Writer-at-large Suzy Banks tells the story behind this month's cover story, "The Shops Around the Corner."
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texasmonthly.com: How did the idea for this story come about? Suzy Banks: For the past couple of years, I’ve written the annual capitalist manifesto for the December issue. One year it was about the state’s great e-commerce sites (remember when online shopping was going to drive bricks-and-mortar stores out of business?) and last year, I dug up fifty Texas-made gifts that bucked the typical bandana-and-horseshoe design. This year, as we were casting about for a theme, Evan came up with the idea of “Buyer Be Where.” After much wrangling about, we decided to focus on great neighborhoods in the six big cities.
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take you to finish this story? SB: I started researching the piece in August—calling and e-mailing friends for advice, perusing Web sites, searching newspaper archives. Around September, I started on the fun part—trekking around to the different cities and scoping the goods out in person. I probably went to twice as many stores as I wrote about and half a dozen other neighborhoods that for one reason or another—impossible parking and traffic, overtaken with Ann Taylor or the Gap, filled with insanely expensive stores, or simply no sense of “there” there—didn’t make the cut.
texasmonthly.com: Did you find that a lot of these boutique stores carried the same type of merchandise? SB: Let’s just say that I’m certain that there is absolutely no shortage of candles, handmade soap, blown-glass vases, and some truly awful secondhand junk in the state. Other than that, most of the shops were surprisingly unique and reflected the personalities and interests of the owners.
texasmonthly.com: Did you notice any trends in inventory from one city to the next? SB: No, not really.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, which shopping area did you like the best? Why? SB: I liked the two neighborhoods in Houston the best; the Heights really feels like a neighborhood (and besides, I was born at the Heights Hospital back in the year A.D. 1050), and the store, Surroundings, in Southampton, is such a wonderful space, filled with such cool stuff arranged so tantalizingly—the kind of place that makes you want to go home, torch all your belongings, and start all over again. The true measure of their appeal, however, is the fact that I bought stuff. When you visit a hundred stores in a month (and you earn what a freelance writer earns), you’ve got to be very picky or else you’ll be in debt inside a week.
texasmonthly.com: Were these areas crowded while you were researching your story? In other words, do you think there are more people shopping these areas than there have been in the past? Why or why not? SB: Crowds were definitely not a problem. I started my research in Houston—on September 11. I’d spent the night in Houston and awoke to the terrible news on the television. I stumbled around Rice Village in a daze. I ate a sandwich at Jason’s Deli, and the television was on and everyone in the place—every customer, the wait staff, everyone—just stared at the television, not eating, not talking. A lot of people, including me, were crying. Downtown Houston was evacuated. Then all the stores closed. By two in the afternoon, Rice Village was a ghost town.
During the first month I worked on this story, going into stores and trying to work up some enthusiasm for an embroidered bedspread or a bead necklace, I felt like a shallow idiot. Even when President Bush urged people to shop to jump-start the economy, I still felt like I was toiling away on the stupidest topic possible. As time went on, however, I saw how desperate some of the owners of these small shops were, shops where customers were nonexistent for weeks, and I began to see at least a little merit in writing about shopping. Several merchants told me that if they didn’t have a decent holiday season, they’d be out of business by January. Still, I felt painfully frivolous sitting at my computer listening to radio reports about the bombings in Afghanistan while I wrote descriptions of copper mugs, soda pop, and gift boxes of seasonings.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that some of these places are a bit on the fringe for mainstream folks? Why or why not? SB: I think I’m pretty mainstream, and they didn’t seem on the fringe to me. Then again, I’m pretty sure a lot of mainstream America would consider me on the fringe.
texasmonthly.com: I think some folks feel if they don’t know the “name,” then the merchandise may be fake. How can people reassure themselves that they are purchasing the real thing without being an expert (or hiring one)? SB: Maybe I’m just gullible, but most of the stores have been around a while and I don’t think they’d stay in business long if they were cheating people. I don’t know how you can tell a fake. I say, if you love it and you can afford it, then it’s real enough.