Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller

The COVID pandemic is one certainty that has mortally wounded Steve Osborne's world. A lesser certainty is recalled in the bewildered timbre of a car-accident survivor: On Christmas Eve, Osborne said goodbye to his few employees, locked the door to his shop, stepped into his car and drove off toward home, overworked and dehydrated. He doesn't remember the rest, the car was totaled, and he was saved by the chest-punch airbag, which caused even more pain and damage to his body, which at the moment is reduced to an old-man's shuffle about his Desert Son, the store he owns in the foothills of Tucson.

He is getting better, though. Hell, he beat cancer once. Yet the Parkinson's Disease he was diagnosed with a year ago robs him of short-term memory, but not the recalling of life yarns, worldwide hunts for dreams, perhaps salvations, and improbable ways to make a buck. His mother died several months back, 96 years old, the dementia was kicking in, to which he shakes his head and says, "that is a just a horrible way to go." Mom was a fixture at Desert Son, would come in to work, and later, for the camaraderie and companionship until she fell and broke her hip. "When she stopped coming into the store, she wasn't happy anymore."

There is a vague communal tone to the conversations among the five Desert Son employees here today, among them owner Osborne and his younger sister Carol, and Osborne's buddy of 50 years Urv Cox (and his dog Terri).

Desert Son shimmers when the daylight streaks through the immaculate windows just right, across rare, hand-carved kachina dolls, handmade belts and shoes, Zuni fetishes and signed silver turquoise jewelry, and well-curated traditional Native music and books. Mostly, a fetching collection of artists, dead or alive, hundreds of pieces rich with history and spirituality, a Native store that has exchanged with the reservations, pueblo cultural centers and attendant traditional Native ceremonials, and all manner of folk for 50 years. But go deeper and it's a fair-trade with Native artists, those who've spent decades honing and perfecting their skills, and its inventory rises above any hint of kitsch into the realm of art, the one-of-a-kind, and that includes five decades of creating and selling Native moccasins, or "boots," as Osborne calls them, made right here in the back. And it is a world receding.

In its presentation, unlikely situated in a strip mall at Sunrise and Swan, and careful displays, Desert Son could be a gallery, but it isn't, it's a Native store, Osborne will say.

There is a tidy workshop in back, dyes and machines for leather cutting, where $20K of rolled rare leather, specially purchased from the only place that sells the stuff in the country, fills high shelves. Out back a big vat for soaking the stuff.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller
Brian Smith
Lenny Redhouse seaming a moccasin.

Next to that is an atelier, a little well-lit moccasin factory, really, where sundry plastic shoe lasts (molds) fill walls. There is a Native guy here, Lenny Redhouse, working alone on the four-chair work bench. He's a mostly jovial sort. He's also a Miles Davis freak who had his head blown open to Bitches Brew at a sensitive age, Coltrane and Buddy Rich too. Redhouse lost his place to live days ago, is homeless at the moment, sometimes sleeping here in the shop, the smell of buffalo leather and dust, surrounded by piling moccasin inventory meant for the Navajo and Hopi reservations and New Mexican pueblos. His powerful fingers move like embittered prompts, the constant needle jabbing, the bending and shaping the archaic leather pieces, seams and thread, and shoe soles for a moccasin which has little demand now, beyond the ceremonial, as a foot accessory. Getting the work right, Redhouse says, "is a feel thing."

Redhouse's love of jazz defined his prepubescent years and beyond, he has played at both the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian. He plays with The Larry Redhouse trio combo, led by his brother. There is his Redhouse Family Jazz Band too, dubbed "Arizona's Native American first family of jazz," a collection of six crazy-gifted siblings, members of the Dine' tribe, whose musical reference points include jazz, Latin, R&B, funk, folk, and traditional Native sounds and spirituality. They've earned Native American Music Awards and members boast Grammy nods. COVID killed the gig schedule. Redhouse is part Filipino too and talks about his grandmother regaling GIs in the Philippines with honky-tonk piano, growing up with a dad who sang traditional Navajo songs on handmade drums, parents who bestowed upon him and his siblings the absolute joy of music.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller
Brian Smith
Lenny Redhouse and moccasin.

Once the leather is cut, Lenny averages about an hour and half per shoe, sewing, fitting, forming, sizing, the degree of difficulty depending on the thickness of the leather. He spends hours on a shoe if the cut isn't on target. "But look," he says, "it's piece work, if it is pretty antiquated." A moment passes, a small TV flickering at low-volume, and he shoves a long, thick needle into stubborn leather, sore, tired and powerful drummer fingers, and he says, "The only way I make money now is when I have my hand on a shoe."

