Category Archives: Rice Village

Chocolate Paradise: The Chocolate Bar by Mark Hurtado

The Chocolate Bar
1835West Alabama
Houston TX

November 2010. From the time you breeze in till the time you walk slowly out with your belly full of goodies. Your senses will be engulfed in a huge variety of color, smell, taste, and sound. The smell of homemade chocolate is overwhelming, and the taste is so rich it explodes you’re taste buds and leaves you craving for more and more. Visually exciting, The Chocolate Bar tempts your taste buds with colors through a display of numerous chocolate shapes. From the blending of milkshakes to the grinding of espressos you’ll always hear upbeat sounds, music, laughter, and conversation among customers. My favorite part of visiting the Chocolate Bar is the first few seconds when I walk through the double doors and see all the different assortments of chocolates and dessert and taking a deep breath in of the sweet smell that overcomes you. It is my favorite place among many other Houstonians to go when you have a sweet tooth. They offer everything from truffles to chocolate-dipped fresh fruit, cheesecake, homemade ice cream and even chocolate novelties, which also make great gifts. You can also find unusual items covered in chocolate like Pringles, Twinkies and Lucky Charms cereal to name a few. But what really caught my eye were these massive four layer chocolate cakes on display. One of the unique things about this store is it has something for everyone including your dog. With a small choice of carob and peanut butter covered bones with elaborate edible designs for your pet. In short words it’s a chocolate lovers dream! Located in the Montrose area, the Chocolate Bar offers a great location. It’s location in one of Houston’s most cultural rich neighborhoods offers visitors both local and from out of town the chance to see one of this city’s many treasures.

I first moved to Houston when I was nineteen in the Sugarland area, the city was so vast I couldn’t contemplate ever knowing my way around it. There were few places I visited which were only the typical local restaurants, malls, and stores in my general area. It wasn’t until one summer afternoon my family and I had to go into the city to run some errands and we happened to come across The Chocolate Bar. Out of plain curiosity we stopped and we have been hooked ever since. Shortly after that I joined the Air Force, and left Houston for four years. During my four years away from home I would come home to visit my family here. The Chocolate Bar was a must stop visit for me at least once every visit. I was stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base right outside of Del Rio, TX a small border town in west Texas. There wasn’t anything comparable in that town to Houston. So with that, this was an awesome place I loved to visit when I came home to visit my family and friends. If offered something out of the norm that I wasn’t used to seeing back in Del Rio. It offered delicious sights and smells and above all a friendly place where everyone has a smile on. You are always greeted with a sweet smell of chocolate as you walk in along with a friendly hello or welcome from a staff member behind the counter covered in chocolate cover fruits and nuts. Walking in and taking a look around is my favorite part of the experience, it allows you to walk around and look at the many variety of chocolate moldings. There are chocolate pizzas to dog treats, and bells to dollar bills. Then I like to make it over to the ice cream area where they have roughly twenty flavors, all with a chocolate theme to it. When you sit down with your dessert of choice after debating over and over what flavor of this or that should I get, you get a feeling of warmth and excitement as if you were a little kid again trying a delicious desert for the first time.

My most memorable experience there was for my twenty third birthday back in February. I went there after enjoying a nice dinner with my family and close friends. It was the first time that I was going to trying one of their amazing chocolate cakes. They have many different styles of cake and all have their own names to them. I got a huge slice of Aunt Etta’s which is four layers of extremely moist dark chocolate cake with toffee and bittersweet chocolate bits between each layer. This slice of heaven will cost you around $10, not exactly cheap, but worth it. They’re also conscious of the diabetic population offering the best sugar free chocolate treats in town. It was a dark evening which usually means there’s some playing soft live music. One side of the shop actually does sort of resemble a bar. In fact, on Tuesday evenings, you can enjoy listening to a live band while indulging in your favorite chocolate treat.

A creative man by the name of Gilbert Johnson had a childhood passion for making chocolate. He dreamed of a shop serving all ages with smiles and sweet treats, where chocolate could become a complete entertainment experience. To make his dream reality, Gilbert enlisted Eric Shamban and Tino Ramirez as founding fathers and on October 10, 2000, The Chocolate Bar was born. Today, Gilbert’s dream is thriving in two locations thanks to loyal customers and exceptional service from enthusiastic and friendly employees.

One of my favorite times to go is when I have my six year old niece Isabella with me, it’s nice to see her young eyes open when we walk into the store and have her ask me “ Uncle Mark, can I have anything I want?” With such excitement in her voice it only leaves me with one answer every time, “Yes of course!” We always end up choosing their ice cream which again has any flavor to please any chocolate lovers taste. My dessert of choice I a rich chocolate ice cream with nuts and small pieces of brownies. Although on the prices side this place is truly worth every penny of it. So if you’re looking for a nice atmosphere, good people, and conversation, and above all a delicious variety of dessert then The Chocolate Bar is the place for you

MAP

LINKS
The Chocolate Bar
Houston Dining/Desserts
Montrose

Author Bio

Mark Hurtado is a first year student at the University of Houston Downtown, who is thinking of majoring in Political Science. He grew up in Corpus Christi, TX where he graduated from Richard King High School in 2005. After high school he went on to serve in the United States Air Force for four years, at Laughlin AFB, TX.

