Is it the last stand for the trading post?
Facing many challenges, owners struggle to adapt in 21st century
FARMINGTON — When the 20th century gave way to 21st, the Shiprock Trading Post already had been a fixture in its namesake community for more than 100 years, providing all manner of goods and services for its predominately Navajo customers.
But by 2007, those days were over. A large regional grocery store chain had opened its doors in Shiprock, offering prices and selections the Shiprock Trading Post couldn't match. Demand had dwindled, if not ceased, for many of the other items and services the post had offered over the years. It was clear the traditional model that had sustained the business for so long — which included buying and selling livestock, as well as maintaining charge accounts for many of the Navajo weavers and artists with whom the post traded — needed to be modernized.
At that point, Kent Morrow had been part of the business for many years, having taken his brother-in-law, who owned the post, up on the offer of a job nearly 15 years earlier. Morrow had found his life's work, but in the adapt-or-die world of 21st century commerce, it was clear the Shiprock Trading Post could no longer be what it had been for so long to so many people.
So the trading post was relocated to Farmington, keeping its name but changing almost everything about the way it did business.
"That was really a hard thing for our company to leave Shiprock because we had a hundred years of history there," said Morrow, who bought the trading post shortly thereafter and has owned it ever since. "Economies change. We just chose to focus on the arts and crafts side of the business because that was what we were most passionate about, and we wanted to move it to a location that was really going to be the future of our business with retail and wholesale."
The Shiprock Trading Post now focuses exclusively on Navajo rugs, jewelry, pottery and other works of art. It's a transition that many other trading posts have had to make over the past several decades as only a handful of businesses continue to operate under the traditional model.
But don't think for a minute that Morrow doesn't still consider his business a trading post.
"Absolutely," he said. "Even though we aren't trading for groceries or gas, we still see our function as the same. We're providing an outlet for these artists. Most weavers aren't going to drive to Phoenix or Denver or even Santa Fe."
Merchants like Morrow continue to serve as a conduit between Navajo weavers and artists, and Anglo buyers — just as they have done in the Four Corners since the 1870s. Most trading posts may not look, feel or operate the way they once did, but they remain a significant presence in the area, even in an age when more and more business is done online. The Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau web site lists eight trading posts in the area, but the actual number across the region far exceeds that.
Bart Wilsey, director of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park and an authority on local history, said the trading posts that have survived into the 21st century — with some notable exceptions — have followed a handful of models. They have become art galleries that deal almost exclusively in Native art, they have become convenience stores or they have become wholesalers for Navajo rugs and art, acquiring those items from Native artists and offering them for resale to a national or even global market.
The Shiprock Trading Company operates as a hybrid of the first and third models, as does the Fifth Generation Trading Company, which also is located in Farmington. The owner of the latter business, Joe E. Tanner Jr., said his trading post's clients include the Smithsonian Institution. The appetite for Navajo art extends not just across the United States, but around the world, and local traders help Native weavers and artists find those markets.
Morrow said that middleman role is what continues to make trading posts relevant in the modern era.
"People ask me, 'Why do they need you?' Because we have contacts with these galleries over the country and outside of the country," he said. "We have contacts with people in Germany and Japan, and we're always building new contacts."
Tom Wheeler, who will mark his 50th year of ownership of the Hogback Trading Co. in Waterflow next year, focuses on Navajo rugs, art, jewelry, drums and cradleboards, having made the transition away from the traditional model early in his tenure as the proprietor. His family has owned the trading post since 1871, but Wheeler took it on himself as a young man to shake things up.
That was a position he came to only after some soul searching. Wheeler wanted nothing more than to get away from the trading post business as a high school kid, yearning to go off to college, earn a degree and do something — anything — else.
But after he earned a degree in business administration and accounting, Wheeler recognized that spending his life engaged only in the numbers side of an enterprise wasn't enough to keep him happy. He said he had grown to love and recognize the worth of the rugs, jewelry, paintings and sculpture that Navajo weavers and artists had been bringing into the post for generations, and he embraced the family business that he had wanted no part of just a few years earlier.
"I found beauty in all that and an appreciation that goes into an artist or weaver," he said. "It was amazing to me, and I appreciated every piece that came in."
Still, Wheeler felt compelled to put his stamp on the business. He began by building and operating a shopping center next door that offered many of the goods and services that had fallen under the umbrella of the trading post for so many years. Then he notified the Navajo weavers and artists who had done business with his family for generations that he was closing their charge accounts, forgiving whatever debt they had accumulated and compensating them on a cash-only basis from that point on.
