Unique era ends

Consignment shop had never-ending supply of 'fine junk'

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One of the remaining links to a simpler era in Steamboat Springs retailing has disappeared from Ninth Street. The Unique Shop, a cooperative of women older than 55, and a purveyor of "fine junk," closed its doors in the Squire Building on Friday.

"Of course, it's a sad occasion," Katherine Gourley said. "I've been involved for over 25 years. It's one of the last ties to Steamboat Springs as I knew it when I was growing up."

Gourley was in the shop Thursday retrieving some of the merchandise she offered for sale on consignment there. She clutched a child's doll in the crook of her arm and carried a piece of her needlework and some crocheted doilies made by her mother, Katherine Hudspeth, that dated to the 1940s and '50s.

The Unique Shop also was known to residents of the Yampa Valley and frequent visitors as a place where a shopper might find legitimate antiques from estate sales. There were often old skis, antique cameras, phonograph records, packets of old sheet music in dusty plastic bags, rustic tools from pioneer days and pieces of cowboy memorabilia. But there were also silly garage sale items such as a trio of Pepsi One cans bearing the likeness of a Star Wars character.

The merchandise turned over frequently, and monthly visitors always could find a new treasure hidden in a corner of the tiny shop.

The Unique Shop was solvent when it closed Friday, but members of the cooperative were struggling to find the will to sign a new two-year lease.

The Unique Shop occupied 360 square feet carved out of the larger rectangle that has housed Bamboo Market health food store and restaurant at 116 Ninth St.

Azteca Taqueria will move into the whole space after Bamboo Market moves to a space in Waterside Village at 11th and Yampa streets.

Landlord Frank Hogue knew the Unique Shop cooperative was struggling to attract new members and was losing the energy and sharp eye for antiques that Shirley Sharp of Craig supplied for a quarter century. Sharp, who supplied some of the best merchandise in the shop has an arthritic back. She no longer wants to travel to estate sales and had eased out of the cooperative.

In conversations about the future of the shop, members had been noncommittal, Hogue said.

Cooperative member Betty Leipold said it was not the fault of Azteca's owners that the Unique Shop went away. She said there was confusion about how many square feet of space was being leased to the restaurant.

Hogue said that was not really the case.

He said he asked the restaurant owners whether they wanted the Unique Shop space and they replied, "We'll make it work without it."

However, because the Unique Shop shares restrooms with the restaurant, and because it is part of a larger remodel being undertaken to meet the needs of Azteca, Hogue said he asked Sharp and the cooperative to sign a two-year lease.

They never were comfortable with committing beyond April 2006, he said.

Hogue said they always had a sweetheart deal on rent, and the women at the Unique Shop didn't hesitate to agree. They paid pennies on the dollar compared to typical rents in the downtown commercial district.

Joy Sills, who formerly was an antique dealer and ran a gift store in Laguna Beach, Calif., said she became involved in the Unique Shop to share the camaraderie and meet people.

"It's a fun thing," Sills said. "It's my day out of the cage."

Sills was sorting through costume jewelry as she spoke. She still had a fur collar of undetermined origin for sale for $20 (less 20 percent going-out-of-business discount). Other merchandise lingering on the shelves included a kerosene lamp, a small white rock painted to look like Santa Claus, a set of fireplace tools, a pair of wooden shoes from Holland and a Union Leader plug tobacco can priced at $45. They're collectible, you know.

Piled in boxes were 50-year old school textbooks and a stack of old Fortune magazines from the World War II era. The magazines were filled with stories about large manufacturing plants turning out aircraft engines and battle tanks, all interspersed with words encouraging readers to purchase War Bonds.

Frank Hogue manages the Squire Building for his mother, Margaret Squire Hogue, 86. The building was purchased by his grandfather, Frank Squire, in 1946, and its red brick and stone façade is a downtown landmark. In the summer, the Hogues plan to replace the mortar in the brickwork as part of a broader historic renovation.

Frank Hogue said he and his mother always have sought to provide commercial space for small local businesses at reasonable rates -- the Squire Building is home to jewelry makers, a seamstress, hairdresser, massage therapist and a nonprofit, as well as Lyon's Corner Drug, the anchor tenant.

Leipold, who coined the term "fine junk" to describe the merchandise at the Unique Shop, called its closing the end of an era.

"This is an institution," she said. "It's another one going down."

The word "unique" is not a relative term. Something is either unique, or it is not. But Steamboat might be just a little less unique, now that it has turned the corner on the most eclectic shop in town.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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