International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
I visit on a weekday morning, and get quickly immersed in the rows of dice, poker chips, antique slot machines and used casino playing cards (99c, or 60p, per deck). ‘In the old days, dice manufacturers could sell only to casinos,’ explains the manager, Wendy Rock. ‘So in the 1980s, they set up a retail subsidiary. This is it.’ Business isn’t as good as it was during the poker craze of the early 2000s, she admits. But judging by the number of one-armed bandits on display – ‘NOT A CASINO’ reads a sign, ‘THESE MACHINES ARE FOR SALE’ – there is still plenty of demand. Also on offer are roulette wheels, card shufflers, gambling apparel (such as dark glasses to obscure ‘tells’ during poker games) and a vast library of books, mostly on strategy and odds. In the souvenir department, meanwhile, there’s a personalised poker chip service, which allows you to put your face and/or business details on Sin City’s most popular unit of currency. They cost 79c each, with a minimum 100 chip order.
Not all gambling equipment can be purchased: in many states, one-armed bandits can be sold only if they’re more than 25 years old. Roulette wheels, meanwhile, must be less than 32 inches in size. And what’s legal in America might not be the case in the UK, so the shop recommends checking with HM Revenue & Customs before taking anything home. Given some of the prices, this is wise. A slot machine from the 1940s – the days when Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel ruled the town – goes for $2,995 (£1,850). ‘For a guy who’s got a private gaming room,’ says Wendy, ‘it makes a wonderful piggy bank.’
Architecture: The meaning of squished titanium
Downtown Las Vegas is worth visiting for other reasons than the Gambler’s General Store. Where Las Vegas Boulevard meets Park Paseo, for example, there’s the John S Park Historic District, named after one of the city’s pioneers, and a well-preserved timewarp of 1950s American suburbia. While it isn’t exactly a tourist attraction, devotees of kitsch mid-century architecture, as featured in, say, Mad Men or the Tom Ford film A Single Man, consider this one of the best-preserved developments of the era. Nearly every home looks as though it might once have been the subject of a David Hockney painting. And it’s a wonder they’re still there: the entire area was very nearly flattened in 1996 by the casino mogul Bob Stupak to make way for a 280-foot tall replica of the Titanic. He didn’t get his way, thankfully, and instead built the Stratosphere hotel and casino nearby. The latter’s observation tower now looms overhead like a visiting alien mothership.
A few blocks northwest, meanwhile, is Las Vegas’s architectural claim to the future, or at least its bid to be taken seriously as a real city, not just an empty pleasuretropolis: the melting steel ribbons of Frank Gehry’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, positioned opposite the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, with its Art Deco-style façade and 17-storey bell tower. If Frank Lloyd Wright had ever designed a cathedral, this is how it might have looked.