On a January afternoon at Atomic Liquors, Tony Hsieh stood behind the bar chatting up a mermaid. Iridescent soap bubbles swirled around them. A statuesque transgender woman in a daring red dress walked up and ordered a shot. She drained the glass and motioned for Tony to join her. The strangers entwined arms like newlyweds and chugged. The woman strutted off and Tony turned his attention back to the mermaid. The bar was too loud to hear the conversation between the chief executive of Zappos, the online shoe retailer, and the mythical sea creature. But most likely, they weren’t discussing aqua socks.
Las Vegas is so strange that the brain just accepts the unexpected. A man dressed like Zoltar doles out fortunes outside a Walgreens. Couples tie the knot inside a Denny’s — Grand Slam for two included. A multimillionaire entrepreneur fraternizes with a fish-tailed woman during a video shoot for an indie band. Ho-hum Vegas, right? But what shocks is the ordinary.
“This is the most community-focused place I have ever lived in,” the company’s 43-year-old top executive said of the downtown. “It’s neighborhoody in the last place people would expect it.”
Indeed, the downtown scene is so tightknit that many locals, including Tony, appeared in the latest Shins video, which was filmed there last week. The production company shot on Fremont Street, an area that was once so blighted and dangerous that it belonged in an episode of “Cops.”
Now, one of the biggest risks is miscalculating the wait time for a table at PublicUs, the canteen-style restaurant and coffeehouse recently opened by a champion barista.
“This used to be Skid Row,” a longtime resident told me during a party at Perch, a restaurant in Container Park, which opened in June 2015. He waved his mojito over the former wasteland about six miles north of the Strip. I followed the contrails of his cocktail over a llama posing for photos, a treehouse-themed playground and shipping containers aglow with shops, eateries and bars.
“This all just happened,” he said before ducking inside for a ceviche taco. “The area is blowing up.”
The abbreviated story of downtown’s development goes like this: In 2013, Tony relocated Zappos from Henderson, Nev., to Vegas’s old City Hall. The location complemented his business philosophy: “You should live, work and play within walking distance.” To fill in the area’s many blank spots, he created the Downtown Project, an investment company that pledged $350 million to build or support new places to eat, drink, shop and inhabit. To date, the firm has approximately 50 businesses under its umbrella, including the Oasis (where I stayed), VegeNation (where I ate), the Black Cup (where I caffeinated), the Writer’s Block (where I browsed) and Bunkhouse Saloon (where I drank).
For a more personalized reading of this Cinderella tale, I enlisted Tony to show me around the revitalized destination. True to his tenet, we never ventured more than a few blocks.
With the minimal sole tread, I definitely wouldn’t need to order a post-Vegas new pair of shoes.
Obvious question: Does Zappos sell shoes at its Vegas headquarters?
Answer I hoped to hear: Yes.
Answer I learned during a tour of the facility: No.
The call center is based here, but the warehouses are in Kentucky. So if you ring up Zappos, you can ask the employee about the local weather or any Britney TMZ moments, because according to company bylaws, you can never be rushed off the phone. Nor is footwear a required topic.
“My longest conversation was 3½ hours,” said Letha Myles, my guide on the Zappos Tour Experience. “It took 15 minutes to exchange shoes, and the rest of the time we talked about ‘Rescue Me.’ Her daughter was a producer on the show. She was such a proud mom.” The lengthiest conversation title belongs to Steven Weinstein, who set the record in June at 10 hours, 43 minutes.
Zappos offers several tours that focus on the arts, the company culture or downtown. (Zappos is owned by Amazon.com, whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) For the Zappos Downtown Escapade Tour Experience, held on Friday mornings, our group gathered in the lobby, near a man in a porkpie hat shining shoes. We followed Brian “Paco” Alvarez and his Dali-esque mustache to the courtyard, which was festooned with the names of shoe and apparel brands. Paco asked us to call out our home towns: One for South Korea, one for Washington and four for Las Vegas. He joked that the locals have probably never seen downtown before, unless they had to pay a parking ticket or attend court. A woman nodded her head in agreement.
Before setting off, Paco explained that the land we were standing on was once a ranch owned by Helen Stewart, a Las Vegas pioneer in the 1800s. Her great-great-granddaughter still lives in town, behind the Neon Museum, a retirement home for glitzy signage.