Sneaker Head Heaven by James Jones

2416 Times Blvd.
Houston, TX 77005
713-523-8825

November 2010 – From the moment you walk into Premium Goods you hear a cool, smooth beat that immediately grabs your attention like a dark skinned Ethiopian walking down the street, in a lime green polo, in the middle of winter. Most people have never heard of Premium Goods, but after one trip to this snazzy, and perfectly located boutique, I promise you’ll never forget it. Premium Goods cut out the middle man and brought the shoes straight to you, to Houston. They also are exclusive to Houston because they were actually the first sneaker boutique in the state of TEXAS! This without, a doubt explains why this store is in a class of its own when it comes to Houston fashion.

Premium Goods was the first sneaker boutique in the state of Texas! Originally in New York, the owner Jennifer Ford decided that it was time for Premium to expand. She felt that Houston was a dry market and that this would be the perfect place to come and start building her empire. Also with her being originally from Houston she wanted to move back home to be closer to her family and loved ones.

Walk to the middle of the store, and notice a white art covered wall to your left alined with two racks of some of the hottest style jeans, t-shirts, and jackets in Houston. If you turn back straight ahead you would see a medium sized round table with an assortment of different shoes, mostly, for $60 in a perfect circle. Behind the register is a red-orange colored wall filled with many different snapbacks and fitted hats neatly placed on the shelves in horizontal lines from top to bottom. Turn around behind you and it’ll be another round table with lots of different women shoes to choose from. Behind that would be the glass front of the store lined with big metal tubs that would usually be used for holding ice and cold sodas at a family cook out filled with $10 t-shirts. Last but not least if you turn your attention to the right you will see what makes this boutique the best shoe store in Houston, the best of them all, the mother of all mothers, why it’s the teacher and all the rest of the stores are just taking notes, the shoe display wall. This display wall isn’t just any ordinary display wall. It’s a long white art covered wall that goes from a few steps onto the dark gray hardwood floor of the store to the cash register on the other end of the store. Along the wall there are six black rows that the hottest and most exclusive shoes sit on which has a white light glowing from it like the shoe’s sitting on it came straight from heaven. The two most exclusive shoes to ever come into premium goods so far were the Premium Goods X nike Zoom Kobe 1’s. There were only 24 pairs of these shoes made in the world. They also had the Nike Air Yeezy’s. These were not as limited as the Kobe shoes but there were only 1,000 made world wide. As you look at all the amazing shoes it’s as if the shoe’s tong is calling out to you, “Pick me, Pick Me!” And the smell!! How could anyone resist the smell of a fresh new pair of shoes! It should be bottled and made a cologne.

If the sneakers on the shelves and tables are not enough to blow you away, the pearly white smile and sweet voice of the shop’s owner, Ms. Jennifer Ford, would do the job with a sweet, loud, and heartfelt “Welcome To Premium!!”. There are only a few people working at Premium because it doesn’t really require that much work. The two guys who work there are only around 23 and 24, but their knowledge of shoes go way beyond their years on this earth. They also have great customer service and welcoming vibes that will have you ready to come back and just hang out with them.

If you ever find your self lounging around the store for a long period of time its no telling who you’ll run into or what you’ll see. There are many different types of people that find their way into the store. Some of customers have included rapper Bun B., Drake, Loupe Fiasco, The Cool Kids, and many others. Just like any other business, there are also the “regular customers”. While I was at premium taking notes in walked Joe. Joe was a perfect example of a regular customer. He was greeted just like you would greet one of your friends if you saw them after class in the hallway. He also was in sync and on a name to name basis with the staff. After he spoke to everyone in the store he then began looking at t- shirts and later bought two shirts, two pair of shoes, hugged Jennifer, shook hands withe the guys and made his way out of the shop. (The staff still can’t seem to remember my name but they know my face!) After the “regulars” you have the “window shoppers”. I was once in the shop looking to buy a new pair of shoes when a family came in, looked around, and left without buying anything. They were the perfect example of window shoppers, people that just come in to see what all the hype is about and usually don’t buy anything. But with every up there is a down, and that down is called “shoplifters”. to help cut down on this problem Premium has installed brand new digital security cameras to catch the shoplifters red handed in high definition.

I have been to Premium on many occasions. My first time going to the store I ended up buying this really cool Nixon watch. At this point it was obvious that I was going to be spending a lot of my time and money in this store. Since then I have gotten most of my Jordan’s, Nike’s, and Supra’s from their boutique because they have a great variety of many different things to choose from. I’ve also brought lots of shirts and hats from them.

The Rice Village is the perfect home for Premium Goods. I couldn’t imagine another place that matches it better in Houston. When you are in the village you get a nice cool urban vibe. The tight streets and reconstructive surgery the city is giving this part of Kirby’s face can be a hassle because of all the traffic, but once your settled then its all worth the wait. Even though the roads are tough and ruff it seems like it seems like everyone in the village drives some kind of luxury car like Range Rovers, BMW’s, Mercedes, Audi’s, Volkswagens, and others of that sort. But while the people that drive them are big spenders you might see them dressed in a nice pair of comfortable, lounging around the house style jeans and t-shirt. Other shopping that I like to do in the village other then at premium is at, Urban Outfitters, Gap, and a few other stores. All though Premium is perfectly located in the rice village it can be somewhat difficult to find because of the well uniformed look of the strip of boutiques its in. They are all black boutique style signs with white writing that make them stand out like a person wearing all white at a funeral. Rice Village isn’t just limited to shopping, It has lots of nice restaurants specializing in food from all over the world. It has three French restaurants, two Japanese, two Makati, two Chinese, two Italian, a Mexican, two Spanish, a Mediterranean, a Vietnamese, an Indian, and three Thai restaurants.

