J. Peterman Comes to Mexico

Back in another era, the end of the day at the law factory meant spending some quality time with the daily harvest of catalogs, which often would amount to a foot-high stack. In a small rural Iowa town where Walmart was just about as good as shopping got, unless you trekked all the way to Red Oak’s K-Mart, those catalogs were a window to the world beyond. Customer service working the night shift and the fax machine meant that the UPS man could deliver some of the treasures to my door even more quickly.

Shopping from a mail-order catalog is far from boring. The enjoyment of reading and dreaming and dog-earring the pages, debating about what to order, placing the order, and waiting eagerly for delivery is just as important as opening up the package and enjoying the goods. 

There are those who can remember some line from a movie, a scene from some concert, the third inning of a ball game, or what they ate last Tuesday. To those who love to shop and read, those are silly, insignificant moments. Our defining moments are filled with memories of what we scored on the big hunt.

Take J. Peterman, for example. I can tell you how I called the phone number which appeared on his small Wall Street Journal advertisement for a horseman’s duster and how that led to a copy of the very first J. Peterman catalog landing in my mailbox.  And how he introduced me to Mephistos in the 1980’s. And then there was the first Banana Republic catalog, printed on heavy stock and filled with intriguing backstores. And the Penzeys Spices catalog, filled with never-ending commentary and recipes about all kinds of spices, fascinating even to someone who doesn’t cook. Who can forget the thrill when the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog arrived?

Those days are gone, killed off by the Internet and the reluctance of mail-0rder merchants to send catalogs to Mexico. Downloading a catalog just isn’t the same. I want the feel of paper in my hands, and I want to take those catalogs to bed with me.

During those good old days, I would spend every spare moment in Mexico, venturing off to artisan villages, not knowing what I was doing, and buying folk art that met my fancy, stuffing it all into the Suburban for the trip back north. I could’ve saved myself a lot of time, effort and expense had I known Rick and Deb Hall back then. Between them, they’ve been building relationships with artisans for sixty years. And they actually know what they’re doing, operating Zócalo Fine Folk Art in San Miguel de Allende and Zócalo Arte Popular in Patzcuaro.

rooster Every business has to have a website, and theirs is no different. But it does take a different approach, because Zócalo Fine Folk Art offers its wares by mail order at reasonable prices, shipping and handling included. Remember that angel’s head at a shop in Tlaquepaque that you didn’t buy, because you didn’t know how you were going to get it home, and now you’re kicking yourself? That and more are available at Zócalo Fine Folk Art. Buying folk art directly at a concurso from the man or woman who made it might seem like a more authentic experience, but there’s a knack to doing so, and Deb Hall walks you through the process. But even if you did manage to schlep that green ceramic pineapple unscathed all the way from San Jose de Gracia back home, and now you’re wondering how to clean the damn thing, the instructions are right here.

Folk art is more than just another decorative object, and the stories behind the lives and communities of those who produce it create greater understanding about how elements and uses are combined to create what we call “art.” A clay horse is more than just a piece of clay formed into the shape of a horse, and a fish depicted on a plate from Capula means more than just something that once swam in the lake. That’s where Deb Hall’s blog, Zocalo de Mexican Folk Art, delivers the rest of the story in a way that would make J. Peterman proud.


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