BYGONES & OBSOLETE STORIES: Antique, barber, and saddle shops vs Urban Renewal…by Clark Phelps

County Antiques – Wardell’s Barbershop – 426 So.State St.

These businesses evoke great personal memories. Ken Newberg was owner/operator of County Antiques, across the street from the the iconic castle-looking Salt Lake City and County Building. The shop was cluttered and the merchandise seemed to never change. In fact some great things would come and go within a day, but the rubble seemed to stay. He could have been the archetype of an old gay queen antique dealer. He was forced to move when the Utah State Matheson Courthouse Building took over the location. I was fortunate to purchase a classy curved glass showcase from him, the kind that antique dealers are reluctant to sell because they are such a great store fixtures. He was personable, and had deep knowledge that could relate fascinating stories.

Most people remember Ken sitting in the back of the store on a beat up oak roll-top desk that had turned into a workbench and lost the grand luster of a prized turn-of-the-century antique. He liked lighting fixtures. The desk was cluttered with wire, tools and brass lamp parts. He would polish and rewire them. He hit the mother lode when he was able to salvage the hundreds of small bathroom fixtures and wonderful light fixtures from the wreckage of the once opulent Newhouse Hotel. Today, in my kitchen, I have two stylish lamps purchased from Ken that were from the hotel salvage. 

Because of Ken’s character and the decades of tenure in the space, the cast of characters, “Lookie Lou’s”, B. S. artists, customers and hanger- ons, in that antique shop will never be duplicated.

Jim Wardell, the barber, looked like a caricature of Groucho Marx. He had very big ears stuffed with large antique hearing aids. The barbershop seemed like an afterthought. He had been in his place for 62 years. His shop was so much more than a place to get a bad haircut. A sign near the front door proudly stated: “Heresy spoken here”. He was known by many as the “State Street Socrates”.

With his vast collection of UFO photographs, he would choose a few and remove them from one of his 3 ring binders to set them up in the window for any passersby to see the randomly changing line up.

He had a world-class collection of tarot cards and other ephemera relating to the occult arts. He was a student of religion with an extensive library and allowed almost anyone to use it for reference. He was an elder in the RLDS Church. He collected a vast amount of anti-Mormon literature that ended up at the Marriott Library. He too, was forced to move with the construction of the courthouse. I did get one treasured antique deck of tarot cards and, better yet, I was able to buy his antique nickel plated brass barbershop cash register. The photo below shows Jim’s cash register in my home as well as another photo of the register its rightful location at the barbershop. It is not the best cash register I’ve ever had, but it is the one I keep because it reminds me of Jim and the stories he told.

Just south of the barber shop and the antique store was an old west experience; Jenkins and Sons Saddlery. It was perfect!  The smells of leather, cowboy customers, high ceilings, wooden floors, big leather sewing machines, a faint smell of leather glue, set this place apart with a visual and olfactory overload.

The Saddlery had been there as long as Utah was a state. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as an amateur hippie leather worker I would shop the store for saddle leather and D rings to make my own stash pouches. I was welcomed, but somewhat out of place with the old stockmen that were the regular customers.

Urban renewal can sound good, but it inevitably knocks out some of the great character of historical cities.


For 40 years I traveled to Mexico. At first, in the 1970s, it was with my wife. Later, after we divorced, it was with friends or more often alone. The place I stayed at the most was my parents’ modest beach-house near Mazatlan. In the 70s it was primitive with no telephone or TV or mail. To get groceries was an event that took bus rides. Later, as Mazatlan grew up around their home, the utilities were modernized and completed. The casa shared a swimming pool with 8 to 12 other ex-pats and it was there, at the pool, that I met Don El Guia.

Don was a native Minnesotan and an avid game fisherman. He had come to Mexico and started a guide business taking Americans out for sport fishing for tuna, mahi-mahi, and Marlin. In the summers, back in Brainerd, Minnesota, he owned and operated the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park. He had a warehouse full of defunct and antique amusement park items and old coin-op machines I was interested in purchasing. Over time, we developed a business relationship as well as a friendship. He offered a dozen times or more to take me fishing but I had little interest. But one year I was down there by myself and feeling lonely. Don propositioned me this way: “I have to take this guy fishing that I don’t really care for and nobody else is going. Would you mind coming along as a buffer?” His appeal to me that I was doing him a favor tricked me into going fishing. “Be here at 5:45 AM with your own lunch, hat and sunglasses and we’ll take care the rest” he said.

And so we set out on a chilly morning on an activity that I had no familiarity with. Don had set six fishing poles from the back of the boat and assigned me to one of them with the problem guest assigned the other five. I found a comfortable seat, back to the sun, and watched the coast of Mazatlan disappear in the distance. I was going to enjoy myself and engage the problem guest in conversation and have fun. Curiously there hadn’t been a marlin caught in Mazatlan in 10 days. This of course was no problem to me but I was hoping that somebody would catch a tuna or better yet a mahi-mahi as I know how to cook and I could’ve turn this fresh fish into delightful meals . In years past, honest to God, I’ve made tuna noodle casserole out of fresh tuna. Of course eating raw Tuna with soy sauce and wasabi is also wonderful as the freshness is guaranteed.

After hours of no luck, which again was not a problem for me, a lookout yelled out ”marlin!” and the boat whipped around to drag the lures in front of the fish. Now with my dumb luck the Marlin fell for whatever lure was on my pole – the one pole out of six. So I sat in the fishing chair put the pole in the cradle and reeled in the fish.

It is the fisherman’s prerogative to turn the fish loose or keep it. I said turn it loose – but captain Don wouldn’t have it. He wanted to bring a marlin into the harbor because no one else was catching them. Truly I had no problem with this capitulation. They raised a special flag on the boat that said we caught a marlin and the captain proudly went back to the harbor where questions were asked. The marlin was more of a prize to the captain Don than it was too me. I don’t care to eat Marlin but that was not an issue. After the gratuitous picture, one of the Mexicans went over and filleted the fish with the skill of a surgeon. He put the boneless flesh in the three plastic bags. Don took two of them. The other bag was parceled around to the people at the harbor, mostly the Mexican help.

I’ve seen a bullfight and heard the story that, after the bull’s ugly murder, its meat is donated to an orphanage. I never really believed it, but I heard the story. The same story is told of unwanted marlins – and I assumed it was just a comfort story. But no, after the marlin was filleted out I got in the car with Captain Don and we went to a Mexican orphanage run by nuns. It was a very sad place. The poverty was obvious. Don took what would’ve been 40 or 50 pounds of marlin flesh and found a place for it in their expansive refrigerator. We sat for a while and took it all in. He was familiar with the sad scene, but I was not. I was affected.

So that’s my story of the unlikely fisherman. I neither wanted a marlin nor set out to catch one. But I did, and here’s the photographic proof. Sadly we did not catch a tuna or a mahi mahi dorado.


Clark Phelps lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Click Here to Read Clark’s Previous Installment of “Bygones & Obsolete Stories…”

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