IF IT’S ERUDITION OR ENLIGHTENMENT you’re seeking, we refer you to the rest of the magazine. You’ll find no high-minded ideals herein; our subject is merely that materialistic and endlessly pleasing pastime known as shopping. An excursion to any one of the following towns will provide not only laid-back browsing sans crowds but also an opportunity to drive Texas’ back roads. Our list includes at least two day-trip destinations from each major Texas city except El Paso, where shoppers tend to head across the border for bargains. We chose to omit Fredericksburg because—although it is certifiably small and wonderfully shoppable—its streets and sidewalks have grown off-puttingly thronged. Besides, you know about F-burg. Most of the 24 towns we visited, on the other hand, are full  of comparatively undiscovered delights.

Before you pile into the car, however, keep a few points in mind. First of all, remember that the towns may be small, but the prices in the stores are not. Rural dealers are well aware of their goods’ worth. Dickering is still permitted, but be polite about it: “Could you give me a better price on this?” (not “I’ll give you $50 for it”). Odds are that the specific items we mention will be long gone by the time you visit; in fact, entire stores can appear and disappear quickly. The hours of operation are iffy too; some small-town merchants are open only on weekends (if that often). Thus we’ve listed phone numbers, so you can verify that a particular store will be open when you arrive, but not addresses, since these shops are usually clustered together in a walkable area or along a main street. Finally, we apologize to the scores of good shopping towns we didn’t cover. We’ll try to make up for it—buy-and-buy.

Waxahachie • Forreston • Hico

HOME TO A VIBRANT TOWN SQUARE AND several hundred Victorian gingerbread houses, Waxahachie also has a wide range of shops, from high-end antiques stores along the square to funky junk shops on its side streets. Given its proximity to Dallas, prices were surprisingly reasonable.

Crushed-velvet draperies ran only $5 at the flea markets one block from the town square, and at the Dove’s Nest (972-938-3683), an upscale antiques store across from the courthouse, we discovered everything from an ornate wire birdcage ($180) to jars of pickled okra ($7.50). We could easily have spent the afternoon puttering around the square, but our favorite spot was the Webb Gallery (972-938-8085), Texas’ largest folk art gallery, one block west on Franklin. Housed in a brilliant red building with a cast-iron facade, the gallery looks as if it had been plucked from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Our interest was piqued by the pickup truck parked outside, which was garishly painted and decorated with plastic figurines. Inside, we found an eclectic collection of outsider art, from Ike Morgan’s quirky portraits of George Washington and Jimmy Carter ($400— $600) to Carl Block’s grimacing “face jugs” ($35—$150).

A short drive down U.S. 77 brought us to the one-block town of Forreston, a windswept spot on the prairie where—to our amazement—we found what may be the best vintage-clothing store in all of Texas, Bon Ton (972-483-6222). A mix of bossa nova, polka, and big-band tunes played in the background as we picked through the kitschy treasures on the first floor, which included a Chinese parasol, several old medical books, a blue velvet lampshade, and stacks of dusty 45’s. The main attraction was the second floor, where we looked through racks of flapper dresses and big-shouldered men’s gabardine suits in mint condition. Among the finds here were a pink chiffon ball gown trimmed with silver bugle beads ($75), a leopard-print bikini top ($15), a floor-length red silk kimono ($60), and the shop’s pièce de résistance: a hand-sewn, black Christian Dior bubble dress ($300). “It should be in a museum,” whispered owner Barbra Kauffman as she smoothed its luxurious folds of peau de soie.

We would gladly have lingered at Bon Ton, but we pushed on to Hillsboro, a well-known hub of antiques and outlet shopping about twenty miles south on U.S. 77 that proved to be largely disappointing. Far more impressive was Hico, the reputed hideout of Billy the Kid and a destination that required roughly an hour’s drive west from Hillsboro. On Second Street we stopped at Cowboy Art (254-796-2462), which had the feel of an old western movie set, with rocking chairs fashioned from horseshoes ($500), tables made from old wagon wheels ($550), and rawhide lamps with leather stitching ($50—$100). Downtown, on Pecan, we discovered Lonnie and Mabel’s (254-796-4157), which had a remarkable collection of restored fifties Formica-and-chrome dinette sets in cherry red, turquoise, pink, and butter yellow ($300—$500). Our favorite was a pearl-gray table with red rose inlays and matching red Naugahyde chairs ($900). On our way out of town we stopped at Wiseman House (254-796-2565), a Victorian home on Grubbs that is part antiques store, part chocolate shop. We sampled the collection of retro treats—Necco Wafers, Beeman’s Gum, and lime-flavored rock candy—before helping ourselves to a few hand-dipped chocolate truffles ($14.50 a pound) for the road. Pamela Colloff

