Paul Andersen: Where you get what you need in Aspen

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The Rolling Stones could have written the theme song to Carl’s Pharmacy and the Miners’ Building. “You can’t always get what you want / but if you try Carl’s and Miners’ / you’ll get what you need …”

If you can’t find something at Carl’s and Miners’, you probably don’t need it. These unique, homespun Aspen stores are a lesson in needs versus wants for a culture and community where wants are grossly oversized when compared to basic needs.

An ad in a recent Aspen Times revealed the utilitarian brilliance of the stores’ owner, Carl Bergman. It was a simple, old-school ad featuring one word and one image: “Buttons,” it announced, with a picture of a button.

Who buys buttons in Aspen except for a few dozen needle-and-thread folk who need simple things, like buttons, to keep their garments secure against winter weather? The ad stood out in stark contrast in local newspapers that are choking with real estate porn listing extravagant multimillion-dollar homes that shout “Want! … Want! … Want!”

Buttons are important, and so are plumbing pieces and lighting fixtures and water purifiers and tent stakes — all of which you can find at Carl’s and Miners’. The list of goods is infinite, and it makes you wonder what genius stocks these stores with a vast multiplicity of items that occupy countless nooks and crannies.

If you shop at Carl’s and Miners’ (they face each other on Main Street), the friendly and seemingly clairvoyant staff will direct you to the exact place where your items await. Here is a personal, authentic shopping experience you won’t get at Wal-Mart.

Talk about authentic! Carl’s and Miners’ are the most authentic businesses in Aspen because the staff serves customers without pretense, whether pointing a customer toward a delicate instrument like a toilet plunger or leading them discreetly to a personal item like a laxative.

Carl Bergman’s stores are reminiscent of the old general store that proliferated in small-town life as places of utility and economy, stores where you could get everything you needed to live. Big-box retailers and online shopping have in many places decimated the mom-and-pop general stores, but not in Aspen, where Carl has kept the institution alive and loved in contrast with the twin opiates of glitz and glamour.

Think of the coveted locations of Carl’s two buildings and the cash-in value should he decide to sell and follow the geriatric trail of tears to some godforsaken desert internment camp in a dry, hot, hellish place where people from the mountains go to die, regally entering Valhalla while playing golf or pickleball.

Not Carl. He is loyal to the roots of Aspen where he serves as an antidote to the jaded cynicism about the old mining town as a mecca of prestige and status for the crumbs of the upper crust.

Carl holds tenaciously to traditional community values. And if you don’t believe me, ask him. You can often find Carl at either store. He is the man in common apparel wearing suspenders that he probably bought at his own store. He may be on hand to confer with his loyal staff, to help a customer, or to kibitz about the plight of Aspen as a transplant of Rodeo Drive.

The centerpiece of the Miners’ Building is a 1880s steam-hoisting engine from the Mayflower Lode on Aspen Mountain. This vestige of the past is the heart of the building and conveys Carl’s love and reverence for the history of Aspen at a time, long ago, when a store like the Miners’ Building was essential to the workings of the city and its industry.

Carl has been a major force in preserving Aspen’s mining history, installing a working steam engine at the Historical Society’s Holden-Marolt barn display and making visible the rich and fascinating history of Aspen’s historic core.

Living in a world of material excess, where any want can be immediately gratified at myriad virtual online stores, Carl’s and Miners’ are tangible and real. You won’t find a sable coat with Paris labels or the silicone implants for a boob job, but then you probably don’t really need them.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at