American Ace

From a dingy stepstool, the auctioneer announced that he was starting with a bulk bid: one price for everything left in the pale-blue store at 46 Broadway formerly known as Crown Mercantile. He'd let people bid on individual items -- vintage furniture, clothes, jewelry, toys and housewares, mostly picked out by the now-deceased proprietor, Russell Enloe -- but if at auction's end the total of all individual bids wasn't more than the bulk bid, everything would go to the bulk bidder.

"$20,000. Do I hear 21?"

"$21,000. Do I hear 22?"

"Sold. For $21,000!"

The winner was Kristen Tait, who owns Decade, which sits on the same stretch of South Broadway as Crown, and who had known Enloe as a friendly competitor for nearly ten years, ever since she'd opened her store while he was still with his first retail venture, American Aces Vintage Clothing. "I don't think I'll end up with the whole store," she said at the beginning of the auction, adding, "I miss Russell very much. It's very strange to be here. Strange and sad."

As the regular bidding began just after 10 a.m. on July 7, Enloe's longtime managers and buyers, Kim Danner and Phil Snyder, watched in quiet disbelief as friends and customers walked over to hug them. "Those two kept his store running when he was on drugs, when he couldn't work," says Joan Cooper, who couldn't bear to attend the auction where her friend's hard work would be sold off to the highest bidder.

Cooper, along with her husband, Les, had fifteen years of experience dealing with Enloe's drug problem. He didn't use constantly, but he would disappear for days at a time on cocaine binges, and once Les had to physically take him to rehab. After the last incident a few years ago, Enloe came out of intensive treatment in great shape, determined to do right by everyone. "That's why it just sucks about the skateboard accident," Joan says. "That just threw him back into a big old hole that he couldn't climb out of."

Two years ago, Enloe broke the femur in his right leg while skateboarding. He was never able to fully recover from the accident or take himself completely off the painkillers. "He had six surgeries and was like a little old man with a cane and an open, oozing sore in his leg," recalls Joan. "He was facing a lot of self-doubt. He was up to his eyeballs in debt. He wasn't the vibrant Russell that we have known for years. In the last couple of years, that guy was just a glimmer in most people's imagination -- and he certainly felt that way, I can attest."

The vibrant Enloe was sleeved in tattoos and always dressed to the nines in rockabilly style. "I guess I always liked things different," he told Westword in 1994 ("The Thrifters," October 5, 1994). "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?"

Enloe's mother, Kathy Enloe-Miller, remembers that side of her son when she flips through the pages of a family photo album. "Russell had the ability to make everyone feel like they were his best friend," she says. "He had problems, but people genuinely cared about him."

In photo after photo, Enloe is captured laughing beside his nieces and nephews. He's always playing, always at the kids' table. Miller tells stories of how her son would wake up at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning and rush over to the Coopers' house to see the looks on their daughters' faces when they awoke, of how he let his niece eat doughnuts in the bathtub, of how he drew a crowd when he tried to learn ballet after another niece's recital.

"He was a very magnetic person, and he was extremely contagious in his silliness and his zest for life," Joan Cooper says. Everything he did -- be it skateboarding or playing a $500 hand at a blackjack table -- he did with "gusto to the max."

When he was in his twenties, Enloe started going out on buying trips through small towns, cleaning out the back stock of mercantiles and dry-goods stores hoarding roomfuls of never-worn clothes dating as far back as the 1920s. "He was always about finding some kind of buried treasure," Joan says. "He would try to get into the dry-goods stores, but some of these crotchety men wouldn't let him." In that event, Enloe's strategy was to find a barber shop and hang out all day, just listening. When he went back to the store, he'd say he was "so and so's" nephew. At that, they'd usually let him in, and he'd offer cash for the whole lot.