THE THRIFTERS

ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL-BOTTOM TOLLS. IT TOLLS FOR THEE.

Ronnie Crawford and Russell Enloe are making their semi-annual trip to see Vic. Although their quest for cool old stuff continues every day of the year, taking them to thrift shops, basements and attics all over town, a visit to Vic's department store in southern Colorado is more of a pilgrimage. It also qualifies as a real road trip, so Ronnie has laid in some picnic supplies: black coffee and three handfuls of bubble gum. Russell is ready with the type of respectful small talk that enables eccentric old men to part with their cool old stuff. And both have plenty of crisp new bills in all denominations.

"But the first time I went," Russell says, "old Vic wouldn't let me in. Did that happen to you?"

"No," says Ronnie, "But you're funny-lookin', boy."
Not exactly. Russell, in mint 1950s faded Levi's and a light-blue gabardine shirt, appears to have just stepped off the set of Giant, as befits a Denver vintage-clothing baron. When he talks, his jaw muscles work James Dean-ly. Ronnie, who is twenty years older, affects an equally studied look: perfect old jeans, perfect lightweight wool shirt. The cuffs of their pants are rolled up exactly one inch. The only new clothes either one of them ever buys are white socks, white underwear and white T-shirts (no pocket).

"Well, old Vic wouldn't let me in," Russell continues. "I had to get wired and stay there all night. It took me three times. And finally."

"Oh, lord, honey," Ronnie says, remembering his own first time, which came in 1980, five years before Russell gained entry. "What a store. He had gabardine cowgirl shirts with silver leather fringe, ancient Levi's and pleated pants. He offered me the building, with everything in it, for $300,000. I should have done it," he concludes. "Every time I step in his door I spend at least a thousand dollars."

But every time, the return on his investment in "new old stuff" is exponential. In the vintage-clothing business, it's one thing to find some old man's gangster suit in a thrift shop--and quite another to locate a stash of never-worn Elvis pants in the back room of a small-town general store. Both Ronnie and Russell have cruised the country most of their adult lives looking for just such mitzvahs. Now that they've joined forces, as co-owners of Denver's American Aces, they've doubled their number of secret sources. But Vic's time-warped department store, with its three stories full of crap accumulated between 1940 and 1971, remains the best.

"If you'll recall, there's no sign anywhere on the building," Ronnie says. "And half the time old Vic doesn't let you in, anyway."

"You'll ask him if you can buy something, and he'll pretty much say no," Russell says.

Still, Ronnie and Russell have managed to get around old Vic on numerous occasions. They've been so successful so often, in fact, that it's hard to imagine Vic has anything left that they might want.

"Ha," Ronnie says. "There's plenty. Because what people want in vintage changes so much, we'll buy stuff we wouldn't have looked at twice ten years ago. There's still hundreds of things."

"The kids are buying the tackiest of the polyester, if you can believe it," Russell says. Bell-bottoms, wide lapels, Superfly shoes? "Right," he confirms, "and don't forget, this is still our secret. We ain't finished with old Vic quite yet."

The son of a Field and Stream fly-rod evaluator from Columbus, Ohio, Ronnie Crawford was born with a vintage gene.

"My mother was a trash-picker," he says. "She made it okay to look through garbage cans and pull things out. My creative and trash-picking skills all come from her."

Now 51, Ronnie has been honing those skills since the late Sixties, when he was a college student at Ohio State. In those turbulent times, he grew his hair long, purchasing a short-hair wig to wear on Army Reserve weekends; changed his major every quarter, settling eventually on photography and cinematography; and became addicted to the pursuit of cool old stuff after a shotgun wedding transformed him into the head of a small household.

"My wife and I started going to garage sales and buying things for our little abode," he remembers. "In the springtime of discontent, 1970, our campus was on strike, shut down, and I met a guy with a whole house full of wonderful stuff. Complete Fiesta ware dinner collections. Wonderful pottery. I liked it, and I started going to flea markets, and pretty soon I had my own wealth of extra stuff."

This, he explains, was years before having a complete set of Fiesta ware meant anything to anyone. Except Ronnie. The Forties became his favorite decade. At first he concentrated on pottery, but he quickly segued into clothes, furniture, cars and anything else that fit his double-wide definition of cool.

"Before the Forties, things were too antiquey," he says. "Although I like Art Deco, too. Any kind of kitsch."

But his burgeoning obsession remained strictly recreational for several years. He worked as a food photographer for Westinghouse--taking studio shots of real hams inside real refrigerators--until 1976, when his by-then-ex-wife and son moved to Boulder. He followed them to Colorado, worked for a semester teaching photography at a community college, then drifted into life as a broker of vintage items, moving up from the back of his van to a Broadway Terrace garage. In 1979 he opened his first store, Rudely Decadent.

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