Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010 | 2 a.m.
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Browsers find themselves wandering through a maze of dining room sets and patterned armchairs at Bill Johnson and Marc Comstock’s downtown Las Vegas antiques store. Then, they are drawn into the vortex that is a bubble gum-pink kitchen at the rear of the shop.
Pausing in front of the cotton candy-colored time warp, as if stopping at the missing door of the fully transported kitchen, some wonder why anyone would own something in such a hue, while others sweetly reminisce how their grandmother owned a kitchen just like it.
“Every day people walk around and say, ‘Oh, I remember my grandmother had this!’ — and it’s never the grandfather, it’s always the grandmother,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Like every piece in the Retro Vegas shop, the 1960s kitchen is a glimpse into Las Vegas’ brief but unique history.
Its counters cluttered with dishes and kitschy knickknacks give a lived-in illusion, but its rarely used stove and oven tell the story of a privileged life of housekeepers and fine dining at the kitchen’s former home in the upscale Rancho Circle neighborhood.
For Johnson, 53, and Comstock, 56, it represents a piece of their own history. The couple salvaged the kitchen from Las Vegas artist Beate Kirmse and her 1960s home in the historic neighborhood as the first piece for their venture into Las Vegas antiques.
“People will come in all the time with relatives and say, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta see this pink kitchen,’ ” Johnson said. “It’ll be hard to part with it someday because it’s become such a great marketing piece for us.”
But at $5,000 — one of the priciest items in the shop — Retro Vegas’ first baby might not be going away anytime soon.
The shop got started following Johnson’s departure as director of the Atomic Testing Museum, when the couple decided it was time for a change, striking out to turn their passion for the midcentury style into a business and opening in June 2008. The recession has been tough on the furniture and antiques business, so Comstock has kept his job in real estate until the store becomes more sustainable.
At first, there were doubts about opening a store based on Vegas antiques, but thanks to the pink kitchen, followed by a pick at Dean Martin’s cousin’s house and reassurance from other collectors, Johnson and Comstock were confident they’d never run out of Vegas history.
Now, the inventory has grown to about 1,400 items, including Strip casino relics and preserved living room sets (thanks to grandmothers and their plastic covers), with more than 95 percent of them coming from Las Vegas owners.
It’s true that the Vegas artifacts lack war stories and weren’t owned by commanding generals, but the pieces tell the stories of the community’s faithful residents. Comstock and Johnson said they’ve even received comments that Retro Vegas feels more like a museum than a store.
“They get the feeling that they’ve learned something or remembered something from when they were little when leaving the store,” Johnson said of their customers.
Like any good curator, Johnson and Comstock know all the tales and rumors behind their artifacts.
A 300-pound, 1930s crystal chandelier sitting in the front window is one of the shop’s latest finds. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, the sparkly piece is said to have belonged to the late king of sparkle, Liberace.
Johnson and Comstock collect items where they can, including at estate sales and from local collectors and loyal customers. Hoarders have proven to be their best friends, including an especially prolific one named Ricky Dean Kelly.
Kelly told Johnson and Comstock to give him a price for the entire contents of his 1,100-square-foot Huntridge-area cottage and they did — about $6,000 — which gained them more than 500 items for the store.
Kelly’s time as a dancer on the Strip in shows such as “Siegfried & Roy” and “Splash” made him privy to pieces such as old marquees from Caesars Palace’s casino; a suit of armor and headdress that belonged to Roy Horn; and a 5-foot brass horse statue that the couple recovered from his cluttered living room. The suit of armor and headdress were purchased at Retro Vegas by a local for about $300 as a costume for the weekend of Burning Man festivities. Typical Vegas.
The fame behind some of Retro Vegas’ antiques is a draw for customers.
“I’ve always had an interest in what’s unique about the places I’ve lived in,” said Ezra Fowler, a frequent customer of Retro Vegas. “I guess because I embrace where I live, if it’s something out of some famous person’s house, I take an interest. It certainly makes you look longer.”
Ezra and his wife, Kelly Fowler, discovered the store while looking for period pieces for their 1955 home in the Glen Heather neighborhood.
Ezra Fowler said the purchase of their home led them to the people who fill the houses with period pieces, such as Johnson and Comstock.
“The Charleston Antique Mall has its charm, but it’s an antique mall, and there aren’t people who are going to tell you what things are about like Bill and Marc do,” Kelly Fowler said.
Whether it’s because they have a love of midcentury modern or the antiques bring them back to their childhood, the pieces mean something.
Shortly after acquiring a sign from one of Las Vegas’ first themed restaurants, The Bacchanal at Caesars Palace, the store owners recall a woman pacing around the Romanesque, pink neon sign with interest.
She later revealed that she was the daughter of Jay Sarno, former owner of Caesars Palace and Bacchanal, and that she celebrated her first 16 birthdays at the restaurant. The sign represented her own piece of Vegas history.
“Las Vegas has history and culture. Definitely. It may just be a little different from what most people think,” Comstock said.
“The way I like to put it is history is everywhere, it’s like the weather,” Johnson added. “It’s just longer in some places and shorter in others.”