After all the things to factor into the equation like location, quality, and the store its self, Premium Goods is the best sneaker boutique in Texas and is a Sneaker Heads Heaven.

Map:

LINKS

The Tipping Point

Sucker Punch Clothing

Kickz

Author’s Bio:

There are a lot of freshman that attend the University of Houston Downtown. One that I like the most is James Jones. James is a cool funny guy who likes to shop and have a good time. He was born and raised in Missouri City but attended and graduated from Lamar High School(the one down the street from the galleria). James is attending University of Houston Downtown for marketing and hopes to become a successful marketer later in life.

Serenity Now!: la Madeleine by Travis Eppolito

Rice Village
6205 Kirby and University Blvd
Houston, Texas 77005
(713) 942-7081

January 2004–Piano and orchestra combined lightly in the background giving the bakery a sense of homestyle and warmth. Perhaps a symphony by Mahler or Mozart, ever so complicated was its sound. It was especially pleasant to hear the French horns surf the top of the growing somber of instruments beneath it. Then quite eloquently taken over by a virtuosic piano aria. Designed akin to an old French home with soft lighting and an overall pleasant atmosphere, La Madeleine stands indefinitely at the corner of Richmond and Kirby in the Rice Village.

With the growing discontent in the world our forefathers grew so fond of, a break in the chaos might seem a little far-fetched. But in fact, if one looks hard enough for anything, one will find the aching desire which has been burning inside. La Madeleine is the quenching water to that ferocious fire. Save the fact that the restaurant is a growing chain, this one is not as unique as its made up to be.

Nonetheless, I stepped through the simple single glass door, and am always amazed to be taunted by an immense array of French pastries, a countless assortment of cookies and cakes wallowing in my midst. Stepping toward the solid glass casing, I noticed a sign reading ‘prepared fresh daily.’ Already I wanted to skip the meal and go straight to dessert. But that would be far too unfair for I would miss the heaven in between. As I trudged further, a smiling figure welcomed me before inquiring about my order. Of course, all who know me are aware that I favor the esteemed turkey-croissant sandwich. As I spoke, he gaily wrote it down on his photo copied menu and circled this and that, then handed the order to one of the employees who began to carefully prepare my sandwich. I, however, was not inclined to wait but instead was given a wooden block with a letter engraved on the top from which the designated person would later find me and deliver my request. So I continued along the buffet type path where you simultaneously order and receive what you ordered.

In front of me and behind the counter, strung from the ceiling were various descriptions of the concoctions of prepared foods and rare wines. To my back, tables stood on all fours with padded wooden chairs underneath. I noticed unusual half rooms with entries and exits leading into different dining areas. It was like a house skewed in half, then pasted to a buffet. From where I stood, it felt like I was watching a play with visuals of the staged rooms of an old house, where one could sit and watch the mystery unfold, seeing the irony of two different peoples acting peculiarly in their private rooms.

Around the outskirts of one the quarters, there are windows streaming along the wall peering into the great unknown. This portion of the bakery is engulfed with unadulterated sunlight, flooding everything it can reach, portraying a texture of depth and warmth.

At the end of my brief transit, I was hailed by the clerk and charged about $11. From whence, I picked up my tray and walked further into the vast depths of ‘French dining.’

I gasped as I stood in awe at the hodgepodge of bread, butter, and marmalade. French bread being my ‘fae,’ I without delay delicately took my fair share of warm sliced sourdough bread, along with chilled strawberry jam and cold squares of butter. Finally, after filling up my soft drink, I turned about and carefully eyed the room searching for an empty seat.

I hastily chose a chair by the windows, and positioned my croissant sandwich, éclair, Coke, and bread and butter on top the wooden table and took a seat in the whicker chair. Around me, people chattered uncaringly and aimlessly to each other about their various lives and ate their contented meals jubilantly. But to my surprise, not everyone came to eat. A few tables up, a man and woman talked back and forth seemingly quizzing each other about training. They were both what seemed to be in some sort of medical sales. To my left a man ate alone but his manner took him to be pleased about it. With a content smirk on his face, he happily ate his sandwich and drank his coffee.

Now as I came to rest in my chair, I prepared myself for a lunch unequal to its contemporaries. First things first, as at any French restaurant, the bread is to be eaten at the very onset. So, I applied the butter a top the bread spreading it thinly across the surface. Following the butter I threw on a dash of strawberry jam. You see the object is not to eat bread with butter and jam, but to start with just a taste in a bite, then to ravish your hunger. Unlike a starving wolf victimizes any warm-blooded animal.

