By Joel Warner
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"Unlike many historic buildings, we don't know who slept here," says Karle Seydel, who for the past fifteen years has worked to revitalize the Larimer Street neighborhood. "But we know plenty did and had some fun doing it."
About five years ago, it finally occurred to Art Greer that he was very well off, if not precisely filthy rich. He was sitting upstairs from Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium, in the cluttered second-floor offices of Bison Enterprises, his porn business's corporate name. The room was dark and cramped. He was fixing VCRs. The machines were always breaking down, a mechanical fact of life when you're running several 62-channel XXX video arcades continuously all day and most of the night.
Art is an engineer by training--he spent six years at the University of Colorado studying the subject--and for a while, he'd gotten a kick out of working on the machines. He liked fiddling with their parts, saving a few bucks here and there. "But then one day," he recalls, "I said to myself, 'Why do you want to sit here hour after hour fixing VCRs?' I mean, I'm a goddamn millionaire." He was right, and so he stopped.
Looking back, it hadn't taken long for him to make his fortune. By the time Art arrived in Denver from Nevada in the early 1960s, his parents had already been here for several years. Both worked as cashiers at Jerry's Newsstand, a newspaper and book store. One day soon after Art had moved to Colorado, Jerry's landlord stopped by and invited Jerry out for a bite to eat. Over lunch, the landlord said he was doubling the rent.
Furious, Jerry stormed back from the meal. Art's father was working the cash register. "Do you want to buy this business?" Jerry shouted. Art's father talked it over with Art's mother and cashed in his life insurance policy.
Art was 25 years old. He wore his hair slicked into a complex pompadour and had a mustache that twirled like pinwheels at the ends. He had gotten married when he was eighteen (he still has a blurry, self-applied tattoo of that wife's name, Marie, on his forearm) and had recently dropped out of college. The angle from which he would approach life was still unclear.
"One night my dad took me to dinner at Pagliacci's, and he said he wanted to know what I was going to do," Art recalls. "He's trying to pick my brain: Am I going to go back to college, am I going to work--what? I didn't know.
"After dinner we drove to Colfax and Broadway, to the store next to Jerry's Newsstand. He had a key, and we went in and walked around with a match--there were no lights, it was empty. Finally he said, 'If you want to stay in Denver, we can open another bookstore here.' I opened that store on my daughter's birthday. My father died eleven months later."
People meeting Art Greer for the first time can be forgiven for thinking that he is unsophisticated. He speaks and dresses casually to the point of seeming provincial. He has shoulder-length gray hair and a pencil mustache. He walks slowly and loosely, like he is perpetually tired, and sometimes he struggles to come up with the right word. But over the past 25 years he has demonstrated a business sense that would seem lucky if it hadn't happened so regularly.
After taking over Jerry's, he became one of the first retailers in Denver to capitalize on the new frenzy for paperback books. They flew out of his stores faster than he could stock them, and it wasn't long before he opened more Jerry's. Later he was able to discover niches that others didn't see or that seemed too small to bother with.
A few years after taking over Jerry's, for example, he opened a comic-book store at 1518 Broadway. He used to let friends bring in boxes of old records they didn't want anymore and leave them for customers to go through. But Art noticed that customers were fascinated by the old collections; they usually picked the boxes clean in a matter of hours. He opened Jerry's Records and began charging $2 for the old records he got for nothing, or next to nothing. A few years later he sold the business for $50,000. The comic-book store eventually sold for $100,000.
The real payday, however, came in the late 1970s. By then Art had built his Jerry's businesses to three stores on the Colfax Avenue block adjacent to the State Capitol, between Lincoln and Broadway--the site that RTD decided it needed to build a new bus station. Art was informed that he would have to leave.
He vowed to himself that he would never again be forced into a position where he couldn't control his own destiny. After looking around downtown, he fixed his eye on a low-slung building on 15th and Tremont streets. He tracked down the owners, agreed to their asking price of $440,000 and stepped into the real estate game.
But Art barely had time to move into his new digs before a large Canadian developer announced it was building a skyscraper next door that, naturally, would require parking. Nearby Duffy's wouldn't sell out; neither would next-door Meininger's.