Elementé: the Last of the SLC Bohemians
In 1988, Salt Lake was a fun place to be poor. It was easy to live on small wages, and it was easy to have fun with a few spare dollars. The transition from the free-spirited ’70s to the uptight new conservatism of the Reagan years left a lot of young people feeling like we had something to rebel against. The “Who Cares” Party was running the University of Utah student government; I had a Downtown, three-bedroom apartment for $210 a month, and there were plenty of places to furnish a nonconformist lifestyle: coffee and poetry at The Painted Word, check-your-own beer and punk rock at the Speedway Café and after-show brains and eggs at Bill and Nada’s. For your actual furniture, there were plenty of secondhand shops (ec.lec.tic, Crackers, Elementé) for groovy coffee tables, funky lamps and sofas reminiscent of your grandmother’s living room. Of the aforementioned places, only Elementé remains in place, doing what it does best, with the full zest of the bohemian spirit still intact. But now they are about to close.
Elementé began 27 years ago, when friends Kate Bullen and Patrick Hoagland were having a conversation about the secondhand furniture scene in Salt Lake. Bullen had gone to interior design school. She’d had some jobs, but she knew she just wasn’t the type to work in traditional interior design. Crackers had opened in January of ’88 on the corner of 9th East and 9th South, and Bullen was saying to her mom, “Wouldn’t it be great to open a store like that?” Her mom turned to them and said, “Well, why don’t you?” A store and a partnership was born. They found a location on Pierpont—an off-the-beaten-path, sort of “Wild West” location at the time—on the edge of town and bordered by the railroad on 400 West that shook the building as the trains went by. It was three or four years in when they finally decided to put up a sign—which was a major break from the original Artspace philosophy of a simple storefront—but it was their declaration that they intended to survive.
Over the years, the business changed. Bullen and Hoagland parted ways and Bullen took over, nurturing the shop and the customers who also, more often than not, became friends. A sign hanging in the back reads: “Who of us would not give an instant to be surrounded by objects with the magical power to invoke passion and reflection?” As Bullen says, this is the spirit of the store.
Teresa Bell blew in with the tornado that ripped through downtown in 1999, and together, she and Bullen have curated Elementé into the unique place it is today. Seeing through the haze of possibilities into what a room can be requires imagination and editorial savvy, and as Bell puts it, “Kate is a born editor.” Buying a piece of furniture, used or new, is one thing. Knowing how to make it work in your space with all your other stuff is another. One of the best things you can get from just walking in to Elementé is a sense of how each piece of individual furniture can be integrated into a room. You can wander through the shop’s “vignettes,” seamlessly touring through one room scene to another, each one as unique and interesting as the individual quirky pieces that make them up. Years before Ikea reimagined the showroom, Bullen and Bell were hosting a floor whose every sightline brought up new possibilities for decorating and fertile imaginings of what you could call home.
The 20th Century produced so many design-oriented, quality-made items, and they have lived long, well-cared-for lives. They are still ready to be repurposed, to live new lives with new people. However, the era of great used stores is coming to an end. So many of these fine and interesting pieces end up on websites like Ebay, but there isn’t any technology in Elementé. “People come in and say, ‘Can’t you look me up?’” says Bell. “We can, but it will be somewhere in a binder. We aren’t on a screen.” The place is not brightly lit. Customers are encouraged to come and stay awhile to experience the vibe. There is a poetry corner, a shrine and an outdoor space in the back in which to sit down for a friendly chat.
Both agree that a store like this is a labor of love. “It’s like they say,” says Bullen. “If you can make it two years or three years, you’ve made it, and then four years rolls around and you wonder, ‘Have we made it?’ Before you know it, it’s 20 years. What is so great is every morning just turning a key and coming into a place that is just so creative.” It was not planned, this closure. The property has been sold. The fees were going up dramatically. The rents will certainly go up later. Sign up or move on. In the end, even though they are profoundly sad to be letting go, they also leave with a profound sense of gratitude.
As Bullen is turning off the lights and getting ready to lock up, she points out a newly acquired table stacked in the front of the store. “I know we are supposed to be clearing things out, but I just couldn’t help getting it. It was the perfect size.”