I continued my drive by skillfully picking up my turkey-croissant sandwich not letting anything fall out and placing a bite in my mouth. A combination forewarned by its predecessors, I immediately became envious of all who had tasted my sandwich in the past. How dare they ascribe to such splendor and beauty! Not from America could this recipe of greatness been imagined. But from across the Atlantic, west of the giant boot. Where hired master chefs boisterously create masterpieces with their intuitive skills. I sipped my chilled Coke to wash the sandwich down creating a cool sensation streaming from my throat to my stomach adding to the overall spectacle.

Next, I tried one of my potato chips. Not thinking much of them, I tossed one in my mouth. To my surprise, they were resplendently unique, not the greasy kind found in supermarkets. They tasted as if they were individually molded then baked separately like cookies, holding tight each ones own value. It was sort of a cheddar taste combined with the natural crunch. Back and forth I battled among my Coke, chips, and sandwich, unceasingly transitioning between them. When I was through, I left a few remains on the plate, (a crumb here and there), then faced the final and most phenomenal element of my banquet, the dessert.

The éclair was no simple thing. It was hand crafted by the pastry chef himself that morning; I was certainly in for a delight. With two hands I lifted it gracefully, inching it flush with my lips before I took a nibble of heaven itself. The chocolate filling burst into my mouth transcending me into space and out of all time and thought. At a snail’s pace, I steadily savored every little peace. I came out of my dream like trance dazed and speechless. No word in any language’s dictionary could truly describe what this tasted like.

‘Boom!’ A glass plate hit the ceramic floor in the distance shattering pieces of it everywhere. An eerie silence filled the room followed at once by claps and whistles. That was a shock, but nothing out of the ordinary, nothing the people of earth could not handle. Nobody seemed to really care. The new girl who had done it just blushed and stepped back, disappearing behind the swinging butlers’ door.

Pulling myself together, I had to know what others thought of this unique place.

At the end of the day, after I went home, I asked my brother Tony, “Why do you like it at la Madeleine?”

He stopped working in his tranquility and turned to give me a surprised look. Probably wondering why I was bothering him. Unenthusiastically he responded, “I like it. It’s different. I love their dessert.”

After I had finished what was left of my meal (coke and crumbs), I sat for a while gazing outside and into the distance revering myself. Everything around me in the restaurant felt like it was moving in slow motion. It was a strange yet calming sensation which I appreciated very much. I was not so inclined, but the time hindered me to gather myself and go.

As I hesitantly stood up to leave, I was immediately struck with a sense of

completeness. That meal ‘hit the spot,’ I had had my fill.

I exited the comfortable environment and went back out into the hectic world where everyone one is in a hurry to get somewhere else. I longed to turn back, but mechanically I made my way to my car.

I discovered La Madeleine through my mother, when I was just a wee lad. She took me here as kind of a special outing; I always looked forward to it. Unlike a Burger King or I-Hop, La Madeleine strikes me as a not so French restaurant striving to be French. And almost succeeding too, if not for the idiosyncrasies that have built up in my mind as being bad. But I shun those aside for the most part so I can enjoy myself.

The nonstop brutality of one’s intellect is relentlessly being undermined in today’s ‘working system.’ We are forced to make decision after decision at a

overwhelmingly fast pace. We become mystified as to where we will turn for help. La Madeleine takes you away from the hustle and bustle and brings your cares to a plain, conservative state. I came to la Madeleine not just to have a good meal, but also to savor the calming atmosphere and gain the sure grace of it.

Map

France _ Houston _ Master Chefs _ Music _ Philosophy

British Isles: Good Ole British Food by Nichola Hill

2366 Rice Village Boulevard
Houston, Texas 77005
713 522 6868

April 2004–Originally from England, I have been brought up around particular British foods. Shepherd’s pie, rice pudding, roast beef with beautiful brown gravy, and so sweet Cadbury chocolates. So it’s a hard thing to have to try and find new chocolate or food that I like. American food is very different from British food; spices for one are not used very much in England, but a huge additive in American cooking. White gravy is more traditional in Texas and southern states, while brown gravy is traditional in Britain . Successfully I managed to find a store here in Rice Village called the “ British Isles .” This was good for me because it reminds me of home and allows me to adjust to this new culture easier. At the store they have a wide variety of English foods and products, and most all my favorites. While the cost of importing can certainly be felt in the price, some things are just worth that little extra. Follow me and I will give you a tour of my secret ecstasy.

Nestled in the heart of Houston is a small community known as Rice village. Situated near the Galleria area, the village is like a large International marketplace. A sundry of shops decorate the streets and provide for a shopper’s paradise. The village is home to a multitude of different International and American stores, with goods ranging from dishes to food, and shoes to toys. The area, with its clean and polished exterior makes for a subtle yet special sight. This neighborhood is extraordinarily popular in its own way, merely because of its simple qualities, selection of merchandise, small cafes, and interesting bistros. Here is where you find my piece of heaven, the “ British Isles .”

