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THE THRIFTERS

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.

In the spring of that same year, in an Aurora subdivision, fifteen-year-old Russell Enloe was watching a neighbor clean out his garage. "And then suddenly," Russell remembers, in tones of awe, "he pulled out the rockin'-est bowling shirt. He gave it to me, and I swear, I wore that shirt till it fell offa me."

Shortly thereafter, Russell and his teenage friends made their first field trip to Rudely Decadent. Russell, with his hair in the pompadour style he still affects, started dressing rockabilly. And as soon as he was old enough to drive, he got a rockabilly car--a Falcon.

"I guess I've always liked things different," he says. "My background is upper-middle-class suburban--my mom's a nurse, my dad's an electrician--but I just like the Fifties. It may sound corny, but all this represents a time to me when the U.S. was strong. They made good garments. They made strong cars. Life was simpler then, don't you think?"

The search for that lost simplicity drew Russell to flea markets, thrift shops and people's attics. His credo became: Give me rock-and-roll clothes or give me death. After graduating--"barely," he says--from high school, he drifted into waiting tables and catering. But he continued to acquire so much cool old stuff that he had to rent a lower-downtown storage cubicle to house it all.

And he still shopped at Rudely Decadent, which had come to represent the cutting edge of vintage.

"I'd never seen anything like it in Denver," remembers Gilbert Jimenez, another Ohio boy who's been thrifting since high school. "All the best vintage stuff, and Ronnie was even right on the edge of the punk and new-wave thing. It was the original store. It was just pure fun."

Gilbert started working at Rudely Decadent in 1980, and he's worked for Ronnie off and on ever since. Many of Ronnie's customers were equally loyal. Still, by the mid-Eighties the store had begun to go down the tubes. Ronnie blames it on his own burnout--others blame his lack of business acumen. In February 1988 the store shut down.

Ronnie didn't. He still had the vintage jones, and a fix came in the form of nightclub owners Marty Meshek and Wallace Kelley, who'd started up Confetti, Neo and Fish Dance, among other clubs. They proposed that Ronnie manage a store for them. Pop-A-Rama, as it was called, opened in autumn 1988 on South Broadway and lasted two years before Ronnie dropped out, first to consult on nightclub design and then to tend bar at 7 South.

Russell Enloe would occasionally stop in to see him. "I wanted to climb on his shirttails and take a free ride," Russell admits.

"Russell used to bring me stuff," Ronnie recalls. "He'd make ten, twenty bucks off of me and be all excited. I began wondering if he had the touch. I kind of fine-tuned him, started telling him what to look for. I wouldn't have told just anyone. Not anyone can do it."

But Russell had the knack. In 1989 he moved to rural Illinois, a place he considered the epicenter of the hidden treasure he and Ronnie refer to as "dead stock." He lasted there less than half a year before he moved on, this time to New Orleans. "And from the get-go, I found mountains of stuff," he recalls. "It started with this one old guy who had an attic no one had been in in twenty years. He gave me a couple light bulbs and told me to be careful up there. And when I got the lights on, I realized I was standing on all this incredible rock-and-roll Elvis shit!"

All of which found its way to Denver, first to Pop-A-Rama and then, with Ronnie out of business, to Boss, a competitor. Russell soon expanded his territory, taking two-week buying trips through the Deep South, with six weeks off between each trek to recover from the strain of being polite yet devious.

"In a total general store in Georgia, I saw boxes and boxes filled with rock-and-roll clothes," he remembers. "I asked the guy to sell them to me, but he said no and threw me out. So I went and got a motel room. The next day I went back and told the man my dad had grown up fifteen miles away--I had picked the name of the town off a map. I said: `My daddy remembers you, and so does my grandma, and they said you were a nice man and would have plenty of things for me to buy.'"

Did it work?
"Oh," Russell says reverently, "he sold me Davy Crockett caps, two-tone shoes, pleated pants..."

On another trip to Georgia, in another store, he discovered a stash of "pink Elvis pants, frilly bras and incredible corsets" but was told he had to leave while the owners went out for lunch. During this brief time, Russell was pulled over for a traffic violation, arrested because his license had expired, forced to pay a fine and left sitting on the curb in front of a tiny police station. "They wouldn't let me drive away, because technically I didn't have a license," Russell remembers. "I didn't know what the hell to do." Finally the police chief threw him his keys and advised him to get out of Georgia.