Boerne • Comfort • Camp Verde

HALF AN HOUR NORTHWEST OF SAN ANTONIO lies Boerne, where shops are scattered along a mile and a half of its Hauptstrasse (Main Street). There’s a public parking lot in the 200 block, just next to the roomy Boerne Emporium (830-249-3390), which has the best prices in town. Finds, for $3 each: a Mahalia Jackson funeral-home fan and sheet music for the 1937 song “Pin a Bluebonnet on Your New Bonnet” (featuring, incongruously, a serape’d señorita). A pair of vintage child’s lederhosen ($65) was a reminder of Boerne’s Teutonic heritage. Across the street and down the block is the Carousel (830-249-9306), a twofer business specializing in antiques and pickles—yes, pickles: Made on the premises, they possess a mysterious amalgam of heat, sweetness, and crunch ($3.95—$9.95 a jar—and, boy, do they get the steering wheel sticky).

Twenty minutes up U.S. 87 brings you to Comfort, a stronghold of German Texans for 145 years. Some fifteen shops dominate its modest historic district, located around the intersection of Seventh and High (just south of Texas Highway 27). An unexpected treat is Wilson-Clements Antiques and Gifts (830-995-5039), which purveys Spanish colonial and Latin American folk art; an entire room is devoted to Mexican pewter, from platters to pigs. A solid-copper miniature still ($300) made a striking objet d’art. For some quick time-travel, step into the Ingenhuett General Store (830-995-2149), where farming supplies such as a barbed-wire tightener ($21.95) and an eight-pound ball of twine ($9.95) give you an idea of what life is still like for the residents of Comfort (Comforters?). Original store fixtures include a multi-drawered oak bin for nails and screws and a 1920 parts cabinet for De Laval cream separators. Across the street is the Comfort Antique Mall (830-995-4678), which is chock-full of tchotchkes; we considered oddities such as a Wesson oil mayonnaise-maker ($39) with the recipe in raised glass letters on the side of the shaker and a way-cool mop bucket ($19) featuring an aproned cutie-pie on its colorful label. Would we actually use these items, you ask? That’s not the point, is it?

If you have time, head west on Texas Highway 27 and then on FM 480 to Camp Verde. This dot on the map consists of a single creaky two-story building, the Camp Verde General Store (830-634-7722), where the resident cats outnumber the human staff three to one. Part convenience store, part anachronism, and part working post office, it’s a jumble of museum pieces, souvenirs, and more, from farm-fresh brown eggs (15 cents each) to a six-foot wooden statue of Robert E. Lee ($3,000). Expect some camel stuff; it was here that the Army once experimented with that critter as a beast of burden. Anne Dingus

Gonzales • Moulton Flatonia • Smithville

AN EASY DRIVE FROM SAN ANTONIO, GONZALES has plenty to offer in the way of historic-site-seeing, though we quickly made a beeline to the antiques shops around the square. Our favorites, however, were on nearby side streets. The Gonzales Emporium (830-672-8937), a spacious two-story building on St. Paul that once served as a men’s clothing store—and in the 1880’s as a brothel—is now full of great kitsch, such as a fifties teal dinette set ($125) and a shiny red 1945 Coca-Cola ice chest ($1,750). Owner David Lue-decke also keeps several hundred vintage gas-station signs in the back. On St. Francis we found Discoveries From the Past (830-672-2428), a boon for anyone who is restoring an old house. Owners Brad and Suzanne Kittel have impressive collections of stained-glass windows ($50—$500) and beautifully carved wooden doors ($250—$1,000) in their store, and hundreds more Victorian fixtures in their 60,000-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of town.

Next, we headed about twenty miles east to the tiny Czech town of Moulton, where we stumbled across Dad’s Custom Woodworking (512-596-7077), an antiques store and woodworking shop housed in an old car dealership on Main. Owner Anton Machacek collects furniture from local estates and individuals and builds his own. We also liked the handmade oak and ash rocking chairs from Louisiana, which were well worth the asking price ($85—$220).

