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Cherished Burning Man pit stop Empire Store in limbo

GERLACH — The future of a cherished Burning Man pit stop that’s the only thing resembling a grocery store within 100 miles of the Black Rock Desert is in limbo after a mining company decided to terminate the lease for the Empire Store.

Located two hours north of Reno, the 5,000-square foot market has long served nearby rural communities including the 50-person company town of Empire and the 100-plus-person town of Gerlach.

The store is closing July 26, though it may reopen by August under new ownership, according to Empire Mining President Dave Hornsby.

Although store owner Dana Sparkes owns the building, Empire Mining Co. owns the land. Hornsby said the company chose not to renew the 5-year lease so that the company can control all of its holdings.

Sparkes was paying $100 a year under the lease, which ended in June. He said the company briefly tried to negotiate a new lease about a year ago, but it didn’t seem like a good enough deal at the time. In retrospect, he wishes he’d taken it.

“They said we’re going to take it in a different direction. It’s all about money,” said Sparkes, who bought the store a decade ago after “chasing a girl” to nearby Gerlach. “It’s been a way of life for 10 years. People ask what I do for fun: stock shelves.”

Empire Mining intends to purchase and operate the building as a store but it is not making any promises, said Hornsby, since the purchase of the store had not yet been negotiated and demolition is possible as well. An appraiser looked at the property this week.

“There will either be a store or nothing,” said Hornsby.

Some options

If the company does not operate the current store, it will open a store in one of the many empty buildings within the enclosure of the company-owned town of Empire, which was temporarily abandoned when the U.S. Gypsum Corp. closed the mine in 2011. Empire Mining bought and reopened the mine and town in 2016.

Should the store open within Empire, which is surrounded by a fence and requires gated entry, the store would be open to the public, according to Hornsby.

“We may not have everything that they want right off the bat, but we’re working on an inventory and ordering software,” said Hornsby, who added that a mine employee will operate the store.

Sparkes worries that the mining company will not have the same dedication to reasonable prices and personalized inventory that he did.

“I gave everybody my phone number, so even the guys at the mine would call me late at night and say, ‘We’re down here drinking, buddy old pal. Can you open the store so we can get more beer?’” said Sparkes.

Sparkes said he typically makes two to three trips to Reno per week to stock up on items, and he’ll often take requests from townspeople.

“It’s a convenience store on steroids,” he said. “We have alcohol, we have the fresh produce: the grapes, strawberries, oranges, avocados, artichokes. We have frozen steaks, porkchops, hamburgers, chicken, frozen pizza, pizza rolls, orange chicken, steamers. We even carry some vegan, vegetarian stuff.”

During the pandemic, he’s shopped for many of the seniors who don’t want to go into town for fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

He’s even picked up locals’ individual online grocery orders from a number of larger grocers and spent a whole night looking for chives, which seemed to be out of stock everywhere.

“At a certain point, I thought I was going to kill the lady who wanted chives, or kill the grocer,” said Sparkes, laughing.

Sparkes also catered to Burners during the annual Burning Man event, which this year was canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Sparkes prided himself on making the shop the last stop for amenities before Burners started the final leg of the journey to Burning Man, which often takes hours. The event attracts about 80,000 people and entry lines often back up from the playa to the town of Gerlach, sometimes even to Empire, seven driving miles south.

As a Burner himself, Sparkes always knew to stock up on coffee, kombucha and coconut water. Burners accounted for about one-third of his annual business, he told the Reno Gazette Journal last year.

Plenty of chips

During recent years, Sparkes estimated that he sold about $8,000 in potato chips each year during Burning Man alone, along with about 7,200 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and 4,500 bags of ice. He said the store each year also became the third-largest distributor in the nation of American Spirit, an organic tobacco cigarette.

Sparkes, a veteran, also partnered each year with local Veterans of Foreign War groups to pump gas for Burners. The veterans volunteer and then put any tips collected toward helping veterans in need.

The Empire Store wasn’t always a friendly place either, he said, recalling that it was downright “creepy” when he first bought it.

“The lights were out, the floors were coming up, and there was an old guy in the corner smoking a cigar looking at you with one eye,” said Sparkes. “Now, 100 percent of the community shops here.”

When he first moved to town, he looked at it as an opportunity to make a little money here and there, but it’s turned into more of a love of community than anything.

“I had a little old lady in town where she did all of her shopping here. She was getting older, and she said, ‘You know Dana, if I ever drove past your store, I’d be lost.’ That’s when I knew I was doing something that this community really needed,” said Sparkes.

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