* * *

"I have to go buy a crappy car now," Osborne says. "Maybe spend $500, you know, something to get around."

We're in the store's front, Osborne's seated beneath a southwestern painting of a prickly pear, moccasins displayed off to his right. Occasional left-hand trembles accompany steady self-deprecating asides: "So who the hell cares about my life?"

Coiffed, short snow-white hair, specs and translucent blues, pearl-snapped cowboy shirt, and Nikes for the shuffle. He neatens his observations into tidy bundles of anecdotes, criticizes the Parkinson's for a failing short-term memory, yet, when he switches gears in conversation he finishes full-circle. Hard to imagine this guy in the late-'60s with long hair, cowboy hat, moccasins and a parrot on his shoulder. There is a gentleness about him, a speaking voice whose tone divulges inner kindness, especially when he talks a particular artist or work. This isn't about a man who creates the art, but a white guy who has cultivated a world on personal relationships with non-whites to be able to sell it and care for it with an earned knowledge, understanding and empathy for the work and its makers.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller
Brian Smith
Wall of moccasin molds in a back Desert Son workshop.

He stands, moves to a display case and pulls out an elaborate bracelet made by Navajo artist Vernon Haskie. The bracelet is art because you take in everything to interpret a private meaning, a weight not easily expressed beyond the significance of the coral and gold and turtles, the design and craftsmanship. It has mojo, if you will.

He pulls work by Robert Leekya, who was a friend to Osborne. To look closely at, say, a pair of his silver turquoise earrings, and the man's heart is in there. It's easy to begin to puzzle together the interior design of the artist's life, the Zuni Reservation and silversmithing passed down from the artist's father in the 1930s. It's all there, delicate as butterfly wings.

"Leekya is dead now, been gone for months, and was making jewelry in the old-school way," Osborne says, looking at his work. After a pause, he adds, "They're dying off. It's sad. It's not possible to make that jewelry anymore, if a guy runs out of his stash, the stones, he's got nowhere to go."

These are not luxury items with expiration dates, and they are not priced as such, not at an in-person, non-online place like this. These pieces demand human interaction. A trader like Osborne is well-aware.

He lifts up a bolo tie whose silver carvings brim of something inaccessible, faraway and formal, a burnished scarlet dinosaur bone fitted in its center. "You'll never find something like this," Osborne says.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller
Brian Smith
Art for the wrist.

Osborne carries himself in the store with the weary air of responsibility, of ownership, and when he talks, say, mean biker bars in Silver City, New Mexico, or his early days driving Marygin weed cleaners, selling pipes to headshops, in an era when 7-Up signs were up, he doesn't underpin scenes in sparkly nostalgia.

Maybe it wasn't the easiest road to land here.

Born four months premature in Bombay, Osborne was the first incubator baby in India, and they didn't know how to handle him, or turn him, kept him wrapped in cotton. He had a sibling born premature too, who didn't make it.

As a boy in India in the early '50s, the son of an American Exxon employee, he remembers remnants of the British rule, and he would run free in the streets, the poverty and the markets, hide in temples. One day his dad went looking for his son and found him with a panther. His love of the street culture grew inside him, surrounded by Indians, and it was his "reality." His love of Yankee cowboy and Native mythology grew too, the movies, and his dad would return from stateside business trips with comic books and 78s, cowboy music of Gene Autry and such.

When he was 8, the family moved to Yokohama, Japan, he learned the language, lived in an area called The Bluff, where many Americans lived. "We ran wild with no fear."

Later upon returning to India, he had where-with-all because of his early history there, tossing a sleeping bag down in a room with 40 others for 10 cents a night, oh, and the "state of the toilet." In the late '60s and '70 he lived in Kashmir, on a houseboat, in the rise of Kashmir nationalism, "there was lots of hash around, and heroin."

His family moved stateside (Connecticut) and the multi-lingual Osborne moved to Tucson to attend UA ("I thought the west was the best, with flowers in your hair") to learn business and English, wound up in drama too. "Perfect. I had stage fright, and I was in drama. I hated studying business. The idea was profit-motivated and creepy. I didn't learn anything in school, I just wasn't mature enough."

Instead he split for Guatemala and learned Spanish. He became an autodidact in business, an intuition for then-counter-culture needs of American kids. He learned to establish relationships, to buy, sell, trade, with artisans and sellers in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, in frightening slippery corners of Thailand and Vietnam.

