Upstairs at Carl’s: Stuffed with stuff

Janet UrquhartAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN Need poker chips? Ping-Pong balls? A cheap wristwatch? What about shoe polish, a three-ring binder and knitting needles?Aspen is hardly a shopper’s paradise when it comes to the necessities of everyday life, at least for anyone looking for bed sheets with a price tag that doesn’t match the thread count. For groceries, there’s the supermarket. For everything else, there’s upstairs at Carl’s.”People say, if Carl’s doesn’t have it, then you don’t need it,” claims Penny Meyer, one of several clerks upstairs at Carl’s who knows the ins and outs of the indescribably diverse, jampacked inventory. It’s 41.5 miles from Aspen to the nearest big-box department store – the Wal-Mart in Glenwood Springs – and the drive will take anyone obeying the speed limit at least an hour. While Aspen’s two hardware stores both boast more than what is typically considered “hardware,” the walk up the flight of stairs near the back of Carl’s Pharmacy reveals an unparalleled one-stop shopping bonanza.It’s a must-stop for those who’ve just moved to town and need a pillow, bath towel and shower curtain before night falls.And yet, the second floor at Carl’s is such a local’s secret, a lot of locals don’t know it exists. It’s not until they inquire about batteries, need a hair dryer, shower thongs, or a needle, thread and buttons for an emergency repair that they discover Aspen’s version of the old five-and-dime.”That’s exactly what Carl envisioned when we started the upstairs – a five-and-dime,” said Katie Bergman, who owns Carl’s Pharmacy with her husband, Carl. The couple purchased the Main Street building in 1965 and added a second floor a couple of years later.

The second floor was initially a toy department, but its focus has expanded continuously in response to requests from customers.”Basically, we chose things you couldn’t get anywhere else in town,” Katie Bergman explained. Or, they’re items that one might find at one of Aspen’s pricey, designer boutiques – just not at a price the average local can afford.While the ground floor at Carl’s Pharmacy deals in all the items one would expect to find in a drugstore plus the unexpected – namely a liquor department and small convenience grocery – the second floor is perhaps 1,500 square feet of the most efficiently arranged space anywhere in town.It remains a toy store – buyer Chris Koch has been stocking a dizzying array of playthings for most of his 16 years as a Carl’s employee – but the second floor of Carl’s also provides one-stop shopping for art supplies (a nod to manager Judy Kula’s art background), school supplies, baby stuff, sewing and craft supplies, CDs and DVDs, the basics in kitchenware, linens, sporting goods, children’s books and shipping supplies.”Getting the word out has been the hardest part for us,” said Koch. “A lot of people see the stairs and think it’s offices up there.”

Instead, those who venture up will be greeted, at Christmastime, with all manner of holiday decorations the moment they reach the upper landing. Come October, upstairs at Carl’s is Halloween central – with a profusion of decorations and costumes literally covering the floor as shoppers paw through the inventory.Aspen T-shirts, sweatshirts and souvenirs – everything from shot glasses to playing cards and coffee mugs – are also stocked at the top of the stairs, but the true appeal of the second floor at Carl’s lies beyond the revolving displays on the landing, where Easter baskets and egg-decorating supplies are currently available, not to mention the ever-popular collection of zany party hats.Koch maintains a selection of toys that is, he claims, the largest in the valley.”I definitely have more different items than Wal-Mart,” he said.The action-figure collection ranges from the standard superheroes to Jesus – “king of the action figures,” Koch noted. There’s also the Albino Bowler, one of Koch’s favorites, and a Crazy Cat Lady (comes with six plastic cats) among the action-figure genre.

The inventory includes the hugely popular Fart Machine, plastic sleds, jigsaw puzzles, board games, dashboard dolls with bobbing heads (including, again, Jesus, and Betty Boop), model airplanes and cars, a worthy selection of those little jars of paint for model-building enthusiasts, and old favorites like Etch-A-Sketch, Lincoln Logs, Hot Wheels cars and bubble-blowing solution. And that’s but a tiny fraction of the toys.

Stop by the counter, though, if you’re looking for the 49-cent tiny parachute figurines that can be occasionally spotted floating down from the gondola cabins on Aspen Mountain. The baseball cards are up at the counter, too.

Aspen resident Virginia Morrow was checking the baby supplies, though, in her recent quest for a toy for her 6-month-old grandson and buttons for the sweater she made for him. “It’s about the only place in town isn’t it? For lots of things,” she mused, heading back down the stairs a short time later, purchases in hand.Local resident Nick Consoldane came in search of bedsheets and socks and found both, sparing himself a trip to Glenwood and, he estimated, a two-hour bus trip.Socks and underwear are among the upper floor’s most sought-after items – particularly for anyone whose luggage didn’t arrive simultaneously with the start of their Aspen vacation, said clerk Sarah Penee. The store also sells plenty of hair dryers.

About 13 footsteps will carry a shopper the length of just one aisle upstairs at Carl’s. In one of those aisles, there are pet toys and supplies, glues, epoxies, picture-hanging supplies, shoelaces and shoe polish, tools, combination locks, extension cords, clothespins, outdoor thermometers, ashtrays, American flags, umbrellas, alarm clocks, toilet plungers, windshield scrapers, garden gloves, kitchen appliances, lunchboxes, hair dryers, glassware, electric razors and plastic containers with lids, among other things.Move over to the sporting goods aisle and peruse the tightly packed shelves (and floor) for a badminton set, Coleman grill, tennis balls, winter gloves and hats, freezer packs, Bungee cords, yoga mats, repellents, survival tools, socks, Nalgene bottles, footballs, soccer balls, a volleyball, a basketball, swim goggles, underwear, long underwear, Frisbee discs, swim fins, air pumps, table-tennis equipment and extra badminton birdies.Unsuspecting shoppers may find items they didn’t even know they needed when they came in looking for a flashlight, earphones or a room humidifier. Fart powder, for example. Or beer goggles (glasses with little beer mugs for lenses).”It amazing. They have everything in here,” said Diana Stein of Aspen, who admits to strolling the aisles on a regular basis. “It’s like an old general store.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is