Stepping inside the store is like walking through the transporter on Star Trek, finding myself teleported back to England . The feeling is overwhelming when you first step through the glass doors and see what is laid out before you. One half of the room is dedicated to their beautiful china and crystal, held on such delicate glass shelves that it’s tempting to touch. The fine china is decorated with pictures of the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, and Big Ben. Beautiful hand painted items, each with a reminder of a country that was my home. The other side of the store holds treats of chocolate and other foods with English lore. Chocolate is the gift of the gods, at least in my opinion. The smell of chocolate and cookies is unforgettably delightful. All my favorites, Smarties, like American M&M’s, Quality Streets, a collection of filled chocolates, and candy bars line the shelves. My favorite candy bar is called Bounty, it is like an American Mounds bar, just chocolate and coconut, and my other choice is Mars but not like the American version, this one has no nuts. I could go on and on about my most loved chocolates, but it is best to say that I never met a chocolate bar I didn’t like. So to whom do I owe this luxury of having a little of England right here in Houston, a man by the name of Guy Streatfeild.

Guy Streatfeild is the owner of “ British Isles ” and was born in Kent , England. Guy is a typical “Brit” with stoic features and perfect mannerisms. Originally, the store was called “British Market.” It was opened in 1971 by an Englishman named Robert Wells. Despite eighteen years of success, Robert decided to sell the store in 1989. In October 1993, Guy bought what was left of the “British Market” from Robert at a public auction. Guy said that when he started there wasn’t much there, and he basically had to start from scratch. He also said that he had no experience whatsoever with retail, and although he has a degree, it wasn’t in anything that would help with owning a store. “I was pretty brave to start something like this,” he exclaimed. He was lucky because Robert was nice enough to help teach him the necessities of running a store, although Guy said it was “very hard work.” Expressing his gratitude toward Robert, Guy told me that “having Robert telling me what to do helped a lot.” The store officially had its Grand Opening in November of 1993, which Guy said was the best time because it was close to Christmas and people were looking for that unique gift. It is also important to note that the “ British Isles ” is built in the same location that the old store was situated. With Robert’s help, and Guy’s perseverance, the “ British Isles ” was born.

As I said, this store is like a small piece of England in Houston with all of my favorite things surrounding me. I remember the first time that I stepped into the store; the sound of the chimes as I entered, the sight of the friendly cashier, and my senses becoming instantly aware of the aisles of chocolate. I felt that I had to look at everything and take it all in at once. Every time that I walk through the doors I feel like a 5 year old wanting everything I see, picking up candy as I go along and not realizing the massive amounts of chocolate in my arms. Being as I have grown up with British chocolate, I can taste the difference between it and the American brands. I am not sure if it is the cocoa, or the cream, but like 18k gold to 14k, there is a definite difference. I never truly believed that I would miss a certain chocolate bar or cookie but I guess that once you have grown accustom to something it’s extremely hard to give it up. Now I know that I sound like an addict, and to be honest I am, but you have to understand that this particular store is one hundred percent me.

They don’t just have chocolate as I said before, but surprisingly enough they even have the shampoo that I used to use and English newspapers which is always good to see what they say is going on and keep up with other things that don’t make the news here. It always seems to be a new experience when I go to the store because I find new things that I hadn’t seen before. Of course the owner has his favorite items as well. In the interview, he told me that he and his wife enjoy the tea, oats and curry powder, and quite a few other things for their sons also. The store isn’t just for English patrons, but for all consumers as it contains many tourist items with different English landmarks on them.

I have seen people buy sets of dishes and plates from British Isles simply because of the artistry of a traditional thatch cottage and for the reason that it was made in England . It is funny to hear other customers talk about the products, whether they are from Britain or not. One lady that I remember came in with her sons, and was the typical English person, speaking of crisps and sweets (chips and candy). Others I have seen in the store are looking to see what they can buy that is different, and looking for an adventure in something new. The store is filled with so many choices, and varieties that I didn’t even know England had so much to choose from.

To my surprise, while looking on the internet I came across the “ British Isles ” website. I thought that it was very informative and easy to use. On the homepage, the first thing that stands out is the pictures of traditional English teabags and teapots. There is also a little picture of some children’s books and an elegant looking glass. These are great choices for pictures to use on the homepage because it allows viewers to see the wide spectrum of products available. The links on the page are to specific areas of items. For convenience, they include American translations for the English language used, such as biscuits being cookies. Another thing that is very handy is the price list that is included on the site, and also the online ordering forms so that you can place your own special order. This makes “ British Isles ” more accessible to the consumers that don’t live in the area or have the time to come to the store themselves.

For me, I would have to say that there is something for everyone in this store. No matter whether you’re a chocoholic or a collector of fine china, looking for lavender toiletries, or greeting cards with pictures of English country-sides. Even though they offer this range of items their top sellers are mostly the food and candy. At Christmas they import everything that you could possibly want as gifts or decoration. In the interview with Guy he told me that the busiest times are during Easter and Christmas, and the rest of the year business remains fairly steady. Year round people come to British Isles for a multiplicity of reasons. The majorities of these consumers come from about a five to ten mile radius, and are generally British or Americans who know about Britain and Ireland. One lady whom I interviewed was Roslyn Shephard. She is originally from Scotland , and has been shopping with “ British Isles ” for about 4 years. She stated that the store wasn’t exactly convenient for her, but was “definitely worth it!” She said that her favorite purchases were “sausages, bacon, and crisps (chips).” Whether for home sicknesses or gifts the store provides needed supplies of British favors.

