Houston is a freewheeling, free-spending jumble of a place. Every few hundred feet in this sprawling city, buildings go from the ridiculous to the sublime while high culture runs headfirst into low. As other cities undergo economic downturns, Houston has downright operatic booms and busts. Yet in true Texas style, Houstonians are irrepressible: They just keep spending (Vogue once commented that in Houston, shopping is a blood sport). New stores open each season. This fall, at The Galleria, the mother of all malls, with shops like Chanel and Christian Dior, the venerable American jeweler Bailey Banks & Biddle launched its dramatic new flagship—an unequivocal declaration that, as a recent marketing campaign puts it, "Houston. It's Worth It." Of course, no one needs to convince the big spenders. From River Oaks's socialites in matching hats and gloves to South American tourists dressed up for the mall, the local shopping scene is as rich and energetic as the city itself.
LOUIS TENENBAUM ESTATE JEWELER
A favorite of stylish socialite Lynn Wyatt's, Louis Tenenbaum brings together the most outstanding jewelry from the 19th century to the present. In addition to a selection of Art Deco diamond bracelets ($7,500-$75,000) and early-20th-century diamond engagement rings ($7,000-$35,000), Tenenbaum's Galleria shop displays such rarities as a late-sixties reindeer pin with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and conch pearls by David Webb ($35,000) and an enameled Belle Epoque butterfly pin with diamonds and pearls by master jeweler Henri Vever ($65,000). Before exhibiting each antique piece, which Tenenbaum buys at auctions and from private clients, he sends it to a craftsman in New York for repair or restoration. "We're probably the only estate jeweler in the United States who does that," Tenenbaum says. At 5015 Westheimer Rd., Ste. 2110; 713-629-7444.
In a city known for the polite, safe style of its high society, Mix is the most daring boutique around. Through the dramatic glass front door is a sleek space with birch floors, industrial-gray walls, and clothes by designers not commonly found within the two U.S. coasts. Big names such as John Galliano, Narciso Rodriguez, Helmut Lang, and Alexander McQueen are here, along with emerging designers like Rick Owens and Zac Posen, and shoemakers Bruno Frisoni and Rodolphe Menudier. This winter, Mix's owner, Evelyn Gorman, expects her clientele to go mad over the velvet evening trenchcoats by Lanvin ($3,220), wool gabardine trousers ($685) and eyelet jackets ($1,585) by Chloé, and silver weekend bags by Balenciaga ($1,395). At 2818 Kirby Dr.; 713-522-0606.
By his own account, Bob Novotney sells "upscale junk or downscale antiques" at the sprawling emporium he opened 26 years ago. But there is no better place in Texas (or maybe the world) to find vintage cowboy boots. Novotney has some 2,000 pairs ($20-$150), all broken in by cowboys and -girls across the state and arranged perfectly by size (up to 13DD!). Besides leather, we spotted boots in lizard, bull, ostrich, python, and even elephant skin. Texas Junk is also stocked with whatever you might need to decorate a cattle ranch, including more than 1,000 Western-style frames ($4-$175), cow skulls ($95), and barbed-wire sculptures of such vivid local imagery as cowpokes, lassos, and the Alamo ($45). $ At 215 Welch St.; 713-524-6257. Open Wednesday-Saturday.
KAY O'TOOLE ANTIQUES AND ECCENTRICITIES
"I love the eighteenth century, but you need to have a mix," says Kay O'Toole, arguably the city's keenest antiquarian. "Other periods refresh the eye and allow you to breathe." Indeed, O'Toole's collection is one of the freshest we have seen: She has scoured Europe for such major 18th-century pieces as a monumental Scandinavian sofa ($10,000), a gilded Venetian settee ($9,000), and carved Italian side chairs ($12,000 for four). She then adds bold, eclectic items like a vintage gold-sequined bullfighter's costume from Spain ($1,400), oversize zinc urns from 19th-century French châteaux ($2,200), and a collection of Madonna crowns from France, Italy, and Spain ($400-$800). At 1921 Westheimer Rd.; 713-523-1921.
