Monday, June 2, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
A map accompanying this story has a correction.
You may have heard that the economy is troubled. Like a child, it’s pulling the wings off flies, breaking its toys, holding its breath until it turns blue.
Something like that. Troubled.
Much of the talk is about declines in economic indicators or collapses of investment banking firms. But this economy does have a real face, one we can see on the streets of our stucco town.
If this were a simpler place, you could go to Main Street, see shuttered general stores and dried-up soda fountains, ask people there how they were doing. But not here. To take the pulse of Las Vegas, you have to find a lot of Main Streets.
We did. Call it a tour. Gather up the family, pile into the car, take out a loan to pay for the gas, and come along on our journey into reality.
We start on Eastern Avenue, south of Interstate 215 (it’s close to the Sun’s office). Eastern looks pretty good. New shops, some closed restaurants but new ones moving in to replace them.
Travel east to downtown Henderson, which has kind of a Main Street in Water Street. It’s never looked like business heaven, but it seems better these days. We see a couple of new places to eat, and the biker bar is still packed.
Drive northeast to Stephanie Street. Here’s where you start to see the signs of economic blues. A few furniture stores are closed, a CompUSA is deceased, and over on Warm Springs Road and Marks Street are a few more closed furniture stores.
Turn west onto Sunset Road, go up Sandhill Road and turn west onto Tropicana Avenue. Ouch.
It’s hard to know what’s gone wrong on Tropicana between Eastern and Sandhill. It’s brutal. Nail salons, martial arts studios, spiritualists, restaurants — there doesn’t seem to be a pattern.
Marilyn Bolin’s shop, Design Hair & Nails, has shrunk from two storefronts to one. But she is fine.
“We could use more walk-ins and we could use more hairdressers, but that’s always been the case,” Bolin says. “I’m supposed to say how horrible this all is, right? No. It’s OK.”
Bolin’s had her shop for 21 years, eight years in this strip mall. She has a good landlord and thinks it’ll work out. “Good thing about hair is, everybody’s hair grows,” Bolin says.
Farther west, closer to Pecos, a quarter of the storefronts are empty at a strip mall, including one that once housed a jobs agency for temporary workers.
On the edge of the mall, though, preparations were being made to open a bar, the Blue Dog Pub. Two guys overseeing the last of the construction won’t give their names, but they will talk. Are they scared to be opening a business at a time like this?
“No,” says one. “Location. I don’t want to give away our secret, but I think the inner city structure is just more stable than anything outside the 215.”
“If we were in the northwest,” says the second guy, “I would be scared.”
Near the closed jobs office is a Courtesy Loans shop. An old blue Pontiac Grand Am stops hard in front. A woman gets out waving a lighted cigarette and says to a stranger, “I hate these people. Call you 500 million times a day because you’re two (expletive) days late.”
Turn north. Drive up to where you expect trouble, downtown Las Vegas and up past it to North Las Vegas.
And boy, they look bad, except — except, downtown and North Las Vegas still look pretty much like downtown and North Las Vegas.
(Well, actually, North Las Vegas looks like North Las Vegas with more stores than it used to have and downtown looks like downtown with more and better bars.)
Keep driving, but now turn south and head west, down under Summerlin Parkway.
A lot of the worst stuff, it turns out, is happening west of I-15. And since the housing market has collapsed, a good place to start is with, yes, a furniture store.
Their dead or dying husks are everywhere. Levitz, Wickes — the big guys have bailed out or are doing so soon. And for the rest, well, if you’re looking for a way to beat the heat this summer, surviving furniture stores are the place to do it: good air conditioning, no crowds and salesmen happy for the company.
For instance, why not visit Larry Howard?
Howard has been at Universal Bedroom, on Charleston Boulevard just west of Decatur, since it opened in 1992. He’s the manager, but not for much longer, because it’s going out of business.
He used to see 50 customers a day but now it’s more like 10. The store once had six or seven busy furniture salesmen. Now, it’s Howard and one other.
“A lot of times you just get bored,” he said.
The doors close in a couple of months, five years before he had planned to retire. Maybe he’ll start a furniture Web site or something, he doesn’t know.
Before we leave, Howard recommends a left turn down Rainbow Boulevard. We take it and find mall after mall that has closed or closing furniture stores.
On this stretch, Rainbow Furniture & Accessories remains open — one of only three stores surviving in this strip mall.
Arthur Ivey, a part-time, semiretired salesman, frets about buying a house three years ago, before the crash. “I figured I’d better get in on this before it’s too late,” he says. “Well, brilliant me, right?”
