House dutiful: Russell Enloe and his stuff that you will soon crave.
James Bludworth

Home Improvement

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."

A room kept just so remained a constant for Russell as he grew up -- through a period of drunken excess and odd jobs, during the years spent learning the vintage-clothing business from former business partner Ronnie Crawford, during his rockabilly music period, and then furnishing an east Denver house that was, as he remembers it, "wall-to-wall 1940s kitsch."

"But I like things a little different now, more elegant, maybe -- but that's wrong, because some of it isn't elegant at all," he attempts to explain. "I make these trips into the South, looking for stashes of old clothing, and I love those places with names like "Mercantile," "Dry Goods," "General Merchandise." After a while, I started to want a place like that -- the kind of place where you can get everything from a broom to a shotgun to a rake to yard goods."

A place almost always lit by fluorescent lights, because they're cheap to run.

With less than a week to go before the shop is supposed to open, Crown Mercantile's one display room is devoid of general merchandise. All the cool stuff Russell thinks you need for your home sits in boxes in the storeroom in the back. Rusty metal urns that are actually made of fiberglass stack up on boxes of old Boy Scout flashlights, reproduction aluminum Christmas trees and candleholders made to look like spaceships. Any minute now, a guy is coming by to put a string of white neon around the angled glass window in front. And what happened to those Russian propaganda posters?

"With stuff like 'We hear everything you're saying' and 'America sucks' on them," Russell says, from a precarious perch on a pile of milk cartons. "I don't know where I put them, but I found this gal that makes picture frames out of old barn wood, and they'd be perfect for the Russian stuff." Instead, he locates a trove of Sweet Georgia Brown pomade and Lemon Sec hair tonic -- left over from the barber-supply days? -- that will add immeasurably to the clinical five-and-dime feel of the place.

If the place gets finished in time.

"I can't imagine working for the Man ever again," Russell says, "but no project has ever been so exhausting. Maybe when it finally opens, I can take off some time. And go away. And not work. And -- " [cue dream sequence] " -- go home. And work in my yard. Because here I am sleeved in tattoos and I have this wild Vegas side to me, but lately I like nothing better than being responsible and taking care of my home. I actually like to mow the lawn."

By home, Russell means the 1949 ranch house in a Wheat Ridge subdivision where he has lived for the past year and a half, the youngest neighbor by at least three decades, and certainly the only one with a putting-green perfect lawn and a small, English-style greenhouse. "You know the feeling when you get your first apartment and you can't wait to open the door and walk in and think, wow, all of it is mine, how cool? I still feel that way," he says. On occasion, he will drag a (vintage reproduction) lawn chair into the exact center of his yard and sit for an hour admiring the view. Well, maybe 45 minutes. Then he goes to work.

"When you count it up, I have at least five jobs," he points out. These include: owner of American Aces, long-distance vintage-clothing buyer, rockabilly DJ and dance teacher, with his girlfriend, "of jive, not swing," he says. "It's not so structured, very cut-loose. We teach you a little and then you take ahold of it and do what you want with it.

"Oh, and I run the vintage department at the local rag house, where they turn old clothes into industrial wiping clothes. I taught all these old ladies how to sort through clothes and find the good stuff. And I work for Harold Sasaki at Colorado Bonsai," he adds. "I like bonsai, so I went right to the source, and he was one of the best in the country. I showed up a year ago, and he had me sweeping the floor and fertilizing, and finally he let me trim some trees. Later he told me one of them was worth $4,500. I go there every chance I get."

This reminds him of the slanted glass display windows with the white neon lights -- perfect for bonsai, which "everyone loves, or at least has bought and killed one. And I can apply what Harold has taught me," he says. "The point, with bonsai, is not to have a plant look good in five years, but trim it so it looks good right now. Harold says not to be patient but to curtail your impatience. That would work here, that Japanese influence. But there will always be some tacky stuff, too. I can't remember what, exactly. A chrome yo-yo?"

But no, upon reflection, a chrome yo-yo has the classic lines of an antique car.

He must be talking about this box over here -- the one containing several dozen of a product known as Vinnie's Tampon Case, complete with smiling clown face and a "period chart."

"Yeah, this is what I meant," Russell says. "Aren't they great? I hope they don't offend the ladies, but if they do, I can't help it. It's just another thing I can't resist."


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