This is Tribal Grounds

Houston’s longtime Tribal Grounds store offers exotic goods from around the world

By CRAIG HLAVATY

The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — A Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” sticker adorns the front window.

The Houston Chronicle reports tie-dyed shirts and dresses sway in the wind outside. The smell of incense can be detected before you get out of your car.

This is Tribal Grounds.

Donald Bingham has been slinging exotic goods from his store on Montrose longer than some of his regular customers have been alive. In other words, it’s been a bastion of incense and hippiedom in Houston for quite a while. But as the neighborhood has evolved around it, Bingham’s outpost has largely stayed the same, wherever it was.

“It actually kind of fell into my lap,” Bingham says of his ownership of the store. “I was working for the original owner, and he got in some trouble and went to jail.” He soon found himself holding the shop owners’ inventory and a few thousand dollars. He had everything switched over to his name soon after and the shop was his.

He’s made various stops along West Gray, at West Alabama and Graustark, and off Fairview and Dunlavy.

“I started on West Gray in a little 10-by-10 room that faced the street next to the multiservices center, and rent was $50 a week,” he says. “Then I moved to the West Alabama location, thinking that being by the Menil would be good.”

Tribal Grounds was there for 10 years until altercations with the landlord about repairs led to another move back into Montrose proper for a decade. He took a brief detour to San Marcos, but the store didn’t find a following, so he came back to Montrose in 2013.

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, himself a collector of the strange and unusual, used to come by and scope out the shop for African art.

“My clientele seems to be mostly ladies 16 to 60 years old,” Bingham says. “But I do have a fair share of male collectors who come by here and there.”

His inventory is brought in from dealers in vans, with about 30 percent coming from a Kansas City connection that makes trips through Thailand and Guatemala. It’s a partnership going on 25 years.

“I actually go to Nepal and India myself on buying trips and have friends in both places who send me stuff,” he says. “Everything but the big tapestries and common stuff, like incense burners and things I need monthly, are ordered from one store in San Francisco. Everything else is hand-picked around the world.”

Bingham makes the tie-dyed items himself at home.

“Since about 2010, a lot of people are wanting spiritual items, Hindu and Buddhist things,” he says. “The biggest problem now is no one has any money to buy them.”

Tribal Grounds has always been a place for seekers, he says.

“Right now, people are unsure of what might happen so they are seeking knowledge of trying to improve themselves,” Bingham says. Spiritual comfort is a common theme.

Are customers searching for meaning more than usual?

“I think people are confused and wondering how they are gonna make ends meet,” he says. “They seek out comfort from good luck charms and idols, or maybe even change their religion.”

Most people, he clarifies, are on a constant search for meaning, even in a Montrose that is undergoing a suburban rebranding of sorts.

“People are anxious and afraid right now at how things are gonna work out, and a lot of it has to do with [the] economy,” he says.

One of his regular customers is Kim Clarady, a Houstonian who has been shopping with Bingham since 1994, when she was a high school girl driving into the big city from Baytown.

“Some of my most treasured items were bought at Tribal, and everyone I’ve sent their way has become a fan of the shop,” Clarady says. “I always feel welcome there, despite often visiting with my child, and she is invited to touch and learn about the items and where they came from.”

She says it hit her a few weeks back just how much Bingham and the shop have meant to her. His smallest gestures have had the biggest impact on her. To her, Bingham is that place as much as everything else in the store is.

Clarady says that the last time she came by the shop, she told Bingham that the energy in her new home was off. He gave her a strand of Tibetan sage to burn in an effort to perform a spiritual reset.

“How Zen,” Clarady says. “How Don.”