Business is slow. He’s killing time. You remember Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s? And that crazy mule mascot? Man, that was a team.
One of the stores still open is World Market Liquidators, but it’s in its final days and may well be gone before you’re reading this. On this day, you can walk around without meeting a single salesman. By now you could probably use a tank of gas. Luckily, there’s a Terrible Herbst on the corner at Sahara.
Great Rockefeller’s ghost, can you believe it’s $60 to fill the tank?
That’s why we’re stopping at Towbin Hummer farther east on Sahara Avenue. To cheer up.
The lot is full, the back lot is full and the economy model gets 13 mpg in the city. Salesman Joe Thomas says everything is fine, sales are fine.
But you know who’s doing great, a salesman asks.
The Kia dealership next door, and the guys at Hyundai. He stares across the lot.
Little cars, he says, 30 to 40 miles per gallon.
Now drive west on Sahara until you hit Fort Apache Road. On the northwest corner is a closed Rite Aid (actually, they’re all over town).
In the same mall is a closed Z’Tejas, which was a sort of medium-high-end Tex-Mex chain that’s bugged out of Vegas, leaving behind its furniture. A sign in the window says customers can redeem their “ZIP club card points” at Z’Tejas locations in Bellevue, Wash., and Salt Lake City. A call to Z’Tejas’ corporate office didn’t get us any answers, only the promise of an e-mail statement that never came.
Elsewhere in the complex is The Cottage, which was your basic knick-knackery until it went out of business. Still open, however, is the Angel Store (motto: “Best Selection of Angels!”). It sells angels of all sizes and materials, and signs telling you to “Leave a path in the garden so angels can walk through,” and blue charms to ward off the evil eye.
Owner Becky Stadtlander says she’s been hit, but not too hard. People are buying more religious items, but they’re buying cheaper ones. Overall sales are down. Still, she’s confident in her customer service and that christenings, confirmations and funerals will continue.
“We’ve got good times ahead,” Stadtlander says. “Our city is like no other in the United States. We’re the last to go into a recession and we’re going to be the first to come out.”
Across the street is a closed Smith’s grocery. Inside the registers have been ripped out, the shelves are bare and giant red sign letters are piled by the door.
The closure had ripples. “It killed our traffic, no more traffic,” said Steve Yousif, who runs the Vegas Smoke Shop II less than 50 feet from Smith’s.
“The first month I lost about $10,000 over the month before,” Yousif says. “At first people were still coming, they didn’t know it had closed.”
In a valley that doesn’t suffer from a shortage of tobacco, paraphernalia and porn magazine stores, foot traffic makes a shop like Yousif’s succeed. Last month, his rent check bounced. This month, he doesn’t know. Maybe credit cards will help.
Yousif looks up at a small TV as a commentator wonders whether anyone could be as fabulous as multimillionaire performer, mogul and fashion entrepreneur Jay Z. Well, how about his wife, the gorgeous multimillionaire performer, mogul and actress Beyonce?
Yousif stares. “Either you’re up in the sky or down on the bottom,” he says. “There is no more middle.”
Turn south. We’re almost done.
At the Piano Gallery of America, wind blows the door enough to trigger the someone-is-here noise. Meep, meep, meep, as if announcing ghost customers.
The store was deserted except for a window cleaner and a back office secretary who told me to come back when there was a salesman around.
A few doors down, Futons & Furniture is open. Salesman Carlos Rivera had the store to himself, his feet up. Nine months ago, when the store opened, things were good. The grand opening banners are still up.
After Levitz, T Vo’s Furniture and a lamp store closed, business went into a coma, Rivera said.
He’s got the “Godfather” trilogy on DVD.
Now go south on Durango Drive, past Blue Diamond Highway and into the new development of Mountain’s Edge.
True, Mountain’s Edge isn’t tops in the high-foreclosure ZIP codes yet, not like your Spring Valleys and your Silverstone Ranches, nor is it as popular for foreclosure bus tours as Summerlin, but this is the next hot neighborhood for economic disaster, says Mike Krein, president of the National REO Brokers Association and a man who works with 20 plus banks locally.
You won’t notice a lot of for sale signs driving through, he says, because the homeowners association keeps taking them down. You will, however, notice an absence of cars and people in many subdivisions. Signs hang over the walls advertising houses “in the low 200s.”
A drive through Mountain’s Edge is a drive through peace and quiet, the ominous kind, like in a zombie movie.
Okay, let’s end this with a dose of hope.
Drive to the Strip. Stare up at the massive, growing skeleton of City Center and all the other resorts going up.
And think to yourself ...
Oh please, oh please, oh please.