We continued about ten miles north to the old whistle-stop town of Flatonia, where Wellington Antiques (512-865-3978) on South Main has quite a different feel. Its Victorian mahogany armoires ($800—$7,000) are shipped directly from England and Scotland, where the store’s full-time buyer selects estate-sale treasures. Our favorite items were the Victorian-style fringed silk lampshades in garnet or ivory ($200—$465). Of the several other antiques stores that sit across the railroad tracks on North Main, we were most intrigued with Arnim and Lane Mercantile (512-865-3552), a general store that has been in operation since 1886. Flour sifters, bolts of cloth, and tins of smoking tobacco line the shelves of this cavernous two-story building with longleaf-pine floors and a pressed-tin ceiling. But only a few items—such as 1949 two-tone leather pumps ($7) and pocket knives with fake mother-of-pearl inlays ($3.25)—are for sale.

About half an hour’s drive north, we were pleased to find Smithville’s thriving Main Street, lined with oak trees, beautifully restored redbrick storefronts, and a wide range of antiques shops. We admired Latin American folk art at Interweavers (512-237-2410) and primitive furniture at Main Street Village Antiques (512-237-2323), but our favorite spot was Gallery 71 (512-360-3900), a sumptuously decorated place filled with fine china and rococo-style furniture. The gilded Noritake tea set ($650) was exquisite, as were the twenties Japanese bone china dinner plates, white with blue trim ($394 for twelve), but we were most impressed with a piece of furniture that seemed at odds with Smithville’s humble name: an 1840’s engraved-teak bed, fitted with painted glass panels, on which patrons of a Chinese opium den once lounged ($4,500). Pamela Colloff


JUST FORTY MINUTES FROM CORPUS Christi is Kingsville, the town the King Ranch built. Anchoring the three-block downtown strip just west of U.S. 77 is the aromatic King Ranch Saddle Shop (800-282-5464), housed in a handsome century-old brick mercantile building. Goods range from a leather-and-mahogany humidor ($375) to a sheepskin-trimmed leather sofa ($4,200); we especially coveted a beige-and-brown cotton rug ($170) patterned with the King Ranch’s Running W brand (it looks like a snake on a hot tin roof). More-affordable souvenirs include a King Ranch bandanna ($10) and a poster of Assault, the spread’s 1946 Triple Crown—winning racehorse ($5). Weekdays, customers can stand next to the life-size stuffed Longhorn and watch the craftsmen at work tooling saddles and such. Two blocks down is Adam Garcia Saddle Shop (512-516-0773), favored by locals; pop in to see the sofa-size leather rendering of the Last Supper.

Besides leather (and good-looking cowboys), Kingsville’s specialties include automobile and gas station memorabilia. The antiques half of Totes and Things (800-580-8683), a purses-and-what-have-you boutique, offers several vintage metal pedal cars ($500—$1,895) and a glass-globed Magnolia Petroleum gas pump ($2,800); at the back of the Woodworks (512-592-1166), an antiques-and-gifts shop, is a 1951 blue Cadillac ($6,000) surrounded by a drive-in speaker stand ($120), a penny parking meter ($115), and an authentically dirty Tin Man—style oil can ($20). Anne Dingus

Jefferson • Marshall • Jonesville • Canton

EVER SINCE ITS HEYDAY AS A STEAMBOAT PORT, Jefferson has been a magnet for shoppers, though they no longer frequent its stores for the most up-to-date fashions. Antiquing is now the main diversion for visitors from Dallas and Shreveport. Jefferson offers a wide range of stores, from Terry House (903-665-2780) on Walnut, which specializes in elegant, antebellum-era furniture, to Old Mill Antiques (903-665-8601) on Austin, a flea market housed in a red corrugated-tin feed mill. On the whole, we found Jefferson’s prices to be unusually high and many of its stores a little too touristy for our taste, but Haley’s Antiques (903-665-8563) made the trip well worth our while. At this vintage-clock shop on Polk, where several claw-footed bathtubs and a blinking traffic light decorate the front lawn, we were greeted by a cacophony of sounds: chimes, gongs, cuckoos, and the deep baritone of a grandfather clock. Every available inch of space was filled with restored timepieces, some dating back to the early nineteenth century and ranging in style from a twenties walnut grandfather clock with an engraved silver face ($2,050) to a fifties Pearl beer wall clock ringed with blue neon ($500).

Driving south about twenty miles to Marshall, we followed signs to Marshall Pottery (903-938-9201), where potters have hand-turned stoneware for more than a century. Inside its warehouse, we found red clay pots and window boxes in every imaginable size, as well as an array of housewares and glasswares—from ceramic butter churns ($22.59 and $31.69) to soda-fountain glasses ($1.29)—and an ample supply of Fiesta Ware (a five-piece place setting is $19.99).

