EVERY SUNDAY THE FAITHFUL PACK Etta's Lounge, south of the University of Houston, to worship with sax legend Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters. The longnecks, the coldest in the city, are served on ice in mop buckets; the decor runs to aged Christmas decorations; and everyone, from the nattily attired regulars to newcomers like Richard and me, is warmly welcomed. And you never know who will pop up onstage with Grady. The night we were there we caught singer Patrick Harris, hot-dog guitarist Mike Spencer, and singer Evette Busby, whose understated appearance—she said she's often mistaken for a librarian—could not have been more misleading. She blew the roof off the joint.How does an independent bookshop survive for 28 years? The owner of the Brazos Bookstore, Karl Kilian, modestly attributes his business's longevity to the renowned writing program at nearby Rice University and the fact that the Brazos is a destination in itself. "You aren't going to buy a book here that people have thumbed through while waiting for a latte," he says. His wife, Kathy, is more succinct about the secret of the shop's staying power: "It's Karl." The selection reflects his passion for literature, art, and architecture, and you can peruse arcane titles that chain bookstores would never stock. (Note: This is where I bought my Houston Architectural Guide for $20.) Plus, the Brazos hosts regular readings by the glitterati literati, among them Ruth Reichl, Isabel Allende, Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, and Nobel prize winner Günter Grass.
FINALLY, SPARK PLUGS I CAN relate to: They're milk chocolate and have to be replaced only after you eat them. At the Chocolate Bar, many of life's little irritants, from dental tools to computer diskettes, are recreated in more benign, edible form. (Aren't there times when you'd like to eat someone's cell phone?) As I licked a cone stuffed with the shop's double-chocolate-mint ice cream, I watched candy artists at work on dark chocolate spacemen and carob-dipped dog biscuits.
I CAN'T SAY THAT I'VE ever had a hankering for "herring-under-fur-coat" (a salad of fish, potatoes, eggs, and beets with a dressing that is blessedly fur-free), but if I did I could score a container of it at the Moscow Market, on far west Memorial Drive. I could also load up on cabbage rolls; candies and jams galore; Georgian, Ukrainian, and Moldavian wines; tchotchkes such as hand-painted nesting dolls and old-world Christmas ornaments; and beautiful Russian confections whose names alone are a mouthful, like kievskiy, a meringue-based favorite. When I asked the clerk what was most popular among the regulars, she said, "Men first sausage. Women first chocolate." And what was I buying? Lithuanian beer—and chocolates. Some gender traits know no borders.