America has given me many new tastes and some unforgettable adventures. I’ve learned how to enjoy a little more spice in my food and found that American chocolate can be tolerable. However, the British store allows me the pleasure of having some home made treats, and a few memories of my home. The store has also allowed me to share some of my customs and favorite foods with friends here. So if you don’t have the opportunity to travel to England, perhaps you can take a trip to Rice Village and experience the British Isles , and step into my world for just a few minutes.

Chocolate

English Landmarks

England

Map:


Ornament and Crime on Sunset Boulevard by Steven Thomson

SDC10235Every Monday through Saturday morning at ten o’clock a white Mercedes-Benz pulls in to the same parking spot. Carolyn Brewer unlocks the door and steps inside a thirteen-hundred square-foot space crowded with icons of twentieth-century design: streamlined Barcelona chairs, LeCorbusier couches, organically rendered Noguchi tables, Bertie side chairs, and Eames lounges. Each piece costs a small fortune. Carolyn always greets her store’s visitors with a high and twangy, “Hey y’all.” This is the story of a woman from Texas, a store, and the Houston design community.

I first came in contact with Sunset Settings four years ago. Entering the store for the first time, I was so confused by the crowded and haphazard arrangement that I left under the assumption that I had mistakenly walked into a warehouse. It was not until last spring that my former design history professor, Dr. Luisa Orto, reacquainted me with the place. After the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston declined my summer internship application Dr. Orto suggested I contact Ms. Brewer about summer employment. Apparently, Ms. Brewer employed one graduate architecture student from Rice each summer, but Dr. Orto though she might make an exception and hire an undergraduate art history student from the University of Houston. Luisa had developed a rapport with Ms. Brewer by bringing her students on field trips to view the store’s extraordinary inventory. Luisa wrote an email on my behalf, and I soon found myself on a long distance call from my apartment in Barcelona, where I had been studying, to the small shop in West University Place. Although I grew up in Houston, I had been away for a year and I found Ms. Brewer’s accent jarring. We set up an appointment to “chat” when I returned at the end of May.

Carolyn is about five feet tall. She usually wears a gray Anne Klein skirt suit and clashing orthopedic Merrill shoes. This is her uniform. On occasion, a heavy black turtleneck would make an appearance in the summer heat. Each time she wears it, she discovers a new moth hole, admonishes herself for not realizing, and vows to get rid of the garment. Other than her height and clothing, her black Browline glasses stand out as a distinctive element of her style, an unconscious relic of the days of true midcentury modern. The lenses create an optical illusion. They make her eyes seem rounded and larger. Combined with tightly cropped hair that gives the suggestion of a onetime wavy mane, Carolyn appears catlike. Her eyebrows are clearly groomed, yet, perhaps with age, they naturally curved upwards in the middle. The way they cut at that vertex creates an expression of animosity that belies her innate benevolence.

She looked up at me through those black Browlines when I entered the store. My interview lasted for an hour. She devoted the majority of that time describing the story of her own experience in Seville, Spain – or as she called it, Suvilll. I was once again taken aback and then charmed by her distinct drawl as she described one curiously banal anecdote after another. I remember her telling me that someone had accidentally ordered a pork dish when they really wanted steak. They should have studied Spanish before traveling to Spain she said. The story story seemed to have no significance. Carolyn mentioned it several more times throughout summer at Sunset Settings, as though she had never told it before.

As the summer progressed I learned more about Carolyn. I learned that her family was originally from Fort Worth and that when she decided to study architecture her father told her she could attend Rice University and nowhere else. She told me that she was the only woman in her graduating class in the School of Architecture. She told me that she was never taken seriously in school,. Later she was forced to be content working in interior architecture at her husband’s firm. She raised a son and daughter, moving from one house to another and even trying life in a high rise, but without ever leaving the Southampton neighborhood. A home that she had lived in on Autrey Street on the fringe of Boulevard Oaks had been sold to a developer in the late nineteen seventies. It was demolished, and a series of five townhomes were build on the site, one of which I had moved into earlier that summer.

In 1997, not having been employed for several years, Carolyn felt the urge to go back to work, but no longer as an architect. For some time, while walking her dog she would pass a vacant space on the 1700 block of Sunset Boulevard. She decided to indulge in her longtime desire to open a design store. Beforehand, Houston had the design atelier Evans Monocle on Kirby, presently taken over by the new West Ave. development. Evans Monocle had been closed for over five years, so for advice, she met with the architect owners, Jack Evans and Bruce Monocle. Her decision to specialize in modern design was well timed. Furniture companies were beginning to realize the potential of selling quality design outside of the corporate realm. Carolyn began her store based around products from Hermann Miller for the Home, Cassina, and Knoll Residential. Initially, she also offered a mix of antiques and antique silver she harvested in Virginia and New York, respectively. Almost none of these antiques found buyers, and the majority are still hidden away like relics in the storeroom. The original building was eventually torn down to be replaced by “those four-story stucco townhomes,” so the store was moved to its present building on the outskirts of West University, only a hundred feet from Kirby Drive. The structure is a nondescript one floor shop-front, like the architecture depicted in an Ed Ruscha photograph of Los Angeles. She gutted the building and painted everything stark white.

