|By Ron Sylvester, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 31, 2012--Through a private door near the Wynn buffet, past a security guard and down an escalator, sits a small, brightly lit convenience store. Its shelves are lined with nylons, makeup, aspirin and snacks. Discounted Wynn merchandise hangs on racks.
Directly above it, slot machines ring and gamblers shout.
Resort guests would never know it is there. They aren't supposed to. The store is for Wynn employees only.
Steve Wynn built The Staff Store as a convenience for workers. He included similar shops in the Bellagio and Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss., resorts he also designed before selling them to MGM.
Only a handful of resorts on the Strip have staff shops. They include the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Aria. The Venetian and Palazzo offer an employee concierge service, where staff members can drop off dry cleaning and fill prescriptions.
"People will buy gifts for family who are visiting or pick up birthday cards at the last minute," said Kristina Elder, the store's manager.
Behind the counter sits a gregarious 88-year-old woman most of the resort workers know as Grandma Mary. Mary Kepler has worked at the Staff Store since it opened with the Wynn in 2005. She has become one of its most well-known assets.
Kepler greets every customer and showers them with attention. She has comforted employees during tough times and is in the process now of helping a casino worker study for his law school entrance exam.
"She really inspires others," her daughter Kathie Harrington said. "And if she finds out you're from the Midwest, you're in for an hour conversation."
Kepler worked at a Hallmark store in her hometown of Iowa Falls, Iowa, and moved to Las Vegas in 1986 with her husband. Once here, Kepler worked at a crystal store in Fashion Show mall, then jumped to gift shops at the Liberace Museum, Sahara and New Frontier before moving to the Desert Inn in the early 1990s. She stayed at that resort until it closed in August 2000.
Kepler didn't have to go far for her next job. The Wynn opened on the site of the Desert Inn five years later.
Now widowed, Kepler lives on her own and drives herself to work. She is one of three Staff Store employees and is so popular among Wynn workers, people worry when she takes a break.
"She went on a short vacation awhile ago and every day, people were coming in asking if Mary was OK and if everything was all right," Elder said.
The shop is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m daily and sits across from an employee dining room, near a network of hallways, storage rooms and loading docks. A security guard checks workers' badges when they enter the area.
Employees stream through to replace snagged stockings, buy a pack of smokes or grab a quick bite. Wynn officials wouldn't say whether workers get discounts on sundries (they do on Wynn T-shirts and hats), but the store at the very least keeps them clear of lines in guest gift shops.
Cans of Red Bull, which sell for $3, line two shelves and pack a cooler. The energy drink is by far the store's biggest seller.
"I don't think we'd be able to keep our doors open without Red Bull," Kepler said.
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