identified." In just a few months, Heacker's charitable tradition of cheap inoculations was done. (A vet still visits every Saturday, and staffers still teach people how to immunize their animals.) Though she's complying with the cease-and-desist order, Heacker says she's not backing down. "This isn't about animal welfare. Vets in the city are trying to protect their piece of the pie. This guy has to know that as soon as I find out who he is, I'll put a sign on my door that says, 'Because of a complaint by Dr. So-and-So, we can no longer vaccinate your animals, but we'll be happy to show you how to vaccinate them yourselves.'"
Matt, a 25-year-old law student with close-cropped hair, plays with a pair of big-eyed, floppy-eared puppies in a cage while he sips his drink. He surveys the animal shed, which houses chickens, finches, parakeets and three crazed kittens swatting at him from their cage behind him. "This is pretty cool," he says. "It's like a cross between an ice house, a petting zoo and someone's shed." A self-professed "country boy," Matt says Wabash is a shot of state pride. "The minute you walk in, it's pure Texas. It's the kind of place where you can hang out in flip-flops and sit on a bag of feed if you want. And if it's too much country, you can still walk outside and see all the urban, sheet-metal lofts. I can't see anyone having a problem with this place." Maybe not inside, but the City of Houston has taken issue with Wabash's banners advertising their organic gardening products. Recently, a COH representative ticketed them for oversized signage. Thing is, says Devinn, a Wabash manager, just about every business on Washington has oversized signs. "There were businesses all the way down Washington that weren't cited." Devinn says he sent the officer to a neighboring business, which the officer grudgingly ticketed. "You can't drive anywhere in this city without seeing an oversized sign," he says. "I don't have a problem with anyone else's, but why us? Why did we get ticketed when people across the street didn't? You have to wonder where the guy was looking, and why we stuck out and no one else did." He won't go as far as to cite a conspiracy, but one thing's for sure: This venerable feed store sure seems snakebitten.
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The signage and immunization problems are behind them, but the folks at Wabash still have another nemesis: rain. This was supposed to be their coming-out party. Customers were buzzing about Ice House Day for weeks. Drivers, seeing the sign, pulled up and were inquiring about the dominos and poker games. Heacker had a horde of friends who were supposed to show. But the downpour -- and it's torrential -- has kept everyone but a few faithful at home.
To add insult to injury, the rains create miniature lakes on the Wabash property. It all stems from a bout with local developer George Polydoros, who Betty says tried everything to squeeze her out. [See "Room to Crow" by Melissa Hung, August 24, 2000.] Polydoros finally sold and left her alone, but not without a final kiss-off. He built gutters on every neighboring townhouse, except for the one house directly behind the store. The result: Every rain creates a huge dump-down and subsequent pond on the Wabash property. The next-door neighbor would have to pony up the cash to fix this, which is why Heacker has had to live with the little lakes that form after each rainstorm. "I'm just not going to ask someone to spend hundreds of dollars to fix a problem they didn't create," she says. "That's just not neighborly."
A striped tabby kitten scales his cage, nibbles at Cassidy's finger, and then loses his grip. He tumbles to the bottom of the cage, plopping on top of his two brothers in his litter box. "There's no pretension or expectations here," says Cassidy, a pretty, 25-year-old brunette who works in marketing. "If I was at a bar for happy hour, I'd have to change. I'd have to schmooze. Here I can drink a beer and play with animals. My friend's a total 'scene' person, and when I told her about this place, she was like, 'Kittens!? Oh my gawd, I am so there.'"
Heacker's plan for Ice House night is to draw couples and singles who'd normally hit a bar. But can a feed store, with its squawking parrots and mini horses, ever become a happy hour destination for the young crowd? Matt thinks it's all about the fur appeal. "Man, you've got beer, kittens and puppies. There's your pickup line."