Carolyn doesn’t train new employees, so I determined my own morning routine. Before anything else, I would dash to the thermostat and turn it back from “OFF” to Carolyn’s preferred temperature of 80 degrees. Then I would take a petite sign with the store’s name on it and stick its metal prongs into the soil for the passing Navigators and BMW’s to see. After placing some tables and chairs out on the sidewalk between the parking lot and the store I made my rounds, turning on various floor lamps, whose light could barely be seen due to the glaring sunlight coming through the south facing shop windows. I then stationed myself behind the counter at the back of the store. Usually, I wouldn’t move from there for the rest of the day. For company, I had Janice, the 50-year-old shop-girl, and Ace. Ace was a mammoth black lab that she referred to as a puppy. He was obedient and usually content to spend all day in a cage beside the cash register. The few times that he escaped he charged after me to play like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

It was during my hours behind the counter that I would contemplate the contrasting conglomeration of furnishings and the purity of the exposed white insulation coating the ceiling. My eyes would wander between my favorite and most-despised pieces, the sun-baked parking lot, and a Michael Graves clock that I had secretly set a few minutes ahead of the actual time. I usually spent hours shuffling around trying to appear busy. Sometimes I would clean a desk drawer only to find un-cashed checks from years before. If I was particularly hung-over on a Saturday morning, I would pretend to organize the stockroom while taking a nap behind large stacks of crated Knoll furniture.

It was unusual for anyone to enter the store for the first one or two hours, and serious design professional could drop in. A number of days passed with no customers even entering the building. On occasion, there would be a young couple waiting for us to arrive on a Saturday morning, their hands cupped over their eyes against the window as they peered in to get an idea of what was in the store. They would usually leave within ten moments of hearing the astronomical prices. As they left you could usually hear them talking about settling for the sofa at Ethan Allen or West Elm. Tuition at The House at Pooh Corner is on the rise. Who even knows what this year’s bonus will be like at Baker and Botts.

Interior designers, architects and academics were the main clientele. The designers were always women – from the French-born Anne Breaux who only bought LeCorbusier pieces, all the way down to “Debbie Decorators” who possessed no real degree but are the anointed tastemakers in their group of gal pals. Debbies don’t get the 20 percent designers’ discount.

There was never an architect that visited with whom Carolyn was not already a friend. Sometimes they would visit to catch up with Carolyn, but usually they came to snatch up a piece of exquisite design candy. The more effusive architects would let us know that they had been saving up for the piece that they were buying for over a year, although they had been pining for it their entire lifetime. It seemed as though each architect was born to own an identical catalog of designer furniture. The design professors shared similar ambitions if not means; although one University of Houston architectural historian stood out when he ordered custom Eames office paraphernalia to preemptively replace his son’s furniture in his freshman dorm at Rice.

After having been at the store for some time, I learned of Carolyn’s marriage to the late Benjamin Brewer. Ben received degrees from Rice and Princeton and left a significant mark on the local skyline. He served as principal at the firm 3DI, riding the wave of oil money in the 1960s and 70s. His influence can be seen in the design of Gerald Hines’ Galleria, Lloyd Jones’ Allen Center, and Kenneth Schnitzer’s Greenway Plaza. In 1989, he served as the president of the American Institute of Architects. Ben swept Carolyn off to exotic destinations such as Cairo, Riyadh, and Tokyo. Sunset Settings’ most loyal customers were originally Ben Brewer’s colleagues.

Unexpected characters would surface as well. There was the woman buying Barcelona chairs for the servants quarters of her Lazy Lane manse, and the young woman who, without making eye contact, instructed me to, “Hold this,” referring to her baby. She wanted to get a better feel for an Alessi cocktail shaker. There was a lawyer turned first grade teacher who told me that she was redecorating her flat at the Huntingdon in the style of “the Seventh,” the regal look of Paris’s Seventh Arrondissement. It was a test. I passed.

These were merely incidents; there were also mainstays. I would say that the most memorable was a woman named Chrysantha. She could be summarized with the word “manic,” but her quirks belie simple description. Chrysantha was neither a designer nor an architect, but the lay-person wife to a Schlumberger magnate. I don’t mean to paint a picture of a gold-digging simpleton. She was no blonde West University mom with “tennis ball arms.” She knew the design canon better than the staff. She had some sort of Ukrainian ancestry and always spoke with a vaguely New York accent. She would arrive every Saturday afternoon at 4:55 p.m., seemingly unaware of the store’s scheduled hours. Her outfits usually involved some sort of unitard, partially covered by a metallic or animal-print skirt, complimented by chunky gold bangles and fried brown hair. She would always reference a new bag or pair of shoes just so she could tell me what a good deal she managed at Marshall’s or Ross. She would explain to me, “Steven, let me tellll you something, and that is that I live verrry frugally.” I agreed and tried not to focus on the neon green piece of gum bouncing around her mouth or the delayed grooming of her underarms that was visible when she would toss her hair. Her conversations had great range, and were always characterized by a deep passion regardless of their topic. There was the saga of her custom running shoes getting lost in the mail. “I promise you I’m not an indulgent person at all, it’s this damn knee!”, tales of her son’s torturous time at medical school in New Haven (subtle!), or the rats in the neighbor’s tool shed, whose scampering keeps her up at night. “They are killing me, they are killing me, they are killing me!” At one point she phoned about an item she wanted to order that she had found in a 1985 Vitra catalog. “I keep everything! You nevvver know, I am telling you because you are young and you don’t know yet.” She had been a loyal customer for so many years but I shivered at the thought of her discordant decorating.