Next we traveled east along Interstate 20 for roughly fifteen miles, exiting at Waskom and heading north along FM 134 to nearby Jonesville, a tiny town that holds little more than a broken-down cotton gin and the T. C. Lindsey and Co. General Store (903-687-3382). The granddaddy of all Texas general stores, it began as a trading post in 1847, when Jonesville was a stagecoach stop, and has been in operation ever since. Through cotton booms and oil busts, it has variously served as a post office, bank, polling place, and hangout for anyone with spare time on his hands. Housed in a white clapboard barn, the shop has washboards, branding irons, raccoon skins, and other remnants of a long-lost era hanging from its walls. Hoop cheese is still cut the old-fashioned way, on a wheel, and glass bottles of Coca-Cola sit in the cooler. We marveled at the store’s reasonable prices—cast-iron skillets run $10, candy canes 25 cents—and also that such a place still existed at all.

On our way back to Dallas on I-20, about half an hour before we hit the city limits, we stopped in Canton, home of First Monday Trade Days, a monthly flea market that has taken place here, rain or shine, since the 1860’s. But any day of the week, well-priced furniture can be found at Mary’s Antiques (903-829-2115), one block west of the square, where we spied a mahogany drop-front desk ($475) and a pine harvest table ($395) in the store’s back room. In Canton tradition, haggling is not only welcome, it’s expected. Pamela Colloff

Blanco • Johnson City • Wimberley

THESE HILL COUNTRY HAMLETS, A pleasant jaunt from San Antonio or Austin, form a lopsided triangle, at one tip of which is Blanco, a longtime center for farming, ranching, and antiquing. A venerable purveyor situated on the town square is Cranberry’s Antiques (830-833-5596), with two jam-packed levels and the largest single assortment of vintage veterinary medicines we’ve ever seen. Very tempting: a pristine Big Chief—style school tablet, circa 1955, featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ($6). Far classier: a porcelain table lamp with pink roses reverse-painted on its frosted-glass shade ($225). Best of all is Wagner and Chabot (830-833-4350), a staunch member of the eclectic school of retailing; customers wend their way past the likes of a framed six-foot rattlesnake skin ($80), a little cast-iron llama ($48), and antler-handled silverware ($72 per piece). Tucked away in the back of the store is the Hardscrabble Cafe and Deli, where good retro cheese enchiladas and other daily specials restore the footsore. A final stop is Jerry Hendricks’ Chainsaw Wood Sculptures and Unusual Things (830-833-5037), two miles south on U.S. 281. Hendricks carves rabbits, bears, saguaros, and more ($25—$2,500) from enormous boles of mesquite and other trees, and if you’ve got an empty field just begging for adornment, he can sell you a pre-rusted tractor too (prices negotiable).

Fifteen miles north of Blanco is its longtime rival, Johnson City, where visitors browse to the sound of twittering from a nearby aviary. The shops are clustered on and around Main Street, a.k.a. U.S. 290. Times Ago (830-868-2072) is a grab bag of feed-sack tablecloths ($5—$9), Nazi memorabilia ($30—$90), and vintage picture books ($15 and up). At the Beeswax Company (830-868-7937), owner Jon Peavy hand-pours pure beeswax candles—a welcome change from the tacky, overscented variety. Even a big block of plain ol’ beeswax ($7) is strangely appealing. Around the corner at the Screen Door (830-868-0204), we found the coolest example of Texana: a commemorative plate featuring LBJ and family during their White House days ($20).

Meander southeast to Wimberley for more shopportunities, especially around the town square (more of a town polygon, to tell you the truth). We loved the limestone doo-dahs at Rancho Deluxe (512-847-9570), from Alamo-roofline paperweights ($13 and $21) to a set of neo-petroglyph coasters ($27.50), and its Mexican and Guatemalan antiquities, such as a work-smoothed wooden mold for making piloncillo sugar cones ($120). The Broken Arrow Rock Shop (512-847-2282) has rock-bottom prices: $4 for a palm-size chunk of amethyst. Best antiquing stop is the Gypsy Piddler (512-847-5647), in an old stone house, where we snatched up a vintage White Swan ginger tin ($4) and oohed and aahed over the comfy stone-walled library, equipped with a fireplace and seductively lined with books. Anne Dingus