“Even though we tear down our history in Vegas,” said Paco, the company’s art curator and historian, “there’s still living history in our county.”
Las Vegas was born near the corner of Fremont and Main streets in 1905, as a major railroad hub. The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, which opened in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada, still wears the sash as the oldest continually operating hotel in Vegas. The attention-hogging Strip rose from the desert in the 1930s, a result of the new highway, Route 91, to Los Angeles. To compete with the Strip, officials in the late 1950s began to modernize downtown with new facades and parking garages. In 1995, they unveiled the Fremont Street Experience, an electrifying pedestrian mall with a 1,500-foot-long LED-lit canopy, the largest of its kind in the world.
“It’s quirky. It’s irreverent. It’s not the Strip,” Paco said of the attraction.
Several years later, the nearby 18b Arts District kicked off First Friday, a monthly party with artsy activities, music and food vendors. Paco is clearly a fan of the event; he tattooed its logo on his biceps.
“There’s Zappos,” he said, baring his arm and pointing to the City Hall building that is part of the design.
The arts district is outside the Downtown Project zone, but the Fremont area is equally dedicated to creative expression. Zappos commissions visiting painters and has a resident artist, Miguel Hernandez, who was discovered while working in the call center. For Letha’s birthday, Miguel surprised the guide with a Prince mural.
Every fall since 2012, the Fremont East Entertainment District and the surrounding neighborhood have hosted Life is Beautiful, a festival that draws musicians (past participants include Kanye West, Stevie Wonder and Mumford & Sons), chefs, artists and TED-like talkers. After the three days of festivities, the crowds leave but the murals stay. Paco showed us several works, including a giant horned lizard spitting a stream of red. He assured us that the reptile wasn’t wounded; he was just defending himself.
During the two-hour tour, we zigzagged between past and present. We saw a parking garage built in 1966 that doubled as a fallout shelter. Paco segued to another nuclear-related fact: In the 1950s, the city promoted outdoor viewings of the atomic booms from the Nevada Test Site.
“You could watch the mushroom clouds over the mountains,” he noted.
On Sixth Street, he offered to buy us a coffee and a snack at the Donut Bar, a recipient of the Downtown Project’s funding. At Poet’s Bridge, we crossed a concrete span inscribed with the musings of local writers such as Harry Fagel, a lieutenant with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
This wasteland is just beginning to cook . . .
we get to shape it
“See, we actually have arts and culture in Las Vegas,” Paco said.
Back in the Zappos lobby, he presented us each with a Discover Downtown guidebook. The tagline read, “Where Old School Meets New Cool.” Tony appears on page 31.
My first Tony sighting occurred at Zappos; his boyish face loomed in an introductory video about the company. The second viewing took place the following day, at the Writer’s Block. Co-owner Scott Seeley and I were discussing his decision to leave Brooklyn, where he ran literary nonprofit 826 Valencia with author Dave Eggers, when in walked Tony. He was wearing jeans and a black North Face jacket with a “Life is Beautiful” patch. The middle lane of his hair was spiked up. Hours later, I caught a quick glance of him at Perch during a party for the International Consumer Electronics Show, an annual convention mobbed by nearly 180,000 techies. I was engrossed in a conversation about drug addiction and homelessness. When I looked up, Tony was gone.
Tony and I had planned to officially meet after the weekend, but as a constant fixture in the neighborhood, he was hard to avoid. Without trying, I frequently stepped on his footprints and tripped over his whimsies.
“Tony likes a sense of discovery,” said Maria Phelan, former director of public relations for the Downtown Project. “He wants you to discover a little bit more each time you come.”
Maria and I were sitting inside the Gold Spike, a lark-to-owl entertainment venue attached to the Oasis hotel. She took me past carnival games and a bar to the Backyard, a Wonderland of a playground with oversize games such as Jenga and beer pong; fire pits and furniture covered in turf; and a stage backed by an Airstream. The newest addition to the scene is the Sugar Shack, a tiny house rental with a suburban front lawn. (Never mind those neighbors slurping boozy eight-person milkshakes from the Gold Spike’s bar.)
“He looks for the first, unique or best,” Maria said of Tony’s inspiration.