There are few parts of the home that Sylvia Longoria Dorsey's spectacular shop can't furnish. A member of a prominent Mexican banking family, Dorsey offers a full spectrum of china (by Raynaud, Bernardaud, and Hermès) and crystal (from Simon Pearce, Saint Louis, and Varga), as well as luxurious bedding like 500-thread-count percale by Dallas-based Peacock Alley ($400 for a king set) and Egyptian cotton sateen made in Italy by Sferra Brothers ($1,100). She has also assembled the perfect group of one-of-a-kind objects: We especially loved the brightly colored cocoon jars from China ($1,500), enormous shell-shaped fossils on Lucite stands ($1,700), and painted lay figures from the Han and Ming dynasties ($550-$4,000). At 1101-02 Uptown Park Blvd.; 713-621-4241; www.langoriacollection.com.
THOMPSON + HANSON
One of the best nurseries in town—with everything from the smallest perennials to towering bamboo plants and olive trees—Thompson + Hanson also has a gorgeous shop for the home. Buyer Kathy Frietsch travels to Europe four times a year, seeking out furniture and objects with clean lines and a botanical theme. A couple of her favorite pieces are a 19th-century Belgian pine cabinet with painted floral patterns ($3,200) and a set of French Art Nouveau bistro doors with glass panes etched with nature scenes ($5,000). Not everything is so monumental: There are dried boxwood topiaries made by Catalan craftsmen ($175-$275), as well as terra-cotta pots ($225-$900) made by Tuscan artisans using a centuries-old technique. At 3600 W. Alabama St.; 713-622-6973.
Neither a fashion boutique nor a home store, Marcus Sloan and Shannon Hall's loftlike shop is an outlet for extraordinary designs. The owners' flawless edit showcases such varied items as limited-edition soccer balls by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami ($400), cashmere sweaters by Lucien Pellat-Finet ($900- $2,000), and hand-painted porcelain teacups and figurines by Nymphenburg ($300-$4,000). Sloan/Hall also seeks out vintage pieces, such as pink sapphire princess rings in 22-karat gold by Marie-Hélène de Taillac ($4,200) and 18-karat handcuff bracelets by Dinh Van ($445), who was a designer for Cartier in the seventies. There are even a few well-chosen books: The enormous tome by Taschen on Muhammad Ali ($3,000) is more like a work of art than it is coffee-table reading. At 2620 Westheimer Rd.; 713-942-0202; www.sloanhall.com.
You won't find any slick, modern gadgets at this men's store. Jeffrey Stone's cigar, pen, and sporting-accessories shop is pure tradition. Not that Stone isn't up to date: The luxury purveyor recently began carrying the new Sidecar series of limited-edition pens by Dunhill, with grainy leather casings inspired by the brand's automotive origins ($545-$675). Stone also stocks the new Barbour Durham Stowaway jackets ($295) and the Mulholland Brothers's gun slips in dark red hand-tooled leather ($385). But the store's biggest draw among Houston businessmen is the chilled walk-in humidor filled from floor to ceiling with cigars. Stone recommends the Davidoff Millennium Robusto ($14 each, $360 for 25) or the Davidoff Double R in the extralarge size favored by Winston Churchill ($23 each; $510 for 35; $1,015 for a cabinet of 50). "We've even started the Jeffrey Stone barometer of economic activity," he explains. "If things are going well, people buy bigger cigars. And right now, the prognosis is good." At 5000 Westheimer Rd., Ste. 610; 713-621-2812; www.jeffreystoneltd.com.
THE CHOCOLATE BAR
It may be the most refined city in Texas, but Houston can still go over the top—starting with the Triple Decadence ice cream made fresh every day at the Chocolate Bar. A combination of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate ($7), it narrowly overpowers the shop's other sinful concoctions: twenty different cakes, pies, and cookies; a range of fresh fruits dipped in chocolate; handmade truffles ($40 for 32); and a solid chocolate brick weighing one and a quarter pounds ($18). As if these weren't enough temptation, the three owners have a store next door: Candylicious. At 1835 W. Alabama St.; 713-520-8599.
Named after the Brazos River, this is one of the great American independent bookstores. Owner Karl Kilian's stock is mostly literature, literary criticism, poetry, travel writing, and political volumes. He also has an extensive section devoted to art and architecture, with rare imported books and gallery catalogues from around the world. And for titles you won't find anywhere else, there's a section called Texana, which provides some of the best chronicles of the state's history in both fiction and nonfiction. The shop holds dozens of well-attended readings every year; the adjacent art gallery, Brazos Projects, puts on some of the most respected exhibitions in town ("Mid-Century Modern Revisited: Design from 1943 to 1953" is showing until November 28). At 2421 Bissonnet St.; 713-523-0701; www.brazosbookstore.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.