Good time for gifts

Area gift shops emerge from recession mostly unscathed

TIPIS and Giant arrows draw tourists to the Mud Creek Hogan on Highway 160, east of the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. Co-owner Judy Countess says the arrows are due for a fresh coat of paint. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

TIPIS and Giant arrows draw tourists to the Mud Creek Hogan on Highway 160, east of the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. Co-owner Judy Countess says the arrows are due for a fresh coat of paint.

Cortez is replete with stores selling handcrafted wares that tell the story of the Four Corners and its inhabitants.

The grandeur of Mesa Verde National Park is normally the hook that lures tourists here, but few leave town without stopping to buy a collectible or Native American artifact to take home.

Traditional items from the Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, and other Southwest tribes are readily available at various retail outlets in Cortez and around Montezuma County.

None of the shop owners interviewed said the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and the tepid economy that's followed, have made too great a dent in their bottom line. Sales may have faltered temporarily, but have largely recovered.

FULL-SERVICE DESTINATION

The most prominent in-town vendor of Native American art is Notah Dineh Trading Company at the intersection of Maple and Main streets. Unlike most of its contemporaries, like Mesa Indian Trading Company & Gallery and the Mud Creek Hogan, it stays open for business year-round. Many merchants that cater to tourists only open their doors from May to October, or thereabouts.

Co-owner Gregg Leighton, who runs Notah Dineh with his brother, Glenn, says they strive for consistency. Their dates of operation don't depend on seasonal fluctuations, and they've tried to keep supply circulating, even with the slow economy.

Sales dropped about eight or nine percent in 2009, but have been ticking steadily upward since.

"I might be unorthodox with business," Leighton said. "If you tighten your inventory, you lose sales and then blame the recession. I try to reinvest and keep the inventory stacked."

His bullish strategy doesn't always work out.

"Sometimes you gamble on (certain items) and it backfires when they don't sell. But recessions are, in many ways, about attitude. If you get too bound up listening to the news, it scares the daylights out of everybody," he said. "The only way to make a living is to keep buying, selling and producing. You pay the bills and take care of the people who work for you. That's all you can ask for during the tougher times."

Notah Dineh employs 15 people, including the Leighton brothers.

Their selection features colorful blankets, woven baskets, Navajo rugs, bead art, ceremonial fabrics, drums, flutes, kitschy trinkets, and jewelry - mostly sterling silver and turquoise - which is the biggest seller.

Business dips a little during the off-season, but not dramatically. While more families visit in the summer, volume-wise, Leighton said they tend to be "cheaper buyers" because they're already spending money on travel and lodging. Bigger spending demographics stop in other parts of the year.

"Fall, winter and spring we'll get retired people who come and buy the big ticket items," he said.

Notah Dineh also sets itself apart from other major gift shops in that it accepts pawned items. The old pawn shop standbys - guns - adorn the back wall, but mostly people bring in authentic Native American handiworks. Some are family heirlooms that go back generations; young parents will pawn their grandmother's necklace, for example, because they need cash to pay bills or buy groceries. In previous years, farmers would pawn their keepsakes to purchase hay for their livestock, though that's less common now.

"It's sad, people giving up things they love," Leighton said. "But sometimes circumstances give them no choice."

For the brothers, bartering is in their blood. Their grandfather was a muleskinner who hauled supplies to explorer Richard Wetherill in Chaco Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. Wetherill, who called the Mancos Valley his home, is credited with discovering the famous Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde.

Their father, Bob Leighton, founded Notah Dineh in 1961, and the family has been working with some of the same Native American artisans for three or four decades.

SHIFTING TO PART-TIME

Another set of local brothers, Scott and Jay Tipton, have owned and operated Mesa Indian Trading Company & Gallery together since 1979. The building is hard to miss, sitting all by its lonesome along Highway 160 just east of the city limits.

It was once a year-round operation, but they've simplified in the last five years, staying open from May to October. That's the plan again this year.

Jay Tipton says the recession isn't to blame for limited hours so much as changing family dynamics. He lives, predominantly, in Arizona for health reasons, and Scott has been occupied by politics, first in the Colorado Legislature and now in the United States Congress. Jay sojourns north to the Four Corners in the springtime to spruce the store up and manage things into the fall, before leaving for warmer weather again.

"We didn't have someone waiting in the wings to continue (the store) on with the level of guidance it needed," he said. "With us both going different directions, we didn't have the oversight to keep things going all year."

With the shorter season, the Tiptons have pared down the on-site pottery making that once pulled in tourists by the droves.

Now, Ute Mountain Pottery, the tribe-owned store on Highway 491 just north of Towaoc, is the only place to consistently see Native American earthenware molded from start to finish.

The Tiptons don't do much, if any, advertising or promotion. They bank on word-of-mouth referrals and a reputation built up over time.

The store is a big hit with travelers, especially those visiting from abroad. Tipton said half of sales now come from foreigners.

"The Germans are fascinated by Indian history," he said, adding that the rise in international tourists has helped offset fewer Americans.

For the Tiptons, keeping their shelves lined with locally - or regionally - made items is a high priority; nobody wants to visit the Four Corners and buy a piece of art made elsewhere. They carry cowboy paraphernalia, but the Native American art is the main draw.

"Almost all (products) are from our general vicinity. If you drew a circle around Cortez, 100 miles in each direction, that's where 99 percent of (the merchandise) comes from," Jay Tipton said.

One intriguing new change could be on tap this year: shoppers may be able to sip a glass of Chardonnay or Riesling while they browse. Guy Drew, the vintner of McElmo Canyon, wants to run a wine tasting room out of one of the gallery spaces, pending approval of a liquor license.

The French tourists will, no doubt, be pleased.

FOLLOW THE ARROWS

Driving west from Mancos, as the Sleeping Ute's silhouette comes into view, a different spectacle catches the eye: giant, red and white arrows - 30-feet tall - sticking diagonally into the ground,

An aerial assault from some far-off, oversized warriors?

Maybe not, but the arrows have been an excellent marketing strategy for Mud Creek Hogan owners Bill and Judy Countess.

Combined with a convenient roadside location near the new Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, the arrows have enticed many a traveling tourist over the last 25 years.

The Countess' took ownership of the Hogan in the late 1980s after leaving careers in the Cortez and Mancos school districts.

Installing the arrows was one of their first business moves.

Judy Countess said building long-term working relationships with Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo suppliers has been both rewarding and helpful to their business. She and Bill know where to go and who to contact if they need a certain item. Neither is of Native descent, but Bill once worked as a predator control officer for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

"We also had a trap line on the Navajo reservation for years and years, and we knew some families from that experience," Judy Countess said.

Because clientele is almost exclusively tourists, the Hogan has always been a seasonal gig. Countess is projecting an opening date for late March.

"The recession didn't hit us too badly. People are still traveling. We've just sold more lower-end merchandise. They'll buy a (replica) instead of an original," she said. "What hurts us more than the recession is each time they redo the highway."

Like Tipton, Countess observed that foreign visitors are a steady source of revenue.

"They hit Mesa Verde and then come to us. They seem to have the most money right now," she said. "Some return year after year. We've made several good friends that way."

Even if she doesn't get many local customers, Judy Countess has noticed the Hogan, with its distinctive look, becoming a rendezvous point.

"It's a place everyone knows. They use it as a meeting spot, a mile marker," she said, admitting the arrows look a little worse for wear at the moment.

"The problem is finding someone with the right equipment. It's not a simple paint job. (The arrows) are tall and they get unsteady near the top. We need somebody with a lift and bucket."

lukeg@cortezjournal.com