That brought to an end to the "trading" model that the business had engaged in for a century, but the response to his decision was overwhelmingly positive, Wheeler said.
"They absolutely loved that," he said of the weavers and artists. "The word spread throughout the reservation. If you took your rug to Hogback to Tom Wheeler, he'll pay you cash."
Wheeler solicited work from throughout the reservation, attracting different styles and working closely with the weavers to encourage higher standards.
"Every rug that came in, I would go through it with the weavers and critique it," he said. "I would show them how it needed to be really straight, have good colors and have a nice, tight weave. That way, every rug you'd bring in, you'd try to make it better than your last one. I created a market from my trading post throughout the reservation."
Wheeler may have been a revolutionary in the way he operated his business, but his bond with Navajo weavers, artists and customers is something that remains a hallmark of the business today, even in the midst of so much change.
One of the few remaining traditional trading posts in the area, the Hatch Brothers Trading Post in Fruitland, is the epitome of a neighborhood store, standing at the end of a gravel county road and well off the busy U.S. Highway 64, where so many other trading posts are clustered between Farmington and Shiprock. Outside its screen door, the San Juan River rushes by, obscuring the shallow crossing many Navajo families used for decades to access the post.
Inside, Chuck Hatch, son of the business' longtime owner, 100-year-old Raymond Stewart Hatch, oversees a small but eclectic inventory while greeting the occasional customer, including a pair of tourists who had discovered the business through an online recommendation and came to shop its collection of vintage jewelry.
Hatch said he doesn't deal in contemporary jewelry, with everything in the store's scratched display case dating to 1940 or earlier. He much prefers the uniqueness and small imperfections that mark those vintage pieces and give them character, taking the time to point out those qualities on a turquoise bracelet.
Hatch said he only stocks the store's shelves at the first of every month now, and by this windy afternoon in the middle of May, many of them already were bare. His staples are canned chili, pinto beans, Spam and Vienna sausages. Much of the rest of the store is filled with Native flutes, baskets and pottery.
"I used to keep this thing jam packed, but that's kind of faded out," Hatch said.
The big white meat display case that once served as a centerpiece of the post is now stocked with soft drinks. Hatch recalled a time when his father used to keep a herd of sheep ranging from 200 to 1,000 head behind the store, butchering 25 of them a day to meet customer demand.
"At the end of the day, there was not a lick of meat around here," he said, recalling the popularity of mutton among the post's clientele.
Several kerosene lamps were positioned at the top of one shelf. Hatch explained he used to sell a lot of them, back when there was a company in Flagstaff, Arizona, that he could rely on to keep him supplied. When that firm went out of business, Hatch started buying lamps from a company in Albuquerque, but his customers always returned them in a matter of days, complaining that the lamps leaked from their base.
"There's a lot of modern things they're reproducing that don't work," he said.
The post still functions as a general delivery postal site, as evidenced by the stack of mail sitting on a shelf behind the counter, and it continues to maintain credit accounts for many of its customers, some of them going back decades.
Hatch Brothers also has offered de facto banking services for many of its customers over the years, extending small, low-interest (1.5 percent) loans or writing checks to cover customers' utility bills in exchange for their weavings, jewelry, livestock or wool.
Hatch said the recent proliferation of payday loan firms dried up that business, though he noted that some of the post's longtime customers had gotten themselves into trouble that way. He shook his head in dismay as he showed a visitor the paperwork from one such transaction a customer had left with him, which called for an interest rate of 521 percent.
John McCulloch — owner of the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, another post that fills the traditional role — said his business located just a few miles west of the New Mexico border on U.S. Highway 64 still provides some basic banking services.
"We still cash a lot of checks, but a lot of Navajo people have direct deposit now," he said. "Twenty-five years ago, few Navajo people were comfortable with a bank account. Now, more and more of them can manage that and are comfortable with a bank."
McCulloch's expansive trading post, housed in an adobe building, offers a sizable selection of groceries, but it also caters to the very specific tastes of its customers. He proudly showed off an entire aisle of books with text in both English and Navajo, and then turned a visitor's attention to a large offering of beautiful white Navajo moccasins that he said are in especially high demand for high school graduation ceremonies.
The rest of the store is filled with Native art and curios, an oversize gumball machine, enamelware cookware that McCulloch said his customers like to use at their sheep camps, and pet and livestock feed. There is also a prominent display of Blue Bird Flour, a brand that seems to be common to every trading post still in existence. McCulloch describes the Cortez, Colorado-based product as the flour of choice for frybread.
The whine of a saw from the back of the store revealed the existence of a large meat counter, where a butcher was cutting frozen mutton chops. An old-fashioned Pepsi sign behind the counter listed prices for ribs, legs, necks, backbone and stew meat, as well as pork chops, chopped ham, bologna and red franks.
