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Seeking Santa Fe

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Photo: John Huba

Shopping in Santa Fe falls into two seasons: Indian Market and the rest of the year. To start with the rest of the year, and go by the layers: at the historic base, you find Indians in folding chairs under the portal of the Palace of the Governors in the Plaza, selling their handmade jewelry in the same spots where their ancestors in 1851 sold "fine venison, wild turkeys, and now and then the carcass of a very large bear," according to a contemporary observer. Jonette Sam, from Picuris Pueblo, does sell delicious cuts of buffalo at the farmers’ market in the summer, but airlines don’t like you traveling with raw meat. The jewelry is easier. Made according to traditional norms in neighboring Zuni and Hopi pueblos or on Navajo land over in the Four Corners, it’s displayed on acrylic blankets on the ground. Tourists gaze on the sellers with reverence, kneel to peer at bracelets, necklaces, earrings, barrettes, and little silver bookmarks. Some days, if I’m not doing it myself, the kneeling strikes me as an apology.

Packard’s and Ortega’s, on opposite sides of the Plaza, sell the best contemporary Indian jewelry, and at Nathalie, on Canyon Road, a former accessories editor of Paris Vogue, Nathalie Kent, has imposed cut and proportion on everything from horsehair belts to fringed suede skirts. She sells remarkable cowboy boots that lace up, broom skirts, fur toques, and bracelets by Marcus Amerman, who will reproduce a photo in beads.

Next layer: the Hispanic influence. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has an astonishing collection of santos and conquistador furniture, which may have inspired the new décor in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel: velvets, chunky armrests, and nailhead studs. In an old Chevrolet showroom renamed the Design Center, on Cerrillos Road in town, Gloria List sells 17th-century statues of saints from South America along with resplendores, the sterling silver halos that go above their heads. A woman of exceptional taste, she’s used to seeing one look on the faces of people who come into her shop: "Awe." An expression also seen on the faces of shoppers at Gary Coles-Christensen’s store on San Francisco Street. The world-class dealer sells rugs from Tibet and Nepal that he commissions on his trips there.

In a town where everyone is a gourmet cook, white truffle oil is a staple, lifestyle is sport, and the quest for furniture is like the search for shoes in New York City, except cheaper. Until the Mexican Connection closed last spring, once a month a man called Dale would call a select few and announce the arrival of a truck. At 8 a.m. a few days after one such call, on a bumpy bit of tarmac opposite a tire shop, around the corner from a shoe-repair place that sells great smoked-chile powder, an 18-wheeler from Mexico backed up to the single, narrow door of the Mexican Connection. A small group of mature, well-dressed, motionless people stood rapt, united in a clear focus. One woman clasped gold adhesive tags printed with her name, while another held a sheaf of big blank sticky labels on which she quickly scrawled hers. As men unloaded the truck, she darted about, slapping a label on one antique door, another antique door, another and another... An older man with deep chestnut skin stood back, eyes narrowed, sucking on his pipe. He was dressed like a rancher but his Stetson was perfect and his shearling was new. A decorator. Gauging.

I watched the dealers race forward. This one wanted tables and this one was after trasteros, the thick cupboards that can validate a dining room in no time flat. Irma, who ran the Mexican Connection, entered the fray, in an attempt to separate the movers from the dealers, but the dealers swarmed the store in a rapture of authenticity, putting labels on everything they could reach. Each item was neatly tagged in Mexico with price, material, provenance, and date, and the new things were clearly marked "modern." At least temporarily. There were chunky sideboards from the 1940’s painted turquoise or bright red, vast desks, counters, tables, chairs, metal-topped tables advertising Coca-Cola, dressers, sabino-wood trunks, cupboards painted acid green. Within an hour, most pieces were claimed, and by the next day they were gone, leaving behind only chests of drawers with porcelain handles, very large pots, and a few Coca-Cola tables. The drift of Santa Fe style toward a more generic Mexican effect may have been due to Irma. The Mexican Connection is now gone—vanished overnight like so many other businesses in town. Thank God for its brief tenure. It was partly because of Irma that I sold my house in a week.

My house looked a little like a suburban Japanese inn. It was in town, a solar house built to economize on energy, devoid of any Santa Fe details. When it came time to sell it, I asked a resourceful realtor named Kristina Lindstrom what I needed to do. Experienced in marketing the idea of Santa Fe, she said two words: "Burnt Almond." Soon a painter had covered the double-height living-room wall with Burnt Almond, a color that suggests adobe without pushing it. Kristina dragged two unloved Navajo rugs out of a closet, arranged them in a featured pose on the furniture, and made a Santa Fe Home. I bought a huge old Mexican desk at Irma’s for less than a pair of Louboutins. The house seduced a buyer in no time. I kept the desk.

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