Salado • Georgetown

SALADO SHOPKEEPERS HAVE BEEN LURING buyers since 1852, when this onetime stagecoach stop sprang up midway between Waco and Austin on what is now Interstate 35. The town remains prettily rustic, with curbless streets and log-cabiny storefronts; inside its shops, though, the merchandise is thoroughly sophisticated. The fifty-plus retail businesses (you’ll never get through them all in a weekend) line two miles of Main and most of its cross streets. A favorite, just down the road from the Stagecoach Inn, is Barnhill Britt (254-947-3011, 800-473-1494), where artisans use weathered longleaf pine and other wood salvaged from nineteenth-century Texas buildings to create beautifully dovetailed boxes ($200 and up). At nearby Magnolia’s on the Square (254-947-0323), a mini-mall, a cherubic toddler cheerfully submitted to trying on a hand-smocked pinafore while her big sister begged four quarters for an upscale vending machine that delivered a tiny box of Guatemalan worry dolls. Prices vary dramatically in Salado, so shop around; we saw three sets of antique cotton-carding combs for $12.50, $27.50, and $36.

The square in Georgetown, 27 miles south, is a far more manageable shopping circuit. Among the emporiums scattered around the squatty-domed courthouse is On the Square (512-869-0448), where we scored a handful of Italian religious medals for a buck apiece and two funky hankies, one printed with a sewing-notions theme and the other with a food-and-calories chart, for $3 each. Don’t miss Rough and Ready Antiques (512-819-0463), a block north at Sixth and Main; it’s one of those charmingly barny places with goods wedged in all higgledy-piggledy. An ornate metal squiggle identified as a “buggy footrest” ($26) sat in a basket with fifties aluminum kitchenware ($12 and up) and turn-of-the-century glass-stoppered medicine bottles ($20). Primitive pine shelves from the old Schertz post office ($150) suggested lots of great uses: wine rack, say, or closet organizer. Anne Dingus

Round Top • Brenham • Independence • Chappell Hill

ROUND TOP STILL HAS THE SLEEPY FEEL of the German farming town it once was, but there is no shortage of ways to spend an afternoon here. It is home to an international music festival, a collection of beautifully restored nineteenth-century houses, and a thriving community of antiques dealers, though its growing popularity with Houstonians has driven up the prices—and the quality—of its collectibles. On the square, make sure to visit Porch Office Antiques (409-249-5594) for its fine assortment of patchwork quilts ($250—$350) and housewares worthy of Martha Stewart. We admired a white chenille day-bed coverlet with blue stitching ($65), several primitive wooden picture frames in a red or blue wash ($40—$50), and cobalt bottles ($6.50 apiece). For some spectacular but pricey finds, we crossed the square to the Painted Pony (409-249-5711), where a parrot named Duke greeted us from his perch by the cash register. A Depression-era, baby-blue kitchen table with burnt-orange stenciling and two matching chairs ($400) caught our eye, as did a late-nineteenth-century pine vanity and matching bedroom set, painted with a design of interwoven vines ($2,795). In a yellow frame house around the corner, we found PJ Hornberger’s Studio and Gallery (409-249-5955), a sun-drenched space overlooking the artist’s garden, where hand-painted wooden roosters strut among the flowers. The folk art finds here include colorful walking sticks topped with carved blue jays and cardinals ($58) and baby rattles fashioned from dried gourds, with bone or wooden handles ($79—$99). Round Top also hosts the state’s largest antiques fair, held this year April 9 through 11 and October 1 through 3.

Roughly twenty miles east of Round Top lies Brenham. Although more than a dozen antiques stores line East Alamo, we found Today and Yesterday (409-830-0707) to be the only one of note. A spacious, two-story building, it is filled with everything from fifties scalloped metal yard chairs in teal and aqua ($45—$55) to a Victorian white wicker pram ($850).

If you have limited time, you may want to skip Brenham and continue north about ten miles to Independence, where the Antique Rose Emporium (409-836-5548) is a must-see. Visitors pull shiny red wagons along the gravel paths that meander through six acres of rose gardens. The emporium carries more than three hundred varieties, from China roses and Noisettes to native hybrids such as the “Highway 290 Pink Button” (potted rosebushes are $14.95 apiece).

Heading back toward Houston on U.S. 290, we stopped in Chappell Hill, where a stone path behind one of the town’s oldest houses led us to Evans Antiques (409-830-8861), an intimate, candle-lit room with pine floors and whitewashed walls. A jelly cupboard with a brass lock and skeleton key ($1,600) was particularly handsome, as was an imitation pie safe made from cured pine and decorative punched tin ($895). Only a few items were modestly priced, but they were no less impressive: A cream-colored hatbox with flower stenciling ($59) and handmade candles ($7 a pair), scented with cranberries, maple sugar, or pumpkin, were among the items we regretted not taking home. Pamela Colloff