Chrysantha would stay and confide in me until well past the store’s closing, but her husband would appear when she had a big purchase in mind. The “soft-spoken type,” he was not necessarily walked-upon but certainly weathered. Chrysantha would study a particular piece for a few weeks. She would introduce it to her husband as though it was a dog at the kennel in need of a home. They would have a quiet discussion on the side with Carolyn. Sometimes a check would be written, but usually it took lmore than one visit to seal the deal.

Near the end of the summer, Chrysantha decided she had to have Wettstein’s Mir table for Cassina – a solid piece with slick lines, a warm oak stain, and a price well over twenty thousand dollars. For weeks she visited with aims of making that table hers, but negotiations went nowhere. She had already sold her Volvo to support her habit. Now she had to rely on those custom running shoes to get around. When my time ended at Sunset Settings, the table was still on the floor. I returned around Christmas only to learn that a Saudi couple had purchased it. Chrysantha stopped her weekly visits after the sale, viewing it as betrayal. No one at the store has heard from her since.

Another customer of note was Robert Durst. The man comes with some baggage: son of New York real estate mogul Seymour Durst, witness to his mother’s suicide jump from the family’s Scarsdale mansion when he was seven years old, and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. His past is also marred with vagaries: the disappearance of wife Katherine McCormack in 1982 and the murder of close friend and mafia daughter Susan Berman in 2000 – both of which Durst was questioned about but never charged for. An arrest did occur in Galveston after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in the bay, but he was released on bail. After missing his court hearing, he became the nation’s first billionaire fugitive. He was eventually caught in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania after trying to steal a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid , even though he had five hundred dollars in his pocket. Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin made sure that Durst was acquitted of murder in 2003. After that he moved in to the Robinhood residential tower just down Kirby Drive from Sunset Settings.

It was a regular day when an unremarkable 60-something man entered the store, quietly perusing the furniture like any other customer. He eventually ordered a set of Philipe Starck’s “Ghost Chairs,” iconic for its polycarbonate reinterpretation of a Baroque archetype. He wanted the chairs for his balcony in the Robinhood tower, which happened to be a few units away from where my sister lived. It wasn’t until his American Express card was scanned that we knew who he was. None of the employees wanted to have anything to do with him so when the chairs arrived Carolyn had to deliver them. Durst refused the chairs, insisted that he had never made a purchase, and asked for Carolyn to leave. She left the chairs,. He later faxed the store requesting his money back. In its twelve years of existence, this was the only instance of Carolyn allowing a full refund. Later on, she relayed the news coverage of Durst’s arrest in Galveston to Janice and me, and how he was found in his home dressed in woman’s clothing. Then she stopped herself, snapped her head in my direction and said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

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Customers such as these and the tedium of six-day work weeks could very well take its toll on a business owner, but Carolyn is fortunate enough to own a vacation retreat. In the late 1980s, Ben was on vacation at a colleague’s home in the Thousand Islands, when he woke up one morning and spotted a “for sale” sign on a neighboring island. He promptly bought the place It came with a complimentary riverside boulder. Carolyn, her granddaughters, and Ace, and times her suitemates from college, will fly up to Syracuse and make the trek to the tiny Sears kit home on the island. There, she spends her days picking berries and lounging with a Johnny Walker, “neat”, but she’s is always close to her cell phone so she can confirm that yes Knoll will use a customer’s own hypoallergenic microsuede, or, no Chrysantha cannot have a further discount on the Gaetano Pesce buffet. I applaud her for so fully enjoying her husband’s bequest in his absence.

Mortality remained a common theme throughout my summer. My coworker Janice told about her deceased family members, all of whom are buried on the Jersey Shore and we whispered about Carolyn’s late husband in hushed voices. All the while looming above us was the specter of being found murdered in the stockroom, slumped in a returned Ghost Chair. My term at the store ended a day earlier than scheduled when I received a phone call informing me of my own grandfather’s death. I explained the circumstances to Carolyn as she ate her lunch of five in-the-shell peanuts, and asked to leave early. She told me that she had seen many people she cared for pass away and that all one could do was grieve. She then hugged me – the only instance I can recall of her even accidentally touching anyone.

The visits I have made since the end of my internship at Sunset Settings have offered few surprises. There has been almost no variation in inventory over the years. Other design outlets have appeared since Carolyn began; Kuhl-Linscomb and Design Within Reach feature many of the same iconic pieces. Moreover, the arrival of edgy European boutiques like Roche Bobois and Ligne Roset may pose a threat. Nevertheless, business at Sunset Settings remains stable, which Carolyn attributes to the store’s connections within the design community and the personalized service. Carolyn met with a developer about opening a second space on Washington Avenue. She decided against it, not wanting to “change the nature of a business.” Despite the once-revolutionary designs she features, Carolyn sells the sort of products that defined a period of cultural conservatism in America. “I would never say never,” says Carolyn in her Texas twang regarding a potential expansion, “but I have never been one for fundamental changes to begin with.”