"I couldn't, though," Russell says. "I couldn't leave behind those pink pants. So I waited till dark, parked behind the store and bought tons of pants, bras and corsets. I handed over this big wad of money and escaped into Alabama. They must have thought I was very weird."

Russell soon returned to Denver, bringing truckloads of vintage--including crates of old Levi's--along with him. But competition was fierce. "Everyone was selling 501s," he says. "The Japanese and European markets were going nuts. I worked my ass off." During the day, he'd thrift frantically. At night he'd take wholesale customers to his unlit storage space, showing them through the racks with a flashlight.

By 1992 Russell knew he needed a store, and he and Ronnie began to talk.
"We did not want to carry any crap," Russell says. "No holes in the clothes, no buttons missing, every single thing dry-cleaned."

With two basements full of overstock, they could afford to display only the choicest stuff.

But the definition of "choice" kept changing.
"Without our Japanese customers," Ronnie says, "life would be very hard. Remember all that crap in the Seventies about how Americans were buying too much Japanese? Well, the Japanese are buying American now, boy. They change fads real quick. They're moving up to Seventies and even Eighties already. We go down to Sakura Square for fashion magazines once a week, just to keep up."

At 11 a.m. one recent Tuesday, American Aces has yet to open, but the sidewalk in front of the store is already adorned with two Japanese students from Teikyo Loretto Heights University. Both wear loose, almost ill-fitting old jeans, slightly flared; oversize flannel shirts; twenty-year-old Adidas running shoes; and backward baseball caps. When Gilbert lets them in, they go directly to the leather-jacket section and spend more than an hour doing a microscopic inspection of bomber jackets. Meanwhile, two more Japanese customers--a young couple who own a vintage/American store in Osaka--are back for their fourth visit since arriving in Denver a week ago. They leave with five hundred dollars' worth of leather jackets, jeans and all-cotton sweatshirts.

"And we have a backer from a place in Tokyo," Russell says. "When I go out on the road, he gives me thousands of dollars in cash and just says: Spend it. This guy is only 24, but his place has just taken off. You need to be in a whole different frame of mind to understand it."

And often, you must be in a whole different place. On their way to visit Vic, Ronnie and Russell make some respectable thrift-shop finds--a Jamaican calypso shirt, two-tone Jack Dempsey shoes, a velvet minidress that appears to have been made out of motel curtains--but they also buy obscene quantities of plaid and houndstooth double-knit bell-bottom pants.

"Whew, is this hideous enough, or what?" Russell says, showing Ronnie a sweater coated with some kind of vinyl breastplate.

"Buy it," Ronnie fires back. "Even if the Japanese don't want it, the kids these days wear it as a joke."

"Ever since I quit looking for my own tastes, I've been making more money," Russell admits. "The problem is, though, these damn people are getting hip. Cords like this"--he holds out a pair of Levi's straight-leg corduroy pants, circa 1975--"suddenly got hot on the European market a few months ago. I used to buy them for a couple bucks, and now look at this: $7.95. The damn jeans business is so big that most people who do it have built relationships with exporters, and those people started teaching them what other stuff to look for."

At the next stop, a DAV store on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, Ronnie rifles the ties for something classic. His personal favorites are emblazoned with leaping trouts and lures, or naked women. "It's hard to find a good girlie tie anymore," he notes. Next he checks out the long underwear--"the Japanese like it if it's got an old tag"; men's jackets, without vents, because "come on, your butt sticks out"; and white or black Levi's, jeans and overalls.

"We can sell the tar outta overalls, no matter how big," Russell agrees. "We don't even look at women's stuff much anymore. All women want from us is a pair of jeans and motorcycle boots."

The finds of the moment are two scenic photographs of Cypress Gardens mounted in homemade, Pepto-Bismol-pink frames. "Nice and tacky," Russell says happily. "But if we'd found anything real special, we'd just have been jumping around. Like once, we found a Hawaiian shirt here that we sold for 125 bucks. Once we got a cotton sweatshirt for 98 cents and sold it for 45 bucks. That's special."

A few blocks away, Ronnie makes a sharp turn into the parking lot of a tattered Western-wear store marked by a classic Fifties sign that reads "Brok 'N Spoke." "I need to buy that sign," he says. Inside, the owner, a slow-moving woman in her fifties, refuses him for the fifth time. Undaunted, Ronnie and Russell dive into the drifts of clothing that lie around the back room, interspersed with saddles, tack and bottles of Repel-X Emulsifiable Fly Spray. They end up with a pile of horrible Seventies stretch cowboy pants--ManFit by Western Girl.

