Lights out for Empire, Nev.
A regular customer buys a single bottle of malt beverage at the Empire Store. Tammy Sparkes, store owner, makes change and jokes, “You might as well buy a six-pack.”
“Nah, this gives me an excuse to come back,” he says.
That morning, he’s made three trips to the only convenience store within 50 miles.
“See you in 15 minutes,” Sparkes says.
“Give me an hour.”
For 87 years, Nevada miners have been buying beer at the Empire Store. Sparkes purchased the business in October. This month, U.S. Gypsum announced it will close its Empire operation—it produces drywall—on Jan. 31. USG’s 92 employees will be jobless. Since USG owns the housing, former employees will also be homeless.
“I bought the store two months ago, and now the town shuts down,” Sparkes says. Her savings went to fixing up the store, not far from her parents’ mini-storage business. Now brighter and larger, the store’s offerings include toys, fresh produce, deli sandwiches, booze and 22 kinds of crackers.
Sparkes hopes to hang on until Burning Man, staged nearby. “I might get my money out of it,” she says.
But she’s not sure. She purchased buildings but leases property from USG, which provides the town’s power and water. The Chicago-based company agreed to allow residents to stay in its housing until the school year’s end. But would it then shut off utilities? That would mean lights out for the Empire Store.
“It’s pretty somber around here,” Sparkes says. “I have employees who’ve lived their whole lives here. … Now they’ve lost jobs and they’ve lost homes—everything.”
Under Empire Store’s logo, in a flaming font on its glass door, is its location “Nowhere, Nevada.” Nowhere, in this case, is on Highway 447, 100 miles northeast of Reno. The store is internationally renowned as the last place to buy beer, ice and smokes before hitting the Black Rock playa for Burning Man.
USG’s Empire mine was built in 1923, along with the town, and it’s said to be the longest continually operating mine in the United States. The town has about 300 residents (miners and families), church, pool, golf course and post office.
Kids attend school in nearby Gerlach, which has a gas station, motel and three bars. A popular hangout for retirees is The Miner’s Club, built in 1935, and operated by Bev Osborn since 1969.
“I don’t know what will happen now,” Osborn says. “Business is slow, and it’s going to get worse.”
The Miner’s Club is decorated with hundreds of frog figurines and signs like, “Beware of Attack Frogs.” FROGs doubles as an acronym for patrons, “Friendly Retired Old Geezers.” Tourists bring Osborn frog kitsch.
“I got three last night,” Osborn says, brandishing a new flamenco-dancing amphibian.
The antique bar droops toward the wall, where local artist John Bogard sits reading a newspaper. Bogard owns Planet X Pottery, Gerlach’s newest business, started in 1974.
“We’re not FROGs, we’re TOADS,” Bogard says. “Tired Old Assholes Drinking Scotch.”
Bogard predicts a domino effect from the mine’s loss.
“It’s going to affect things that aren’t even apparent yet,” he says.
“Things used to be good here when the hot pools were open,” Osborn reminisces. “A lot of people here then.”
Now about 50,000 come to Gerlach annually for Burning Man.
“Burning Man doesn’t count,” Bogard says. “It’s an eyesore and a traffic jam.”
“Burning Man pays my taxes,” Osborn counters.
At the Empire Store, Sparkes worries Burners won’t return to ghost towns. The economic impact of losing Burning Man would be in the millions for Washoe County, she fears.
She’s hopeful, though, to hear other mining companies are interviewing Empire’s workers.
“I think something will break for us out here,” Sparkes says.