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Desert Companion

Profile: The Man with the Neon Donut

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Bruce Smiley
Photography by Christopher Smith

And other strange things Bruce Smiley has unearthed in a career of finding the odd in odds and ends

“Smiley” isn’t Bruce Smiley’s real last name. It’s his celebrity name. But he’s spent four decades honing the craft that inspired the name, so it’s how he identifies himself now. And he’s cautious about his privacy, in part because of the riches that craft has yielded. Smiley sits on an actual treasure trove of collector’s items. He’s a picker. Or, antique hunter, flipper, storage warrior, thrifter — whatever you call it is okay by him. “Hoarder, collector, reseller,” he says with a chuckle. He’s done it all.

The Smiley moniker is more than figurative. In the mid-’80s, a recent college grad, Bruce lived in the Bay Area and was part of a vintage Vespa scooter club. By then, he was already collecting things — records, funky Christmas decorations — having grown up cruising garage and yard sales with his mom. On an outing, he came across a smiley-face patch, and the resonance between it and Ace Face, a favorite Vespa-riding character from the British mod scene, struck him: Why not call their club the Smiley Face Scooter Club? The name stuck, and not just to the club. Today, Smiley estimates, he has upwards of 5,000 smiley-faced items.

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“My first goal was to have a hundred smiley faces,” he remembers. “And that became relatively easy. Then I was like, ‘Oh, try 200.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to make a big jump to 500.’ And then, I accumulated that, and I thought, ‘Ooh, man of a thousand faces!’ That’s a cool catchphrase. So, I’ll do that. That probably took me a couple more years.”

What does one do with thousands of happy keychain fobs, glassware, pillows, posters, and so on? Same thing he does with the thousands of other tchotchkes he’s accumulated, which is to say, it depends. Most are in storage; Smiley’s got a warehouse full of his unique items. Parts of his smiley-face collection have been displayed in a Bay Area library and county fair, and a museum in Massachusetts.

Smiley’s house in Las Vegas is also a wonderland of oddities, from the kitsch Wayne Newton painting by the front door, to the huge neon donut sign standing in his living room, to the taxidermied monkey hanging from the rafters. Sitting at a mid-mod table and chair in a Hawaiian shirt, strawberry blond and covered in freckles, he wears the cryptic grin of someone about to deliver a punchline you won’t get. As he talks about where each thing came from, it’s obvious that he takes pleasure in being surrounded by unusual objects — and sharing them. He remembers the first time he rented a room that had enough space for him to put things out for his friends to come see, and how the joy of sharing led to commerce.

“When you live in a small studio where you don’t have much room, you display something, and then you find something else cooler,” Smiley says. “Well, what do you do? Put this (first thing) in a box somewhere? I might as well sell it. I’ve enjoyed it, my friends saw it.”

That’s when he got into renting booths to sell his wares — a flea market in Marin City, an antique store in San Francisco — along with the occasional collectibles garage sale at his house, and, later, eBay. All are avenues Smiley still uses (he’s got a booth at the Vintage Vegas store on Main Street) in addition to commissioned work chasing down particular items for clients ranging from interior designers to show producers. The business sometimes takes him outside his comfort zone.

“If you’re reselling, to assume that people would only want to buy things you like is a very bad assumption,” he says. “So, you have to open yourself up to buying some really horrible things, depending on whatever ‘horrible’ is in your mind. I mean, if you find a Cabbage Patch doll that’s brand new in the box, you might think that’s the most godawful thing, but yet if you know you can sell it on eBay for a hundred bucks or more, and the price is right, then sure.”

Where does he find his stuff? Sales and shops of various kinds, the so-called World’s Longest Yard Sale, a three-day road trip from Alabama to Ohio. And then there’s a Vegas specialty: casino-closure liquidations.

Friend and superstar thrifter Jason T. Smith, of Pawn Stars fame, invokes his adventure with Smiley after the Sahara Hotel closed a few years back to illustrate his friend’s shrewd treasure-hunting style.

“Bruce says, ‘I’ll get there early, because I live the closest,” Smith recalls. “So, I show up at the crack of dawn, and he’s already there, toward the front of the line. And he has two shopping carts! And I was like, ‘Who has their own shopping carts?’ Bruce does.”

Smiley went to the Sahara with a mission: to see the scalloped awning that had hung over the booths at Don the Beachcomber. His research led him to believe the shuttered classic tiki restaurant could still be found somewhere on the third floor. After some off-the-grid exploring, involving service elevators and back-of-house stairs, they found the place — and the awning!

Smiley’s most curious finds have come from his fascination with monkeys, hence the stuffed fellow in the living room, which he discovered at a local auction house. Even stranger is the wooden box of pet monkey cremains he bought at an estate sale in Oakland and keeps under lock and key. Asked if he would ever sell it, he replies emphatically, “No, I would never give that away. A cremated monkey, like, oh, my goodness. ... You shake it, and you can hear the bone fragments in it, and the ash. I can’t honestly remember how much I paid for it. I think I would’ve paid anything and everything for it. It was probably a buck, or worst case, five dollars.”

Getting rid of stuff does have its upside, though. People who go antique shopping are always in a good mood, Smiley says. They’re looking for a present or memento, and it’s rewarding to help them find what they want.

“For a moment in time, you had this awesome item in your hands, and it’s not a bad thing to not have to keep it,” he says. “I mean, you don’t have to keep everything.”

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