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.

It was in 1991 that Enloe decided he needed his own store to sell all the stuff he'd acquired over the years. So he and Denver vintage veteran Ronnie Crawford opened American Aces. At that time, vintage jeans were selling high and fast, especially to the Japanese. "He was kind of rock-starrin' it when that store was doing really good," Les Cooper remembers. "It was just a cool, happening place. Music blaring, hip young people working for him, wad of money in his pocket."

But the jeans craze didn't last. "When that really started crapping out in the late '90s, he was always trying to regroup to find a new way to approach the business," Les says. In 1999, Enloe opened Crown Mercantile, which featured kitsch furniture and accoutrements that matched his personality. In 2004, he closed Aces and moved the store's clothes into the back room at Crown. "I think he just floundered after that," Les says.

This past March, Enloe talked to Westword about struggling to afford his rent, which had risen from $900 to $2,400 a month. "I'm in a real catch here, 'cause I just got over a serious injury, so physically, I'm not able to move," he said. "Financially, I'm not able to move. I've only got myself established here after six years, so I don't want to go anywhere. I've never been in a situation like this before. Business is tough."

By May, Enloe also realized he might lose his house, but at the time, no one knew things had gotten that bad. "He would never burden any of us with that," Joan Cooper says.

At Crown, Phil Snyder and Kim Danner had gotten used to constantly fielding calls from creditors. The last time Phil saw Enloe was on a particularly bad day: A woman they'd bounced a check to kept calling, saying she was going to sue. Enloe had come into the store that Monday, May 22, and picked up a stack of bills from vendors, saying that he was going to send letters apologizing. The previous week he'd told Snyder that he was closing Crown at the end of June.

On Wednesday, May 24, Snyder and Danner heard that Enloe had disappeared, and the two decided they weren't going to run the store anymore; they felt like they were enabling him, and they'd been through it too many times. When the call came the following morning that Enloe had been found dead in his car, Snyder was not surprised.

Enloe's death -- attributed to acute cocaine intoxication, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner's Office -- wasn't a surprise to Joan Cooper, either. She had broken down in sobs on Wednesday night when she heard Enloe had gone missing: "I knew he would turn up dead. I knew it. I knew with the scope of his problems and his past issues with drugs that he was not going to make it out of it. I had to figure out how to explain to my daughters what happened to their favorite uncle. He was like an uncle to them."

At the auction, excited bargain seekers were interspersed with Enloe's somber friends. There were whole shelves of dolls and toys selling for as little as $10. The phone and credit-card machine went for $110, and the glass display case in front of the checkout counter -- a vintage piece labeled "Pen Department" across the top -- received the highest bid, $700.

Nearly two hours into the bidding, the auctioneer was pulled away by one of his co-workers. When he came back, he said he was moving on to the larger items and signs because they weren't nearing the bulk bid. If they couldn't up the ante quickly, he would call the auction off.

"Okay, now I'm getting a little nervous," Tait said.

It was only moments later that the auctioneer stopped again.

"I just don't think we're going to raise enough money to hit the bulk bid," he said. The total was $14,000 short of the $21,000 mark.

Everything would go to Decade. That is, everything Tait couldn't get the lingering bidders to pay cash for before they left.

While Tait borrowed a cell phone to let her credit-card company know she was about to make a $21,000 charge, Cynthia and Ron Wright lingered at the back of the store, making plans to buy some mannequins and fixtures for Boss Unlimited. The Wrights had given Enloe his start as a buyer years before he opened American Aces, and later became his competitors when they opened their shop on South Broadway. Cynthia's eyes welled with tears as she looked around the store for what would be the last time. A week before he died, Enloe had asked her if he could work for them again, heading out on road trips to hunt for vintage finds as he once had.

"Closing down the store was shutting down a piece of Russell," says Brian Blakeney, one of Enloe's oldest friends. "Thinking about closing felt like such a personal failure to him. It just got to be too much. He wanted to be a picker again."

In a way, Joan Cooper thinks it's fitting that Enloe died young, since he never played by anybody's rules but his own. The coroner classified Enloe's death an accident, and that's what the Coopers believe it was. "I'm not a street-corner preacher, but he and I had talked about God," Les says. "He believed in God, and I know he wouldn't knowingly commit suicide."

"I think he was probably self-medicating and trying to erase pain and worry," Joan adds. "I don't think anyone can stand in his shoes and understand the pressure that guy was feeling."

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Jessica Centers