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Unreal Estate

Jim Pirtle discovered a safe full of guns in his downtown pawn shop-turned-hangout. To Jim, it was no big deal; in 1996, when he had just begun exhuming the building's contents, he was always finding things like that. Tired, he wandered upstairs to sleep a little and forgot to lock the front doors.

But at about 5 a.m. a couple of ex-convicts released from the county jail came in to play chess at one of Jim's many boards. Again, that was no big deal; Jim's disreputable acquaintances were always dropping by the place. But when the "proprietor" never showed, the nervous ex-cons called the cops; they were worried about him.

The cops, surprised by the stash of guns, drew their own pistols and stealthily climbed the stairs to find Jim asleep amid rows and rows of women's shoes. When one of the cops fell into a stack of old

guitar cases, Jim awoke to the barrel of a gun and questions about the ratty furniture that overflowed from his building onto the sidewalk.

"Is it illegal to have furniture out on Main Street?" Jim asked with his hands in the air.

"No," the cop answered. "But it's weird."
Jim Pirtle has been weirding people out for years. His performance art? Throwing up mayonnaise as lounge singer Stu Mulligan. His visual art? Psychedelic paintings on polyester shirts. His coffee shop? No tsu oH.

It was at just the right moment in the recent history of Houston that the owner of Jim's favorite coffee shop told him to pack up his chess board and make room for more lucrative customers. Jim went looking for a new place to play chess, his own place to play chess.

He went looking downtown, when it was still a "dead dinosaur of a place." In 1996 there was no Rice Hotel redevelopment and no stadium construction. In fact, there was nothing on Main Street but pawn shops, bus stops and the scraggly people who frequented both. But to Pirtle it was perfect: "It was the absolute center of town, but it was the most isolated." So he took money out of his retirement fund (he'd been a kindergarten teacher), borrowed money from his family and started trying to sell his house in the Sixth Ward.

Other people were buying dirt-cheap bits of downtown then, too. But these were players with inside information on the upcoming real estate boom, not guys who'd gotten kicked out of their favorite coffee houses. Jim's first attempt to buy among the big boys failed, even though he claims his offer was higher than the final sale price. But, as a wise pawn shop owner that Jim befriended said, there were other fish in the sea. Jim set his sights on the long-dead Home of Easy Credit at 314 Main.

Jim wanted to see the old pawn shop, but he didn't want to go through the official channels of the Historic District, which he blamed for the first downtown deal gone bad. "They didn't want me here," he says. So he broke in, with the help of his pawn man, a curious locksmith and a pair of bolt cutters.

What they found was a time capsule. The building, the tallest in Houston when it was built in 1893, had been closed since 1983 and not remodeled since the 1940s. It was crammed full of antique furniture pieces, telescopes, board games, reel-to-reels, record players, watches, porn magazines, turn-of-the-century wooden mannequins, ledger books, odds and ends like a baseball ticket from 1927 and, Jim estimates, 10,000 pairs of women's shoes.

Jim had struck his version of gold and would throw none of it away. He'd just blow a little of the dust off and arrange the historical artifacts into his piece de resistance. Most downtown developers are just "rejuvenating façades," he says. "It's all made-up history with Sheetrock boxes inside old buildings." No tsu oH, on the other hand, is "first and foremost an art piece" with a sense that "someone was here doing business all these years."

It turned out that Jim's grandmother had worked in the building during one of its retail incarnations as Sakowitz. No tsu oH was meant to be his place, Jim figured, and he didn't wait to buy it to come back. In fact, he invited all of his chess-playing buddies down for regular Thursday-night games. He brought in the coffeemaker he got as a wedding present, hired the homeless to help him clean up and sent the chess players next door to pee at what was then the only bar on Main, the Latin cantina El Mundo.

In May 1996 Jim finally bought the building and all its inventory for $20,000 -- and about $100,000 in back taxes. It was a great deal. If downtown didn't develop, no one would foreclose on the building even if he didn't pay the taxes (just as the previous owner hadn't for the last ten years). If downtown did develop, property values would go up and Jim would be able to get a bank loan to cover the taxes.

 

To offset the costs of cleaning and coffee, Jim started calling his setup a "private chess club" and charging his weird friends $10 for a membership card and a name from the building's old ledger books. Membership had its privileges: a charge account for coffee and such, challenging chess games, avant-garde art happenings, the cachet of underground cool and, best of all, all-night access to the fascinating nooks and crannies of Jim Pirtle's playhouse.

