Commentary

Shop Talk: Two Decades at the Heart and Soul of Denver Retail

The EZE Mop building was transformed a decade ago.
The EZE Mop building was transformed a decade ago. Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
The first thing I noticed was the sound of the oxygen tank. It was kind of a breathy sound, but as if the whisper was underwater. It sounded like drowning.

She would come into my store once a week, sometimes twice — an attractive woman with bright brown eyes that seemed to laugh when she blinked. I looked forward to seeing Jessica because she was snarky and hysterical. And she said "Fuck" a lot, too.

She was looking at some goat's milk lotion at my store one day, and told me that she had drawers full of lotion at home but all of them had caused her to develop a rash on her skin — "even the fucking hypoallergenic kind." It was then that she very matter-of-factly told me she had stage four cancer and was on her fourth round of chemo. She then apologized that she had "just blurted that out"; she knew that it made people uncomfortable, she said. It was crazy to me that this woman felt like she had to go around apologizing to people that she had cancer because it made them feel uncomfortable. I put my hand on top of hers — softly, as I noticed it was blistered — and told her that she wasn't paying for any more fucking lotion that was going to give her a rash, and gave her the goat blend.

The goat's milk didn't give her a rash, and we were friends for the rest of her life.


click to enlarge Soul Haus opened in 1999. - COURTESY STEPHANIE SHEARER
Soul Haus opened in 1999.
Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
I opened my first store because I couldn't find a cute, affordable dress in Denver; I wanted to open a shop with small and local labels — clothing lines with soul. Soul Haus. For months, I'd been walking past the then-abandoned Coffee on the Hill on East 13th Avenue; the old storefront seemed to fade into the background, swallowed up by the crumbling sidewalk in front of it. The "For Rent" sign was so sun-bleached and faded you could no longer make out the phone number that had been hastily written in black marker. Weeds grew through the cracks both outside and in, and the space was empty and hollow. Nothing remained inside, save one dead roach on the sill — feet stretched high, surrendered to the heavens. But as I gazed through the cracked windows, I knew this was where my store belonged.

Soul Haus peddled garb and goods, including handmade mini dresses with words like "bitch" and "cunt" in pyramid studs crafted by a local gal named Mary, who eventually debuted a line called UZI (and opened a shop of the same name on Colfax). We had leopard-spotted, floor-length car coats from Betsey Johnson, black-and-red vinyl pedal pushers from Divine Vinyl, and T-shirts with sleeves of ringed pink industrial plastic from a handsomely dapper guy named Mondo. P.S.: It was 1999, and the rave/ circuit party scene was just emerging aboveground in our li'l dust-bowl town transforming into a city, which required me to take a couple of side gigs to pay the rent — including a stint writing for Westword under the moniker Kity Ironton (a nickname I cherish to this day).

click to enlarge Pandora was a Cap Hill landmark. - COURTESY STEPHANIE SHEARER
Pandora was a Cap Hill landmark.
Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
I quickly befriended the bohemian luminary shopkeeps next door, Kyle and Heather Vermeer, who owned Pandora Jewelry. Heather, a recent graduate of Wax Trax Records up the street, was the perfect balance of misfit matriarch and prolific visionary with a respected (and well-earned) reputation for not taking any shit. I adopted her as my mentor, and in 2005 she offered me the opportunity to take the reins of that wild pony of a shop. And I did so giddily. (She went on to open Bliss in Boulder.)

Every minute at that store was life-changing, and not a single day would pass that I didn't carve a deep connection with someone who came in the door. From behind the counter, I have had the amazing opportunity to watch our feisty Cap Hill customers grow up, get married, have children — and I have even hired some of those children-turned-adult kids to work at the store. I have been witness to several first-time dates that turned into marriage (with more than one couple even stopping by the store on the way to the ceremony to include me in their "I Do"s). And I have hugged and cried with them over the loss of their loved ones, many of whom I loved, too.