"Can you make us a deal on a stack of trousers?" Russell asks politely.
"Oh, probably," the owner replies. She begins toting up numbers with a stub of pencil. The phone rings. A long conversation about goat breeding ensues.

"Come on, girlfriend," Ronnie says, under his breath.
Twenty minutes creep by. Finally, the owner produces a total. "I knocked some offa each one," she says proudly.

"How much?" Russell asks.
"Some," the owner says stubbornly.
"Can you do us any better?" asks Ronnie.
The owner knocks off another five bucks.

"Well, isn't that stupid," Russell fumes, as he dumps the stack of ManFit pants into the back of the van. "I mean, those damn pants have been paid for a hundred times. Who else is going to buy them?"

They are just pulling out when Russell remembers he should have laid in a supply of black Colonel Sanders ties for an obscure local band. "We're very easy on boys in bands," he says with pride. "We need to help them understand about dressing up. You gotta make a scene. A big old greasy scene."

"The more the years go by, the less men know how to dress up," Ronnie says. "We do what we can. It's a tough cycle to break."

"Tough," Russell agrees. "Very tough."

Talk about tough.
"Now, remember, old Vic is cranky," Russell tells Ronnie. "When people have been in business fifty years, they're going to be weird. Their stuff is their security blanket. Last time I came in here, he accused me of breaking light bulbs and stealing hatbands."

"Yeah," Ronnie says, "but when he dies, who will we have to tell stories about?"

Vic's store has no sign, unless you count a poster for Father's Day, 1941. Inside, though, piled on the splintered wooden floorboards and turn-of-the-century fixtures, are layer upon layer of goods for sale, all faded by sun and coated with dust--and with original price tags intact. Thus, a Power Girdle from the Fifties sells for $1.97, Esther Williams-style bathing suits are $2.97 and children's saddle shoes, never worn, are $2.98.

"But bend them," Ronnie advises. "If you hear crackling, they're just all dried out."

Old Vic, age 78, stands behind a once-busy cash register that still dispenses receipts bearing a WWII-vintage date. He's engrossed in a Donahue episode debating the pros and cons of breast implants. "Cut on the lights where you need to see," he says tersely.

Ronnie and Russell turn themselves loose. Every time they come here, they worry that they've bought the last of the cool old stuff. And every time, they are wrong. On this trip, Russell finds:

Two early-Seventies T-shirts with the legends Vans Forever and Vans Are Neat.
Stretchy sports shirts with long, droopy collars.
Wide-wale cords, circa 1969.
Appalling striped bell-bottoms, same era.
Black steel-toe workboots, still in boxes, alarmingly hip.

A box containing twenty boys' beanies from the Fifties. "Rockin' caps," he pronounces.

And Ronnie finds:
Women's thigh-high fishnet stockings.
Faux pony-fur dickeys.

Old Trusty Long-Wearing Western Dungarees for kids that come complete with coloring books featuring rodeo stars of the early Sixties.

Dueling-missiles-style women's halter tops, Fifties.
Fancy socks, from large to very small. "Ooh, it makes me want to have babies again, honey," he comments.

Up on the second floor, in what remains of a hardware section, Ronnie and Russell each grab a Fisher-Price construction crew set, complete with tiny backhoe and steam shovel. "Christ, they're eighteen years old," Russell says. "That's old enough."

"Plus, I'll like playing with this, I got a feeling," says Ronnie.
"Now, watch old Vic," Russell cautions, as they head over to the cash register to settle up. "He's liable to lay a stack of pants on top of the ones we already picked, and they'll end up with 28-inch inseams, which suck. He's tried it before."

But right now, Vic is busy turning away business. A woman is at the counter; she says she's looking for children's rubber boots.

"No," Vic says, barring her way. "I haven't got anything like that."
In fact, he has several shelves exactly like that, but he's not in much of a selling mood. He can, however, be persuaded to take more than a thousand dollars, cash, from Russell and Ronnie.

"What a strange old guy," they tell each other as they load the van. Then Ronnie goes back into the store to take Vic's picture, because, he says, "if he died and I never saw him again, I'd feel awful."

Russell follows, settling himself on the stairs and engaging Vic in a rambling discussion of real estate values and arson. "Is that right," Russell prompts, every time Vic slows down. "Is that a fact."

Forty-five minutes pass before old Vic runs out of rumination.
"So," Russell concludes, "you took our money again."
"Yes," Vic says, "and I guess I'll do it again.