Marni Carlson’s Thistle transcends the usual vintage appeal

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Marni Carlson talks about her vintage 1962 Layton camper as though it’s a member of the family. She and her husband drove to Arkansas to retrieve the vehicle in August, and they’ve now completely remodeled the interior, transforming it from camper to, as she puts it, “glam-per.”

For Carlson, it was love at first sight.

“His name is Puddles,” she told me when I stopped by her Roeland Park home one evening so she could show me around the silver, ham-shaped vessel parked in the driveway.

The night was cool, but the camper quickly became toasty as Carlson cranked up a space heater. She said she had listened to almost every World Series game in the small space, stretched out on the bed, with a pot of chili and snacks on the removable kitchen table (which slides under the bed when not in use).

“It’s not only that the Royals won when I listened in here,” she said. “But they lost when I watched inside — and they lost bad.”

Puddles may be small, but he’s stylish, thanks to his new owner. Since 2010, Carlson has run Thistle, a vintage store in the River Market, which she describes as “curated whimsy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

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Carlson’s fondness for the midcentury-Western aesthetic showed. Puddles was decked out in his pastoral finest. A cookie jar resembling a covered wagon sat by the sink. A painting of an American Indian on horseback, his arms spread wide and his face to the sky, hung on the wall. Postcards from Yosemite National Park dangled above the bed. Every item tells a story. Carlson explained that you could determine the age of the American Indian blanket covering the bed by the intricacy of the macramé fringe.

Still, Carlson isn’t afraid to hopscotch among eras. “These cups were a perfect match with this vintage jar,” she said, holding up a pale-turquoise drinking glass, “but they’re from Ikea.” She told me that people she encounters are hesitant to combine the old with the new, believing perhaps that they need permission to decorate in a certain way. She told me that some customers shop for what TV shows such as American Pickers have said they “should” like, instead of buying what actually excites them.

Carlson dealt with a bit of an identity crisis herself when Thistle first moved to its current location, across from River Market Antiques. She felt compelled to make her shop resemble the popular three-story mall, when in %{[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”” data-embed-element=”aside” ]}%fact she felt more content being her unconventional self.

“People are insecure about what they do with their own  pace,” she said. “But vintage doesn’t have to look like your grandmother’s attic. You should see people’s personalities in their homes.”

The next morning, I stopped by Thistle shortly after the store had opened. Shoppers browsed for holiday gifts as I stopped to admire Carlson’s collection of vintage salt and pepper shakers, which are displayed prominently in the center of the store but are not for sale. She had recently used the shakers to decorate a tiny Christmas tree, which sat next to a sky-blue typewriter a few feet away.

“I wish I could keep all of it,” she said, when I asked which items were her favorites. “The highest compliment I get is that I curate well — it’s not a lot of crap. Then again, some people would say it’s nothing but crap. But if you shop vintage and know vintage, you know it’s good stuff.”

She pointed out a colorful array of Pyrex, noting that her younger customers like to collect it. One set of gilded bar glasses looked like it had been snatched from the set of Mad Men. Several boxes held what she called “a treasure trove of oddball junk” that would be ideal for steampunk art: old gears, watch parts — things you’d never find if you were looking for them.

Carlson also had some one-of-a-kind treasures to show me, the most moving of which was a photograph of African-American soldiers, returning home after World War II, near 18th Street and Vine, the packed street lined with businesses that no longer exist. She’s proud to display this piece of the city’s history — in fact, she calls herself an “unofficial ambassador for Kansas City.” (When anyone asks for a recommendation of where to eat or drink, she directs them to her favorite spots: the Local Pig and Thou Mayest.)

Carlson calls herself a dreamer, with a goal of acquiring a few more campers to create a mobile vintage mall. One way or another, she plans to take her antiques show on the road next year. And when she’s not working, she wants to take Puddles to Colorado to have a good time. Anything for family.

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