The Container Park fits snugly inside those parameters. At the entrance, a 55-foot-tall praying mantis spews flames and swivels its head as if searching for its next piece of kebab meat. Its creator built the kinetic art car to impress a woman (it worked). The pair brought the sculpture to the Burning Man festival, where Tony fell hard for the bug and installed it in Vegas.
In the park, the former site of a Motel 6, restaurants, bars and retailers wedged themselves into three levels of shipping containers and modular cubes. They vary in style and substance but share one common trait: They are all small, independent businesses, many with local roots.
Maria and I stopped into Jojo’s Jerky for free samples and Winky’s Designs to try on slap watches. (Put them on with a . . . you know.) At Oak & Ivy, we checked out the menu of mules — cocktails, not pack animals. We rode the elevator to the top floor to peek into the Lucky Little Chapel. There was no one at the altar, but last year, about 1,300 couples married or renewed their vows in a structure designed to carry heavy loads.
“Have you met Marley and Triton?” Tony asked me.
We were at the Airstream Park, affectionately known as Llamapolis, even though the resident pack animals are of a different species. I waved hello to the alpacas, teeth-deep in the grass, and asked Tony where one finds camelids in Vegas. Marley was underutilized talent at a party rental company in Vegas; Triton came from Craigslist.
Tony had originally envisioned the trailer park as alternative lodging for visitors, but he scratched the idea and created a private community instead. (Privacy, though, is nominal. You can see the tops of the structures and smell the bonfires over the low walls.) In a few months, the diminutive houses and silver-bullet trailers will move across the street to a lot behind Fergusons Motel, another project-in-motion. At the moment, however, the only resident is the “Big Rig Jig,” an S-shaped tower of eighteen-wheelers.
I followed Tony through a sliding red gate, past picnic tables and into the Bunkhouse Saloon.
“This is our equivalent of ‘Cheers,’ ” he said.
Sam (Jillian Tedrow) and Woody (Ryan Pardey) welcomed us from behind the bar. Jillian recently took over the gathering place, which underwent a transformation from bar (est. 1953) with 24-hour gaming to bar (2014) with live music and a top-quality sound system. Ryan is in charge of booking entertainment. If his bearded face looks familiar, that’s because he played Santa in music videos by the Killers, a hometown band.
The Bunkhouse stocks a small library of word and dice games for quieter moments. Tony pulled “Snatch-It” from the pile and started throwing down tiles. Jillian poured shots of Fernet, an Italian digestif that Tony convinced me to drink for its tonic properties. While I was recovering from my first sip, he started to build words.
Jillian produced an impressively long word by taking letters from his column.
“Respect shot,” Tony ordered.
Tony added “exes.” Use it in a sentence: “I still talk to a lot of my exes.”
I wrongly challenged him on his next word, “vexes.” If this were a real game (as in drinking required), I would have repented with another shot of Fernet.
Between letters and gulps, Tony explained how he landed in downtown Vegas. When the company outgrew its Henderson quarters, he started searching for a location that kept insomniac hours, for staffers of the 24-hour call center. But he also wanted the company to cultivate social ties with the community.
“Running into people you know is the norm,” he said, “not the exception.”
Although the Downtown Project’s central mission is to provide residents with quality-of-life essentials (can’t survive without boutique cocktails and hand-poured coffee), the new establishments will also appeal to tourists seeking a more authentic Vegas experience — which is not an oxymoron.
“They have to be adventurous and open-minded enough to look beyond the Strip and to look for where the locals go,” he said of the ideal visitor. “It’s much more organic and word-of-mouth here.”
I asked him to list some of his favorite spots. He mentioned Atomic Liquors: “It’s grittier and feels like it’s always been here.” The Laundry Room, in the Commonwealth bar: “It feels like a 1920s speak-easy.” He recommended the Waterfall Beef at Le Thai; for vegetarians, order the sauce, hold the meat. To meet Zappos employees, including the chief executive, wander into Nacho Daddy during lunchtime. “I go several times a week,” he said. The drink de resistance: the scorpion shot, arachnid included.
Tony won the first game of “Snatch-It.” We drank a farewell shot of Fernet and set out for a spin around the neighborhood. We walked a few steps and stopped.