A warehouse in back houses the wool McCulloch still buys from local producers, but he said he stopped trading for livestock a few years ago, leaving the large pen behind the business empty.
In front of the store, a large, shaded patio with picnic tables greets visitors, complete with several murals of Native figures, including one of Geronimo, the famed Chiricahua warrior and medicine man who roamed through much of Arizona and New Mexico from the 1850s to the 1880s. The murals lead to the trading posts restrooms, which also boast an artistic flair. The door the women's room features a Native woman making frybread, while the door to the men's room features a Navajo man chopping wood.
Back inside, McCulloch greeted most of his customers by name, even engaging some of them in a discussion of their children's graduation ceremony plans. He finally settled into the chair behind the vintage desk of his crowded, windowless office and addressed the issues of operating a trading post.
"Without the gas business, you're pretty well shot," he said, noting the fuel pumps out front. "You have to get 'em in the store. In remote spots like this, you might not make any money off gasoline, but they might come in and spend 10 bucks on things they need."
The Farmington native likes to tilt the brim of his white straw cowboy hat up when he talks, but he doesn't seem to ever remove it. He frequently starts out on one train of thought but moves on to another halfway through his sentence, leaving the first thought unfinished.
"It's not a huge success, but we manage to stay in business and pay the bills — and pay for a few vices, as well," he said.
The walls behind his desk that are lined with photos of some of the race horses he has owned over the years make it easy to figure out what vices McCulloch is referring to. He glanced at the photos and smiled ruefully.
"This business has been a lot more successful than the horse racing business, financially," he said.
The modern-day trading post is as much a landmark as a business, Wilsey said, and that is why some people continue to seek them out. But he worries about their continued viability, especially as older generations of traders, artisans and customers pass on, often leaving no one to replace them.
"They don't have a lock on the market like they once did," he said. "It doesn't serve as the warehouse as it once did. It's not done as much anymore."
McCulloch echoed that assessment.
"These stores out here have been faced with the same issues downtown Main Street stores have," he said. "Navajos spend their money at WalMart like everybody else, whereas trading posts back in the day had them almost captive."
Wilsey said he believes older Navajo weavers and artists continue to bring their work to trading posts because they value the relationships with traders that were built over decades.
But Morrow acknowledged that isn't the case with many of those who have followed in their footsteps.
"More and more younger artists are using social media to sell direct to the public, and that makes it harder for us," he said.
Morrow said his business survives because there are still many customers who enjoy the in-person shopping experience, especially when it comes to investing in something like a Navajo rug.
"Consumers want to come in and feel the rugs and compare them side by side," he said. "On the Internet, you have no chance to examine them and compare them."
Wheeler said he has trouble keeping enough jewelry in stock these days, and Morrow said his inventory is declining, partly because members of the younger Navajo generation simply aren't interested in going through the painstaking, years-long training that goes along with becoming an accomplished weaver.
"I think we're seeing fewer and fewer rugs every year," he said. "I hope people will continue to see value in that and continue to buy them. I hope we can continue and that younger weavers want to continue doing it."
Morrow said he treasures the interactions he has with those who trust him with their work.
"For me, personally, it's the relationships we have with the individual Navajo artists I find most rewarding," he said. "Someone will bring us a rug, and that's a big deal for them. They're always dressed in traditional clothing, wearing traditional jewelry, and it's a big deal for them to come down here."
It's a big deal for him, too, he said.
"I'm always excited," Morrow said. "I'm not just picking up and ordering something from a factory. It's really humbling to me that they will hand that over to me and let me find a home for it. It's so significant for them, what they've just created."
McCulloch said the isolated nature of trading posts like his make operating one an unappealing prospect for many people. But he said the idea that they are no longer a money-making proposition is erroneous.
"Somebody could make a decent living out of this store for a long time to come, that's for sure," he said.
Wheeler said he thought about selling the Hogback Trading Co. two years ago and retiring, but he quickly dismissed the notion, concluding that having nothing to do with himself would leave him bored. He said he still finds great satisfaction in the day-to-day operation of the business and enjoys his role in promoting Navajo art and culture.
"We're all the same way. We all have something that gets us out of bed and gets us on our way," he said. "It could be religion, it could be your job. It's a great feeling to be in this business."
Morrow acknowledged the challenges facing trading posts, but he declined to take a pessimistic approach.
"I think the future is bright," he said. "There continues to be amazing art created in this area, and I hope we can keep doing it just carry on that tradition."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at email@example.com.