Mike Price boasts a well-curated collection of vintage items at Little Horse Books & Vintage, his shop located in downtown Louisville, a cute commercial district relatively unsullied by the corporatization of cute commercial districts. There’s a good coffee shop, a legit diner and a country musician-themed burger joint, all in walking distance.
He loves the location, because it feels so local, the kind of place that’s fun to just lose yourself for an hour or two each visit. Repeat business is important to him, so he tries to treat people well.
“You have a lot of local people who grew up here and maybe have a grandparent who still lives here,” he says. “People love to come back during the holidays. They say, ‘Oh my god, you’re still here. This is great. You know, we came here last year.’”
Price carries mid-20th century furniture — he’s a big fan of Eames chairs — stereo equipment, stickers, buttons, pocket knives, manual typewriters, etc. He sells used records spanning the rock, blues, punk, jazz, psychedelic and country genres, all in good shape and free of dust, which he buys from a variety of independent “pickers.” He’s picky about the records he sells, because he hates going into a store and seeing the same stuff over and over, like bad Doobie Brothers albums or a scratched-up Carly Simon record, because no one buys it month after month.
A Philip K. Dick novel might sit near one by Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs or Jim Thompson. The selection will vary from visit to visit. There are usually at least a few Charles Bukowski poetry books on the counter. It’s a practice Price took up when he worked at bookstores in San Francisco, a town where the junkies are apparently well-read — or at least do their research — and know which books will fetch the highest price on the resale market, usually the next bookstore down the road. He keeps a first edition copy of Bukowski’s “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” in a display case. He’s asking more than $300 for it. He says he might go down on the price but maybe not because he “kind of likes looking at it every day.”
“I don’t like to have a lot of schlock in my stacks,” he says. “I like to buy stuff I think has artistic merit.”
Outside of the main room, stacks of books, cassette tapes, CDs, records and other items are left out, items that perhaps don’t make the A-List but usually contain some treasures like a copy of The Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” or an old blues compilation. A nearby brewery and restaurant is open late, and the building is usually open hours after Little Horse closes. People are allowed to pay for items on the honor system. A luthier and amplifier technician work in the basement shop, which serves as a stock overflow, to fix up guitars and old tube amps. There are usually 10 or fifteen amps waiting to be serviced. Professional musicians bring their guitars in to be serviced. The basement isn’t always open but worth a peek when it is.
What Sets Little Horse apart?
OK, so it’s a vintage store. There are tons of them all up and down the Front Range and Western Slope of Colorado. What makes this one feel special is it never feels cluttered like the collection of a hoarder. It isn’t dusty, and allergy sufferers don’t have to flee in horror. Price curates the items carefully. But the odd combinations of items on the shelves, probably the biggest draw of a vintage or antique shop, are still there. Brass incense burners share shelf space with a copy of “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling. A wall of vintage stereo receivers takes up most of a back room. A bowl of resin bracelets sits atop a table, right next to a bowl of resin rings. A Nina Simone 8-track rests atop a T-Rex 8-track, both atop an 8-track player. Nearby are several portable radio/tape cassette decks sharing shelf space with old film cameras and an Atari controller. A row of shelves holds shaving brushes, a toy monkey, a copy of “Nova” by Samuel R. Delaney, belt buckles, a ceramic frog, and a pair of European stovetop espresso makers. One could get dizzy trying to take it all in during one trip.
Price says he’s been around nearly 20 years in one iteration or another. He’s experienced the cash flow problems, struggles with rent and balancing a personal and professional life inherent in small business ownership, survived it and been able to prosper. That he’s made it through all that and is still in business, he says, helps set him apart from other stores.
“It’s still a reflection of me and what I like to do and how I like to interact with the public,” he says. “It’s such a good background for having good relations with the community.”
He’s shopped at plenty of record and book stores where the owner or employees don’t seem like they enjoy the work, and that can negatively impact a customer’s experience. Price says he is knowledgeable about what he sells, and what it’s worth, but he isn’t pretentious and never acts above the customer.
“I’ve got good stuff,” he says. “Sometimes I overprice it. Sometimes I underprice it. It’s not always going to be fair. Someone’s not always going to be satisfied. For the most part, I work with people. I give discounts. I’m not going by any strict regimen to make sure I make X amount of money.
How did this obsession begin?
Price opened his first store in a garage space in Boulder near Eighth and Walnut streets in 2002. It was a tiny space, maybe 300 square feet, and he sold old chairs and other small items. He also bought an Airstream trailer and set up at an antique show near Seventh Street and Pearl Street. About six months later, part of a larger storefront — at one time a Goodyear Tire dealership with large windows — became available near 15th and Pearl streets. He rented a piece of the interior.
“In the three garage bays, it was almost like a flea market,” he says. “There was a glass front showroom like a big plate glass showroom, really a beautiful space.”
He stayed in the space for about two years, but the rent increases drove him out, so he took a job with his friend’s snowboard clothing company and continued to sell books online for about four years. Eventually, he set up shop in north Boulder with Doug Gaddy of Absolute Vinyl and the two operated their stores for about two years before moving to East Boulder near 55th and Arapahoe Avenue. Around 2011, Price moved to his current Louisville location at 820 Main Street. (He’s since opened a second store in Fort Collins.)
He’s been a collector since his father passed down his baseball card and stamp collection. When he was a kid, Price’s Texas relatives would come to Colorado most summers. They loved all the small towns on the Western Slope and in the southern part of the state, so that always became part of a visit.
“We would traipse around and stay in little hotels and just do like a week-long trip,” Price recalls. “My mom and dad weren’t big antiquers, but they both liked to go into antique stores and look at old books and just all the old stuff. I was just exposed to it early.”
He says that he always liked the skeleton keys at these shops as well as the old comic books, figurines and various tchotchkes. It was such a store in the old mining town of Ouray that first hooked him, and one item that caught his eye.
“I found this little copper or brass grenade, and it has a little pin that came out,” he says. “Of course it was a roach clip, and I didn’t know that at the time. My mom just kind of laughed. ‘Are you sure you want that?’”
He says there is something about being old stuff and the smell of antique stores and used book shops that has always felt like home to him.
In the 1990s, Price attended the New College of California in San Francisco to study poetry, an institution started by an ex-Jesuit priest and some hippies in the early 1970s. One of its two campuses was smack in the middle of the Mission District. It also included a public interest law school and some heavy hitters in the poetry program, all part of the San Francisco Renaissance. He graduated with a master’s degree in poetry. (Prior to that, he graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent some time as a ski bum near Vail.)
“That education has definitely informed my choice of books in the store,” he says. “I tend toward the more esoteric and things a little more scholarly and avant-garde and that definitely came from my education.”
He does this for a living, but he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t love finding that vintage Bukowski book under a pile of used novels in a run-down book store. And he has. It’s the thrill of the hunt. The endorphin rush. Finding a piece of treasure that just isn’t available at the mall or the big box store.
“That’s the fun. It’s not so much, ‘Oh my god, I’m rich,’” he says. “Of course we all want to find the million-dollar book or piece of art in a junk shop, but it’s those little scores that drive me. I think that’s what drives people who come into my store. It’s treasure hunting.”
For more information and hours, visit littlehorsevintage.com.