“This is Analog Alley,” he said of an eastern block on Fremont. “It’s more human and experiential.”
We entered 11th Street Records, a study of square shapes. Vinyl crawls up the walls and fills blocky bins that rest on a black-and-white parquet floor. I flipped through the Local Artists section, which shares a row with the Vermin, Sounds of Threat and the Quitters. We passed through a door leading to the recording studio. The space was empty, but the word on Fremont Street is that the Killers are planning to record here later this month. “We want to grow the local music community,” he said. “It’s holistic.”
Across the street at the Writer’s Block, we stood in a former boxing club that now houses stacks of books (fiction is a specialty) and stuffed birds available for adoption. A glass case exhibited a mad biologist’s collection of translucent animal models — with the organs visible. Colorful umbrellas hung from a lamp post, in case a visitor decided to break out in a musical number. “There’s a letterpress,” he said of the store’s amenities. “There’s Baron.”
We went to visit Baron in the back, but — oh no! — his cage was empty. Was this a new mystery series, the “Utterly Curious Case of the Missing Rabbit?” No, explained co-owner Drew Cohen, he was just lounging in the bathroom. Drew cracked open the door to show us Baron happily snacking on lettuce.
Tony had to race off to a sample a menu at the new Momofuku restaurant on the Strip, but we reconvened later at Bunkhouse. I entered the dark space to the swelling music of “Phantom of the Opera” as performed by a floppy-haired guy and a karaoke machine. Tony was noodling around on a piano. “Liar’s Dice” sat on the bar, waiting for someone to roll. Monday nights are often quiet, so we decided to split for the other strip.
“There never used to be cabs or Uber,” he said as we strolled Fremont Street. “You had to call a cab and it could take two hours, and it might never come.”
Now, you can just walk to the curb and step right in.
Traveling west on Fremont to Las Vegas Boulevard, we hooked a left to visit the new Mike Morey’s Sip ‘n’ Tip, a minibar inside the Downtown Cocktail Room, one of his original hangouts. Then we crossed the border separating the Fremont Street Experience from the Fremont East Entertainment District. We ordered a drink at Nacho Daddy — Coke Zero for Tony, Diet Coke for me. The Fernet had run dry.
Unlike the Strip, some people downtown do sleep. After midnight, we parted ways. Tony returned home, where he would gather around the bonfire at the Airstream Park with friends and neighbors. I headed back to the Oasis, where I warmed up by a fire pit. If only I had a pair of alpacas, I would truly feel like a Vegas local.
More from Travel:
Oasis at Gold Spike
217 N. Las Vegas Blvd.
The recently renovated hotel (no two rooms have the same decor) recently hosted MTV’s “The Real World” in its seventh-floor penthouse suite. Guests have access to the pool, fitness center and indoor/outdoor entertainment venue at the Gold Spike, which includes the Living Room, the Backyard (live bands on weekends) and the Carnival Bar. Rates start at $23 a night and include two coffees at Fiddlestix cafe.
523 Fremont St.
The Thai restaurant is known for its three-color curry dishes, noodle soups and waterfall sauce. Its beer garden also hosts DJs. Entrees from $11.
616 Carson Ave. No. 120
A former MGM casino chef runs the vegetarian restaurant that celebrates global street food. Among the options: Vietnamese pho, African yam stew and mushroom sliders. Entrees from $11.
400 E. Stewart Ave.
The online shoe retailer offers a number of tours for various interests. The two-hour Zappos Downtown Escapade Tour Experience costs $35; the 90-minute Zappos Tour Experience costs $10.
The Writer’s Block
1020 Fremont St. No. 100
Nearly everything (except Baron the bunny) is for sale at this eclectic and eccentric bookstore. The owners host special events, such as the Neon Lit reading series featuring writers from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
124 S. 11th St.
The local hangout draws local and national music acts as well as word and dice game enthusiasts. Upcoming shows include Deerhunter (Jan. 29) and Dada (Feb. 21), on its 25th anniversary tour.
Downtown Container Park
702 Fremont St.
The open-air retail and entertainment complex has three levels of shops, restaurants and bars, plus the Treehouse playground and a stage for concerts. After 9 p.m., guests must be age 21 or older.