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Home Improvement

Move over, Martha. These tattooed hands could threaten your empire.

Russell Enloe's father, the electrician, was baffled by the fluorescent-light decision.

"He came in and saw us ripping them down," Russell remembers, "and he said, 'Don't do it! They're so cheap to run!'" A few hours later, the landlord came by to point out that the storefront at 46 Broadway had had fluorescent lighting forever -- at least thirty years, back through its days as a barber-supply house and, before that, a Thom McCann shoe store.

"And basically, it was a dark tunnel," says Bruce Burks, who has been putting down linoleum, hanging display shelves and, yes, taking down fluorescent lights. Now, as it awaits transformation into Russell's Crown Mercantile, the space is bright and full of glass, lit with yellow pools coming from Home Depot track lights, which are cheap, presumably, but not cheap to run.

If he can manage to get this store open on schedule, Russell says, cheap to run won't matter. What will matter -- and matter and matter -- is exactly how everything looks. Where it is put and what it's put next to. And whether it gives people "a comfortable feeling, like they're at someone's house, only it's so comfortable they just can't leave without taking something home."

Such arcane questions as What the hell kind of store is this, exactly? will have to wait for a less frantic time. "Because what can I tell you? I could call it a gift shop, but it isn't -- God, no," Russell says. "I want it to have a pharmacy, five-and-dime feel, maybe almost clinical. Don't you think the color of these walls is almost clinical?" (It's a green-blue, set off by yellow linoleum of a vintage design that calls to mind a school cafeteria in 1959.) "Well, anyway," he says, "it's incredibly hard for me to say aloud what is so clear and obvious inside my head."

Outside of his head, this much is clear: After eight years in the vintage-clothing business, most recently as the owner of American Aces, Russell has decided to expand his vision to include, for lack of a better word, all the stuff he believes you must have in your home. For example:

A lot of dusty antique billiard balls, one of which is see-through, tossed into a wire basket once used to store skates at a roller rink.

Or this:

A pair of brand-new, striped cotton men's pajamas, usually issued to recruits in the French army -- although Russell somehow got his hands on a case or two. "The cotton is so soft, like your grandpa would wear," he explains. "They look old, but they're new. I'll have a lot of that French surplus stuff. Thirties ski goggles. Big chalk-white bowls with blue anchors on them. A kind of stainless-steel optometrist's cabinet with drawers engraved in French. I don't even know what it means, but you ought to want to have it."

Or maybe you ought to have this:

An address book with an old-fashioned phone dial on the cover, which reminds you of the book your mother, or possibly your grandmother, had. To complement it, a wall phone emblazoned with a neon sticker featuring numbers for the fire department and poison control -- and, in case those calls prove fruitless, the number of a local mortician, in much bigger numbers. "I would definitely leave those stickers on," Russell decides. "I have a dozen of those somewhere -- and it's really just another thing I would want to have at my home. This store should be almost as if someone lived here."

This is not a new concept in home-furnishing stores. Anyone who has shopped at Restoration Hardware is familiar with the imaginary family that lives there, with their inherited, slightly distressed leather sofas; their rubber knee boots in which they tend to their pets, which are dogs and horses as opposed to cats; their painstaking attention to doorknobs and light pulls; their propensity for leaving books lying around. These are childless people, of course -- why else would they have white canvas slipcovers? -- or else their kids have gone off to Harvard, or perhaps on a trek in Nepal.

The mythical Crown Mercantile dweller, who is Russell Enloe himself, appreciates Restoration Hardware stuff, especially if it's galvanized metal or glass, but he doesn't have that much money. He doesn't even object to Martha Stewart -- "You can pick up a few tidbits from that girl," Russell will say -- but that's only if you do Martha with a twist. Crown Mercantile, for instance, will have a nostalgic candy obsession on display: clear glass jars filled with Coward's Lemon Mints and Black Jack gum, both of which have been around, unchanged, for fifty years.

"Yeah, and I plan to carry bubble-gum cigars, too," Russell says. "Very five-and-dime."

And also very evocative of his own elementary-school years, during which he was a typical Colorado kid with typical interests -- except that his room looked much too good. Clean, even. "It looked a lot better than my brother's or sister's room," Russell recalls proudly. "I made sure of that. I don't even remember what was in there, except that it was exactly how I wanted it."

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