Joe from Crest has always been too busy to talk to me. Whenever I am swept into the cyclone of stuff that is Crest Distributing, browsing obsessively, Joe fixes me with his my-hearing-aid-ain't-turned-off-YET look and says, "I know what you're up to, don't think I don't."
But I keep right on being up to it. Today I observe, and duly note, Forties-era Ambrite Old Faithful Colored Chalk, a stack of Perfection Twice-Weekly Time books so old their covers are bound in cloth, and a display of Clingers Stick-On notes, possibly pre-dating the Post-It pad and featuring Clinger himself. Joe follows at a respectful distance and watches me write in an equally ancient composition notebook. Finally he says, "Okay, where are you hiding your money?" and we proceed to discuss and admire the black leather doctor's bag, circa 1930, with the buttery white-leather lining that reminds me of the front seat of an old Mercedes. I have been coveting this bag since December, but since it is sitting deep under one of the many metal desks at Crest, I'm not worried that someone else will find it first.
Joe still wants sixty bucks for it. "It should be more," he points out. "You're letting it get antiquer by the second. Just charge it."
"To who?" I ask.
"Doesn't really matter," he says reasonably.
So I propose a deal. If Joe will tell me his life story--how he happens to be the only landowner who never sold his piece of Larimer Square and still has no intention of doing so, even though this block is now hotter-than-hot, real-estate-wise--I will buy not only the doctor's bag but several other items as well.
But we've had this talk before, and at this point, Joe usually agrees. Occasionally he will send someone next door to the Market for coffee. We will sit down. Then, in his beautiful, soft, West Texas accent, he will tell tales of his childhood, of his land barony, the dining-room set that made him what he is today and the Christmas grenade-launching--but ethics prevent me from revealing the rest. As soon as I try to write these things down, he makes me stop.
"We're just talking now," he says. "I don't have time for an interview."
At first this made no sense whatsoever. After all, were we not sitting around talking? "I'm very busy," Joe would explain. "I don't need the publicity. What was your name again? Oh, yeah--Shotgun."
He has been calling me Shotgun now for several months, which never fails to put me in a good mood. And besides, to make up for these sudden bursts of privacy, he has given me several wonderful things:
A 1940s Jeppesen-Sanderson air-map holder, leather;
Two grenade-launcher sights, wrapped in oilcloth;
A red 45 single entitled "Convertible Myrtle."
Plus, I have purchased: Beautiful old pencils, boxed;
A do-it-yourself embroidery kit of the 48 United States, featuring state flowers and birds;
Several spring composition books.
We have merely to close the deal on the doctor's bag and the life story. It may be quite a wait. Clearly, I have been added to the long list of people waiting for Joe Replin to decide on things.
When I ask Joe how many buildings he owns (more than a dozen for sure, several in booming LoDo), he says, "Why, would you care to lease one?" When I ask him what's inside his many buildings, he says, "Oh, a lot more of this kind of thing." Drifts of office supplies through the ages. Paintings of big-eyed gypsy children. Gold lame handbags. Ancient birthday candles made as a promotion by Standard Oil. Typewriter ribbons pre-dating the computer age. Stacks of children's board games made before I was born. Just thinking about it puts me in a paroxysm of greed.
"Would you ever take me to visit your other buildings?" I asked him once.
"Oh, maybe," he said. "I'm very busy, though."
Joe even works on Christmas Day---not that there's much demand for his items on December 25, but after all, he reasons, he's Jewish. Just what he does all day, any day, is less specific. Once I watched him spend an hour with a gnarled knot of more than a hundred file cabinet keys. Slowly he picked them apart, trying each in every file cabinet he owns. None fit. He kept the keys. Joe is also wont to stack up piles of paper and move them from one side of the store to the other. Once, after I'd stayed away for a month (in hopes that Joe would miss me and relent), I noticed that every display rack and table had been moved--in some cases by less than half a foot. If you are Joe, this makes some kind of sense. If not, perhaps not.
The doctor's bag is still there.
We are deep in the ritual viewing when a woman named Linda Gozzi emerges from deep in the back of the store, where tin ceilings hover over sedimental layers of obsolete office equipment, sees my doctor's bag, and exclaims, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
"Now you'll have to fight her for it," Joe tells me, smiling wickedly.
"Brian found an old foot-long Scotch tape dispenser here," Linda says without preamble, "and we're looking for the inch-wide cellophane tape."
"Actually," says Brian, who materializes from behind a swinging Sixties vinyl briefcase display, "I found the dispenser in a dumpster. My other stuff I find here."
It turns out that Brian Rowland is a downtown chiropractor who has been making a weekly pilgrimage to Crest for a decade. Some of his purchases are practical, like the big silver thumbtacks he prefers to modern pushpins. Others, like "these Roller Bumpers I got that keep curlers from scratching your head," he just leaves lying around his office so he can gaze at them lovingly. He brought Linda to Crest because it was time.
"She's been working for me a while, and I decided I must show her the mecca that is Crest, introduce her to the goodness," he pronounces. Then he whispers, "Hey...," in awestruck tones. He is looking at a metal toy whose tag reads: "U-Drive-It with Magi-Control Super Steering. This is a Prestige Toy. It was voted an outstanding example of 1954 American Toy by four panels of prominent trade and educator experts. $2.98."
"Hey..." I agree. Next to the stack of U-Drive-Its is a wastebasket full of 40-weight oil. Further in the depths lurks a huge, gleaming machine with teeth. "Wow, what could that be?" Brian asks. "Oh. An ammonia process machine. Well. That explains it. Good." He shakes his head, as if to clear out dust. "Linda," he yells. "We have to go."
"But these candles," Linda says, "they're hand-dipped, they're old...and this vinyl tablecloth, it's so tacky..."
"I know," Brian says gently.
"You've ruined me," Linda tells him as he drags her out the door into the crowd of model types who sit at the sidewalk tables that exemplify the new Larimer Square. Sandwiched between the Market and Laura Ashley, Crest is the lone holdout against encroaching hipness. Managers at both businesses, in fact, claim never to have been inside Crest even once.
But just listen to Dana Crawford, who assembled the Larimer Square real estate deal in 1965, rescuing an entire block of historically blighted buildings in the process--except, of course, for Crest, which had already been up and running for decades.
"Joe is terrifically interesting," she says. "I had a charge account there for years. I just never could buy his building because he wanted a whole lot of money for it. Way too much. But I still think it's interesting to see the before and after."
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By which she means the contrast between Crest's poison-green exterior and its high-toned neighbors. The hand-lettered signs advising customers that a complete selection of safes is available, that Quo Vadis day-timers for 1994 have arrived, that "children with snacks must be eaten in the lobby," that grenade-launcher sights, at just 99 cents, are such a deal.
As I leave Crest, along comes a field trip of a dozen ten-year-olds with two teachers in attendance. Four feet from the Crest entrance, with its grimy old air conditioner and rusted fire escape, one of the teachers stops the group.
"Now look, class," she says, turning their attention to view the pricy Williams-Sonoma kitchen store on the corner, "all this is part of the original Denver."
They walk past Crest without stopping.