During my early-to-mid avocado suburban boyhood summers, my parents would send me to YMCA camp in North Denver to get me out of the house, out of the neighborhood, into the real world. They’d grown up in L.A. and worried our sprawling tract’s narrow horizons were cramping my worldview, deeming Y-Camp a worthwhile investment in my upbringing.
The YMCA bus would pass Marlowe’s Toys & Collectibles, but a red light in front of the store at Wolff Street often halted its voyage. I’d sit on the starboard side of the eastbound bus just to peer into Marlowe’s and absorb the palpable coolness seeping from the place. North Denver kid locals on the bus played to my expectancy. They had me believing there were ‘60’s-era G.I. Joe helicopters, red-stripe-tire Hot Wheels in blister packs, legions of disco-colored Processed Plastic army men, chic metallic-green Schwinn 5-speed bikes with banana seats and cheater slicks and urbane board games like Pachisi I’d never heard of. According to the native guides, Marlowe’s still sold nickel candy and novelties, whatever those were. A room “in the back” enshrined ultra-rare comics and baseball-card packs that, in turn, entombed mummified bubblegum.
By contrast, my beige-toned neighborhood Conoco gas station stocked grape Hubba Bubba and Archie & Jughead. My soul was being held for deposit in a 1920’s Denver-Square house; all I had to do was grow up, move in and reclaim it.
Two decades later, back in Colorado after Desert Storm, I was occupying a friend’s couch in North Denver. I’d landed an accounting job in the south-side ’burbs and was waiting a month for the build-out of my first house, a custom town home, near the mall, eight minutes from work. Marlowe’s still anchored Wolff Street, six blocks from my buddy’s house.
When I entered the legendary store the first time, I was Schliemann discovering Troy. The fabled G.I. Joe 1/6th-scale mongo helicopter hung from the ceiling, resplendent in a shade of ochre plastic never duplicated in thirty subsequent years. Marlowe’s featured pews of Art Deco hip-high display cases with sports cards of hoopsters like Lew Alcindor and swatters named George Herman Ruth and Denver Broncos heroes #32 John Keyworth and #50 Bobby Maples. The store’s ambiance reminded me of my grandfather’s old tobacconist’s and perceptibly manifested a time-out-of-time aura.
I heard Marlowe before I saw him. His voice carried from the mythical rear chamber as he counseled his garage-sale scout to offer more for a would-be seller’s Lionel G-scale diesel locomotive set next time; Old Man Gary had squandered a rare opportunity. Marlowe’s was a voice of treacle burbling in an Istanbul hookah but more gravelly with undertones of lycanthropy. He walked out front and I met the legend, a man with Brylcreemed black hair, five-foot-eleven or -thirteen, clearly the great-grandson of a man who’d stoked the furnace of a steamship for the navy of the Old Country in the Adriatic during a war of empires.
“What can I help you with?” that voice inquired with the timing of a waiter who asks if you’d like an iced tea refill as you’re taking another bite of filet mignon. I’d just spotted the pricey 1959 Bart Starr Green Bay Packers Topps card that would complete my set and I’d drooled over seeing it. I covered for my faux pas and summoned forth a reasonable substitute for rational conversation, star-struck in a toy store. I overpaid for five plastic army men, old-school soldiers made before they’d fubar’ed the mold, making the original grenade-thrower effeminately wave the troops forward with his now-open palm, a quarterback without a football.
North Denver was replete with other cool stores, murals on buildings, horseshoe alleys, Frank Lloyd Wrong houses, xeriscaped yards and pocket parks. Marlowe’s resonated with the soul of the quarter; it harmonized with the neighborhood’s odd charms where residents placed more value in character than convention. But it wasn’t eight minutes from work.
The town home builder hit bentonite clay and offered buyers outs or delays. I’d hold down my buddy’s couch a few months while I decided, so I pitched in for groceries.
Walking to the neighborhood Safeway — a ripple-roofed time capsule they hadn’t yet gentrified — past the parking lot’s lurking Can Bank automatic recycler with its bumbling grumblebees and beer/soda/slime whiff, I spotted a bizarre Mopar early ’60’s bastard-child four-door tannish oversized parody of a conveyance with eleventeen times more character than any vehicle in North Denver. I don’t know if it was Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, fish or fowl but it had to be Marlowe’s.
Inside the grocery store, I spotted Marlowe and Old Man Gary, trolling the flecked-linoleum aisles, dickering about their budget, which intrigued me so I eavesdropped. Twice, Marlowe told Gary, “We can’t afford that.” They’d procured a couple boxes of dietetic cookies, some of those dinged cans from the shelf way back by the pharmacy, a four-pack of one-ply toilet paper and the cheese Marlowe tossed into their cart: Colby Jack, 2.4 pounds at $1.79 a pound, near its expiration date, consequently on sale. I’d seen it first and passed on it.
I chose the express line but a snafu put me seconds behind Marlowe and Gary exiting the old-fashioned lane. I followed them out to the parking lot. As the toy-store duo walked up to what someone once had foisted upon the public as a car, Marlowe confided to Gary in that goosebump-raising burble, “They forgot to ring up the cheese!”
The math on the Colby comes out like this: 2.4 pounds times $1.79 a pound rounds down to $4.29. It was big enough money to make a difference in the legend’s life. I thought back to when I’d been in Marlowe’s, recalled how Marlowe had corrected Gary’s underestimation of the worth of the un-purchased collector railroad. I realized the conversation hadn’t been about price; it had been about value.
The next day, I bought that Bart Starr card for fifty dollars. Number Fifteen now captains the mantle of my North Denver bungalow.
Sean Jones has been a dad, a soldier, a teacher, a computer technician, a translator, a foreign exchange student, an Eagle Scout, a city councilman and a game designer but never a lawyer, an astronaut or a cowboy. His favorite hobby is any kind of metal fabrication: customizing cars, welding, sculpting steel and aluminum; he’s a Jones who wants to be a smith.
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