Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

Gary Grannerman co-owns Heuer Locksmiths and Downtown Hardware, a 600-square-foot storefront beneath Craig Heller's Louderman Lofts on Eleventh and Locust. As recently as the early '90s, Grannerman lorded over a 2,000-square-foot space at Eighth and Olive.

"This location and Eighth and Olive are two different worlds," says Grannerman, a burly old sort who wears a flannel shirt to work. "Business boomed before they ran people out of the Paul Brown and Century buildings."

Given that his competition these days is epitomized by the likes of Home Depot, Grannerman considers his move to a smaller, more specialized operation (it's all about the locks) to have been fortuitous. But were it not for Heuer's long-standing (est. 1921) flagship on Kingshighway and Page, the downtown outpost, which Grannerman operates in the red, would be impossible.

James Mercer sits at the foot of his bed in the Mark 
Twain Hotel.
Jennifer Silverberg
James Mercer sits at the foot of his bed in the Mark Twain Hotel.
The terra cotta Twain's reputation is dubious, but it 
remains Lost Downtown's most vibrant corner.
Jennifer Silverberg
The terra cotta Twain's reputation is dubious, but it remains Lost Downtown's most vibrant corner.

"A lot of these lofts have forced out some businesses we used to provide small hardware to, and the lofts won't generate work for a while because their locks are all new," the proprietor muses. "I've thrown out 50 accounts. I'd do their shopping for them. I'd even buy them a sandwich if they wanted me to." Despite the flagging clientele, Grannerman sees some cause for optimism, specifically citing the "time and talents" of his landlord, Heller, and the Roberts brothers, Steve and Mike, who are renovating the nearby American Theatre (which they'll soon revert to its original moniker, the Orpheum) on Ninth Street. "I can see a general trend that St. Louis is coming back," he says.

Grannerman has suffered enough to develop his own pet theory as to why many small businesses -- and happy hours -- in Lost Downtown continue to founder: "To me the biggest decline came with casinos. You can track it in my books. People will take their paychecks and go right to the boats. People will gamble where they used to go drinking beer, and they don't have money for tools anymore."

But even if Lost Downtown's denizens were to bypass the casinos, they'd probably have to venture elsewhere to part with their coin. "I look forward to the day when I can buy a legal pad or camera battery without getting in my car and driving to Brentwood," says Margie Newman, a loft pioneer who operates an art gallery beneath her Tenth Street condominium.

"There's not a movie theater down here," adds Dooley. "I really hope they start addressing cultural things. That's the next area to address."

"Beware the mega-project," warns Carolyn Toft, executive director of the longtime local preservation nonprofit Landmarks Association. "To have theater, to have small events, good places to hear blues and jazz -- we don't have that yet downtown. Some of these things are pretty esoteric."

Last Call

To hear James Mercer tell it, the junction of Ninth and Pine used to be "a jazzy little corner." Back then the Mark Twain was known as the Baltimore and was home to a swingin' lounge called the Upstream.

"The Upstream had an irregular heartbeat, and that's what made it exciting," Mercer recalls on the stroll up Olive for a Friday-night supper at Dapper Dan's. "Ninth Street was The Strip."

Though he hasn't patronized Dan's in years, once inside Mercer is instantly recognized by a veteran parking-lot attendant nursing a can of Busch at a table near the bar. This sort of thing happens to him all the time, Mercer says: Wander the same city streets year after year and you become as much a part of the landscape as the concrete.

Mercer orders a sirloin burger and Coke. A few bites into his meal, he's reminded of a story.

One Sunday morning he woke up hungry in his cot at the Twain, without a dime to his name. Aware of the fact that Dan's, unlike so many St. Louis restaurants, kept Sunday hours, and confident that a fellow patron would front him a couple of bucks for a bite to eat, Mercer set out up Olive Street in search of sustenance. As he neared Tucker, he was stopped by a homeless man he knew -- Mercer was once homeless, too -- and offered a swig of booze.

"At that particular time, I needed a drink," recounts the shoeshine man, now a reformed tippler.

As they worked their way through the jug, Mercer and his friend noticed that another acquaintance, a panhandler, was enjoying a rare hot streak of spare-change affluence, a phenomenon Mercer likens to a jazz musician sustaining a long, sweet solo. The bum sauntered over and offered Mercer a packet of graham crackers he'd procured earlier in the day. Famished, Mercer accepted.

"I ate it real slow, like a six-course meal," he says, his hamburger now cooling before him. "That's how life works: It always comes back around."

By the time Mercer concludes his tale and pays his tab, the cold rain that had begun to drip an hour earlier has turned to snow. Passing the crumbling Century Building and bound for home, he waxes philosophical. Downtown, he says, "is pregnant."

Then, gazing down Ninth Street, his short journey's homestretch, he savors the tranquility of the white night.

"Man, this is beautiful," Mercer exclaims, extending his hand toward the Twain's front door. "Peace."

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