Our store manager, Wes, told me that just yesterday, a seven-year-old boy came into the store with his mother, and the discussion led to this child’s upcoming heart-valve surgery and how the little boy was concerned about losing all of his hair, losing some of his hearing and facing a future of ongoing medical treatments. The manager he was talking to revealed that he also had a genetic condition that caused him to have hearing issues, hair loss and ongoing heart troubles. They talked about acupuncture and nutrition, and then the manager lifted his cool, chocolate brown houndstooth fedora to reveal his beautiful bald head. They all agreed that he was a very handsome man, and then they shared a good laugh and a warm hug. I have no doubt that this mother and her son will be life-long customers — and we will watch the boy grow healthy and strong and flourish throughout his life. Because we are his community, and now he is ours.
click to enlarge The EZE Mop building before the transformation. - COURTESY STEPHANIE SHEARER
The EZE Mop building before the transformation.
Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
The year 2009 marked the beginning of a change in our city. My landlords on 13th, like so many around town, raised the rent to reflect "New Denver" rates. Through a series of random but fortunate networking events (and a lot of help from the Denver Office of Economic Development), my family purchased the historic EZE Mop building (and former 17th Avenue Theatre) in Uptown. We'd fallen in love with this old, forgotten and blighted complex, and within its walls we found our next home — and a new beginning for both stores. The alley-to-block behemoth of a building offered us more space to create, so we opened Grind Haus Tea & Coffee and a new, sweet dress boutique that we christened Peppermint.

We bootstrapped and elbow-greased our way to filling up our new digs (inviting our friend Arthur Williams to bring his horticultural artistry lifestyle suite, Babylon Floral, into the fold), and surprisingly won several awards for our renovation — including a Mayor's Design Award. (There are still people who wonder how a couple of retailers won a design award, coughing curse words under their breath as they scratch their heads.) But it is easy to adore Uptown and all her charms; it's a place where premier chefs open their flagships, luxury apartments rub elbows with small Victorian ladies, and rowdy neighbors illegally plant flowers in the city easements. It is a lively bustle of dot.com youth and urban professionals, a cultural clash that smells like microbrews, craft-market porchetta and organic chocolates.

An older gentleman was looking at cards, and when I checked in with him, he told me he was purchasing a card for his fiftieth wedding anniversary. He said his wife had a keen sense of humor, so he was looking for a funny anniversary card. I imagined his wife, married to a man for fifty years, and suggested that maybe for this anniversary he should consider one of the sweeter choices. I found him a card that read: "You are — and will always be — my moon and my stars." He came back last week to have me pick out her birthday card because, he explained, "You made her fall in love with me again."
click to enlarge Retailing couple Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer in the Stanley. - COURTESY STEPHANIE SHEARER
Retailing couple Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer in the Stanley.
Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
Mark Shaker walked through our doors four years ago, spit-firing his plan to open a marketplace with fifty Colorado businesses all under one roof that he would call Stanley Marketplace. In all honesty, I wasn't very nice to him on his first visit, giving him the side-eye and showing him the door. But he persisted, and eventually the opportunity to mentor some of the new retail businesses at the market tugged at my heartstrings. We opened Trunk Nouveau in 2017 at Stanley Marketplace and Squadron the next year.

Then the clock stopped on March 13, 2020, when Mark and the management gathered all fifty business owners to tell us that at 3 p.m., the Marketplace would be shut down owing to the coronavirus. Tears, hugs and shock: Like every small-business owner in the country, we were overwhelmed. We stood, a collective of fifty, vulnerable and scared. One of the shopkeeps said that she wasn't going to make it, as she had just had some personal hardships in her life; she had $15 left in her bank account. I watched as our spit-firing ringmasters pulled out their personal checkbooks and said, "How much do you need?"

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jessica was the first person I told. She held my hand, softly — and whispered what it was like for a mother to be leaving her daughter. "That pain," she said. "There are no drugs to cure." When my mother died, Jessica came and held me while I cried.

Six months later, I was hugging her daughter while she cried.
click to enlarge The EZE Mop's next lineup. - COURTESY STEPHANIE SHEARER
The EZE Mop's next lineup.
Courtesy Stephanie Shearer
Just as Heather Vermeer placed the torch in my hands all those years ago, I have now found the perfect hands in which to place mine.

Our longtime store manager, Ina Gasich, has purchased Soul Haus in our beloved EZE Mop Building and has rebranded it as Revolte Goods. She is taking the reins of this wild pony of a store, and plans to ride off into the sunset. And I am giddy.

Two sisters will take over the Squadron space, transforming it into a colorful rainbow of ecological, responsible goods and rechristen the spot as Mudd House Mercantile.

And I will continue to do what I do: mentor these badass women opening their first shops, as Heather did with me. I will continue to tend to the Pandora spirit within the beams of our last standing store, Trunk Nouveau, at Stanley Marketplace. And I will love and shop with people who walk through my doors, and gather with them in celebration and sorrow.

I am a retailer. A small-business owner. My story is no more unique or special than that of the owner of your corner-store market, the taco truck down the street or the cute coffee shop in the little house up the block. We are your community, and you are ours. Each and every pebble of love that I have ever skipped across this city has given me a tsunami in return, and I am forever grateful.

Thank you, Denver.
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