Saving what’s left of Aspen’s character
September 20, 2006
Pretty soon the only reasons left for anyone to go to Aspen, Colo., will be to ski Aspen Mountain or to get busted and tasered by the local cops. It will be a judgment call as to whether the potential pleasures of the one are worth the obvious discomfort of the other. The things that are common to most regular American towns, the reasons people would go there, will have ceased to exist in Aspen. It will only seem like a real town to people who come from Rodeo Drive.There used to be a bunch of bookstores in Aspen. There was the Unicorn, The Aspen Bookstore in the Mill Street Station, Timberline and, of course, Explore Booksellers. There was also the Lion and Lamb, a Christian bookstore that survives still, despite enjoying little or no business from me through the years.The existence of all those bookstores, more or less at once, was back in the dark ages before celebrities preceded their visits to town with press releases, and before publicity-loving local philanthropists decided that they should alert the media every time they leave a tip. Back in the good old days (oops, looks like a “good old days” column coming up), there was the Isis for first-release movies and the Wheeler for art-house and indie films. When they built the Playhouse it was quite a deal, and it had just one big screen; they turned it into a multiplex later. Wednesday nights were porno night. These were pre-Betamax days, and you actually had to go to a movie theater to view this kind of educational material. The point is, at that point, that you had three perfectly good movie theaters and several bookstores, just like a real town with real people.Things have changed; all that regular-people stuff is quickly falling away. I wonder what Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke would have said if they’d been told that their cultural and intellectual Mecca might, some day, become a town without a bookstore? Clearly there are plenty of folks around who could give a hoot what the Paepckes would have thought, but there are also those who still believe their values are worth something – books, music, culture.It’s not just Explore that’s an endangered species. The way things are going, it won’t be long before there’s no movie theater here either. The music store Sam Goody already got the boot, and The Great Divide had to do its best to take up the slack. It’s a strange situation when a community is faced with losing such commonplace amenities – not for lack of business, but because there’s no such thing as enough business to pay for the real estate.If the rich actually had the kind of class they pretend to have, they’d never consider building their jillion-dollar houses in a town that doesn’t even have a bookstore. Somehow I don’t see that happening. Judging from what I’ve seen, most of them are only interested in reading the bottom line anyway. We already have an animal shelter that looks like the Starship Enterprise – what more do we need? Maybe some of these philanthropists who think they have to get some kind of “naming” bang for their buck would like a nice bookstore or a movie theater named after them. It’s too late for the Playhouse, but I doubt if Mr. and Mrs. Explore or Mr. and Mrs. Isis would mind. I already have a fairly long list of rich assholes I’d like to see that fancy outhouse next to Wagner Park named after. I think they’d prefer the bookstore.It’s just a thought, another one I don’t see happening. In a town where you can look in any direction and see another monument to ostentation and wretched excess springing up, it’s probably a waste of time to hope for some actual class.It’s been suggested that local government should somehow step up to the plate and make things right. Lifetime resident and former skico head guy D.R.C. Brown wrote a clear, succinct letter to the editor indicating that he thought that the idea of the city partnering up to bail out private business was pretty damn dumb. Fact is, anywhere else he’d be 100 percent right. They’d throw a straitjacket on you for thinking up something like that.Unfortunately Aspen isn’t like anywhere else. The town is in serious danger of becoming just another trinket for the rich, with none of the qualities that actually make a town a town. Sure it’s a free-market system, and we all feel pretty protective about that, and certainly no one wants to be the first person not to make money on Aspen real estate. The problem is, that in this valley, when the market is left to take its course, it seems to result in something really bad happening – bad for everyone but the developers.It’s going to take a lot of creative, lateral thinking to avoid what now looks to be inevitable. People are always uncomfortable with new ideas; that’s why it’s so hard to push them through. But new ideas may be our only hope if were to save what’s left of Aspen’s character.