Len’s Surplus, 1974

Huddled in a weather rotted building with encrusted windows in downtown Nevada City, Len and the boys spent their winters sitting around that rusting tin woodstove playing pinochle. Since they came from an era of Humphry Bolgart, and James Cagney, all chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, wore felt Stetson hats and walked with that fifties Bolgart swagger; silver flasks in hip pockets.

They were old men by the time I moved to the struggling ex-gold rush town filled with empty shops and boarded windows. It was just before Nevada City, like so many small towns with a story to tell, had been turned into one more roadside attraction.

During those painfully few remaining years before tourism, the downtown area boasted Dickerman’s drug store, an actual barbershop, a hardware store, even a button factory. There were two restaurants and a half dozen drinking establishments. At one time, Nevada City was a working town where the people could buy things they needed without going the three miles to that dreaded Grass Valley, a long time rival town.

Len’s Surplus was an expansive building hanging half-stilted over a steep incline. His business took up one entire corner of Spring and Pine streets and stretched over to what is now so apply called the Miners Foundry Cultural Center; back then an actual working foundry. Len’s Surplus, considered an eyesore in later years, carried bolts, nuts, wheels and rollers. He had disassembled bridges, old doorframes and claw foot bathtubs. There were barrels of surplus brackets and buckets of rusted ball bearings. If you were an energetic and enterprising person with a willingness to search, Len had it.

If one walked in on one of those famous ongoing pinochle games, Len would hardly give you the time of day.

“I’m looking for a three inch “L” bracket,” you might say.

While shuffling the next hand of cards, head cocked to keep the smoke out of his eyes, from the side of his mouth, he might murmur, “Down on the back side of the property along the fence.” You might get a point with a thumb, or nod of his head to indicate the general direction, but too quickly, he was back into the game, ignoring maybe his only customer in days. A fifth of Jack Daniels always sat somewhere on the moisture-warped folding table.

In the winter, the only warm spot in Len’s surplus was right next to that cheap tin woodstove. It would only be logical that the pinochle table was as close to the stove as possible.

Outside, below the game, in the working part of Len’s yard, were muddy narrow isles with product randomly stacked atop one another to the two-story roofline. Len’s surplus was a place full of product. Except for Len and the boys, the place was never abundant with people.

When Len sold out and moved his junk into the hills, the building was bulldozed, the property cleared, then turned into lawyers offices, a winery and parking lots.

I’m sure it had been going on since the mines shut down in the fifties, but as far as I was concerned, Len’s was the first of the old businesses to go. During those early years in the former Nevada City, one building after another was purchased, reconditioned and leased to more upscale stores and curio shops. Our defunked goldrush town was a renovator’s dream.

Twenty-seven years later, the hordes of tourist come and go. The movie producers bring in their crews. Painters and photographers try to capture our quaint small town feeling, but when old Len and the boys disappeared, I knew some special piece of this small town atmosphere moved up into those hills with them.