For the next four days, "shop til you drop" will be the mantra of thousands of eager purchasers who pour through the turnstiles at Reliant Center for the annual Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market. And with more than 300 merchants offering oh-so-tempting goodies, the acres of shopping space can be mind-boggling. CultureMap to the rescue with 10 not-to-be-missed shopping opportunities.
The numbered aisles at Reliant are clearly marked and each booth is numbered, making it easier to locate a specific vendor.
The Treasured Accessory, Booth 15
Don't miss this gem of a jewelry boutique offering what they call "fabulous of the moment jewelry from LA." Great prices on beautifully crafted jewelry, some convincing knock-offs of pricier lines. Dazzling bangles from $38, irresistible necklaces from $89, ring guards and faux diamond earrings that could fool the queen.
This booth is not in the mainstream flow of market traffic but well worth the effort to work your way to the edge of the market to find.
Donne Di Domani, Booth 918
Who doesn't know about this amazing homemade marinara sauce that has shoppers lining up in droves to pick up their jars of original, mild or spicy? What you might not know about this year is that the ladies have made an extra 120 cases, hoping that the supply will last through Saturday morning. Typically, they are sold out by Friday night.
While the volunteer crew that whips up the tangy sauce for charity won't reveal how many jars they prepare, they will say that they cook up "thousands and thousands." Since they first started 25 or so years ago, the women of Italian heritage have raised $2 million for charity. That's a lot of spaghetti sauce at $10 a jar.
Houston Ballet Ornament Barré, Booth 108
From cowboy boots to Texas flags, golf balls to nutcrackers, the ballet's booth is a treasure trove of sparkling and inexpensive ornaments. In fact, the priciest offering at $75 is the Nutcracker set with four characters including Clara and a playful rat. But stick with the smaller ornaments and the cost is only $6.
The bonus here is that because Houston Ballet is a non-profit, no sales tax.
The Round Top Collection, Booth 900
Who can resist the country flavor of the decorative metal accessories the run that gamut from cowboy boots filled with holiday greenery and ornaments to mini-sleighs that make the prefect centerpiece. Miniature fir trees, ornaments, jingle bells — if it is a holiday theme, Round Top has interpreted it in an appealing metal design, beautifully painted and embellished.
Robin Clayton Designs Interntational, Booth 109
While the booth is filled with women's apparel, we find the most interesting things here are the whimsical Mary Frances handbags. One that particularly caught our eye was the jeweled champagne bottle-in-ice bucket bag. The perfect accessory for a serious party girl. Clayton has only two, priced at $298.
The bags, each embellished with sparklies, range from $198 to $298. Take you pick from floral models to those featuring a dog, a cat or even a horse. Great, playful gifts for the gal who has just about everything.
Viva Rouge, Booth 1542
If you've had trouble finding the signature looks of MacKenzie-Childs, this is the place for everything from home accessories to the signature checked Wellington style boots. But the real find here is the giant moose head in silver that presides over the playful offerings.
Each year, Viva Rouge comes up with a giant animal head (cast from resin and shaped with Styrofoam) presented in some whimsical form. This year, it's the moose, priced at $3,200 and believe it or not each year the animal head sells whether its a longhorn steer decorated UT style or a checked heifer.
Simply Sassy, Booth 350
Owner Marsha Leigh used to run Simply Sassy as a store in her native Oklahoma but she had such success selling her off-beat, whimsical clothing at markets that she shuttered the shop and now sells only on the road. Her clothing is so popular that by the close of the Nutcracker Market, her racks are running practically bare. (Don't even think about asking for a Sunday afternoon discount.)
Embroidered tops, flowing sweaters, colorful jackets all reasonably priced keep this booth packed with shoppers. As Leigh says of her clothing, "It's all about getting the sassy on."
Cherry Republic, Booth 1173
"Michigan is the sour cherry capitol of the world," says the young man as he offers a sample of dark chocolate-covered dried cherries. Indeed, this company has divined every possible use for those fruits offering what seems like a zillion sour cherry-infused products. And they are so delicious that by the end of the market, you can expect their display shelves to be emptied.
We swooned over the cherry pecan butter and loved the unusual peach/cherry salsa and were intrigued by the cherry green salsa, the cherry barbecue sauce and cherry peanut butter. And that is just scratching the surface of the products that might seem somewhat foreign here in Texas.
Paul Michael Co., Booth 924
Houston Ballet's Patsy Chapman describes this enormous shopping area as offering "the world's best home decor." If you are familiar with the Nutcracker Market, you know that this is the place to find every kind of wreath, garland and holiday decorative item imaginable. You just can't do this market without a stroll through these wondrous aisles of dazzling holiday decorations.
Decorative accessories and gifts range from the acrylic pineapple ornament topped with faux mistletoe for $14.95 to miles of ornament-enhanced garland priced by the foot.
Houston Ballet Nutcracker Boutique, Booth 907
Since its inception 32 years ago, the Nutcracker Market has been selling decorative nutcrackers from around the world. Each year, they incorporate a new character into the cast of playful nutcrackers. Almost as entertaining as the nutcrackers are the Houston Ballet Guild members who work the booth, some of them have been on board since that first market three decades ago.