But where there are parties, party crashers are soon to follow. The fire marshal started showing up, Jim says, "because the Majestic Metro guys always hated me." And the city demanded that he take down the building's "Money to Loan" pawn shop sign because it was "willfully confusing the public." This really confused Jim: "Isn't that what art's about?"

Then one day in 1997, the unthinkable happened: Two yuppies in suits wanted to look at the building. Jim told them it wasn't for sale, but downtown was on the brink of its boom, and those back taxes were biting him in the ass. He figured that those yuppies meant his respectable neighbors were trying to foreclose on him. "No one expected us to have the money," says Jim.

When he did, 314 Main mysteriously disappeared from the county's foreclosure list. Jim relaxed, but, he says, his building reappeared on the morning of the scheduled sale: "I had an hour and a half to get a cashier's check for $27,000." He got the check in time -- his dad loaned him the money -- but forgot to take his driver's license to the title company. A forgiving notary saved the day.

Now the financial matters are all in the family, but there are still financial matters. Jim likes to say that his place's name is Houston spelled backward because "it's not about money, it's about quality of life." But he's raising a family above his now up-to-code and open-to-the-public coffee shop, and it takes a lot of $1 cups of coffee to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, at fancy parties the beautiful people are asking each other, "What downtown property do you own?" And Main Street is lining up with limousines, valet parking stands and bars catering to what Jim calls "the science-experiment chicks, you know, the ones with the breasts that stick out eight feet and the liposuction." No tsu oH's new neighbors -- Tonic, Jones Bar, Swank, Cabo, Oz and Spy -- are raking it in; its old neighbor, El Mundo, is wearing a "for lease" sign.

Artistic aspirations aside, a businessman's got to do what a businessman's got to do. Jim is getting in on the action by leasing out the south side of his building (now known as Dean's) to a couple of bartenders from La Carafe and 8.0. Since bars downtown are making something like 300 to 400 percent profit on beer and wine, Jim says, "I can get more off Dean's per square foot than you can get at Chase Bank, which is Class A office space."

Still it's the hardest sacrifice Jim has had to make since he bought the building. "They're making it nice in there," he laments. "They're tearing up the linoleum. Words like nice and slick, I get scared of them. I like words like authentic."

The slick bar in Dean's is supposed to allow No tsu oH proper to remain proletarian and nonprofit in the face of downtown's development. But change has a way of seeping through the cracks.

The coffee shop looks a little more "normal" these days, thanks in large part to a new earthy brown paint job and a lingering art show by Jeff Delude. Even No tsu oH's neighbors are pitching in to pretty it up: The potted plants that attempt to mask the junk/art in the windows are courtesy of Tonic. Jim says the new look is not about selling out; it's "just focusing the camera a little bit." But he admits that the people going to Tonic feel a lot more comfortable.

They may feel more comfortable with No tsu oH's uniformly painted walls, but it's unlikely they'll ever be at ease with what happens inside them, be it the grotesque dance performances of the Easy Credit Theater, the lounge nights where no one gets the lyrics right, the Sunday afternoon marijuana legalization meetings or the erratic sleep schedule of Jim's daughter, Martha.

 

The Saturday-night collision of worlds goes something like this: Leaving Tonic, the science-experiment chicks notice Martha standing in No tsu oH's storefront, perhaps tugging on the Pirtles' pit bull/boxer mix, Wiggy, or entertaining a customer with the "Oops, I dropped it" game.

Martha has dirtier cheeks and feet than most two-year-olds are allowed to have in public, plus it's two in the morning, so the science-experiment chicks get indignant and start asking the customer where the little girl's mother is. The customer, who knows that all of No tsu oH is Martha's domain, shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. The next morning Jim gets a call from Child Protective Services.

"America, land of the free," Jim begins one of his speeches. "Freedom is scarier than shit to people. When they see Martha at 2 a.m., they know we're not leading a nine to five, and her freedom and my freedom is threatening to them."

"It's hard to find bohemia in America," he continues. Montrose is turning into The Woodlands, they're trying to suburbanize downtown, even New York City is getting Disneyfied. "Everywhere the artists go, the stockbrokers are right behind."

But maybe, someday, Jim hopes, the yuppie bars will fail and their newly coded-out building shells will become affordable to a more interesting mix of tenants: artists' studios, antique shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, performance spaces, El Mundo and the pawn shops. A weirdo's utopia.

E-mail Lauren Kern at lauren_kern@houstonpress.com.


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