In Afghanistan, on one visit he remembers the Red Army forcing Afghans into the military, always against backdrop of conflicts, Biblical penury, drugs everywhere. This Indian-born Yankee would travel to Afghanistan and ship back Afghan coats in the 1960s, after seeing the Beatles' John and Ringo wearing them. He'd sell them at liberal-arts colleges in the northeast, practically door-to-door, as he calls, "getting stoned and shuckin' and fuckin'. I was so young and stupid."

He says the hippies in India were scary too, "It was let's just all get fucked up." The long claim that heroin needles were everywhere on the beaches in Goa is true, he says, the night worlds lighted by candles in coconuts, how he'd shorn his locks for a visa extension in India. In the late '60s sitting on the pavement in Lahore, Pakistan he watched girls from New Jersey followed by 30 Pakistanis howling "woo-hoo." He shakes his head, "Everybody's still got a lot to learn. I should've written a book in India and Afghanistan in the '60s."

Osborne hasn't returned to that part of the world in years. "I'm too old now, I don't think I could take it." He remembers leaving India the last time, two decades ago or so. "it was really sad, seeing the sun rise, seeing all the people."

* * *

Desert Son was founded on Fourth Avenue in Tucson in the 1960s. So many sweaty and tan sun creatures, weighed with adornment in donkey beads and swirling tunics keeping distance from the drunken servicemen stepping off the Greyhound, getting into fistfights with hippies and bikers. He remembers junkies shooting up on the roof, thieves and drunks, and he shakes his head.

It started for Osborne when he met a moccasin seller. "I said look, I've got a Volkswagen. I'll drive and sell your moccasins. Oregon, Washington, down the California coast, Texas, Kansas. All the moccasin business was in New Mexico, and Colorado. I went to Europe and sold moccasins. I went to New York but that didn't last. I went to every trading post and Indian store and pueblo in New Mexico and we established ourselves as a company, hippies with a business license."

The company went from six bootmakers to 26. Today there is Redhouse in the back with his powerful fingers.

"We were the smallest crummiest store, but we were making hundreds of pairs of boots a day, in our little shop." In those days, he says, to be in the Native business was like being "an outlaw." Yet moccasins in the days of Midnight Cowboy and Little Big Man raged in pop culture, could be found in Neiman Marcus windows.

"There were a lot of drug dealers, and many of the weed dealers got into Indian jewelry. These guys in Sante Fe were huge coke heads, selling to all the Hollywood types. And these dealers would die, drugs, cirrhosis of the liver, whatever. The drugs just leave you empty. The hippie things were everywhere, sandals, leather shops."

His main partner was a charismatic guy named Marcel Fitzer. "He died at 40, on my birthday, the very hour I was born. I would say died of misadventures." Osborne laughs ruefully, "He was horrible guy, bouncing checks, got into a lawsuit, but he was my friend. I wish he was still around."

Dad helped his son out, years ago, bought out a partner in the business. Dad's advice, Osborne laughs, was "'don't talk to anyone under 40. They don't know what they're talking about.'"

He began to trade shoes for jewelry, and that's how Desert Son got into jewelry, soon moved off Fourth Avenue. Again, he would get in his crappy car and drive to every reservation, pueblo and trading post in New Mexico. "When I was in my 30s, people owned stores in their 60s, and they're long gone."

He drew on earned respect in those corners, an honest white guy running a legitimate business. Years-long clients Joseph and Janice Day, owners of the Tsakurshovi Trading Post, a store situated on top of second mesa in the Hopi reservation, tell me Osborne is a good guy to work with. Say "he is familiar with Hopi and Navajo, is very good at creating the kind of moccasins specific to Navajo and Hopi culture. We sell six kinds of moccasins for men, women and children and Steve supplies them all."

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is a Desert Son client, though no one is buying shoes, Osborne says, "because of the pandemic. And nobody is going to want to stockpile this stuff."

In fine jewelry it is considered fair to cheat. When it involves works by Natives, it is out in the open. Osborne talks the roadside tourist haunts, truck-stops and glimmering shops selling fakes. The ersatz Kachina dolls made of balsa wood. "You had trucks driving around filling up the roadside sellers with this cheap crap. You get people walking down the street, even in Santa Fe, they don't know any better, walk into a shop, and the guy behind the counter is selling them expensive Chinese-made junk."

His Desert Son has been in this location 30 years. Because he's located in the Tucson Foothills, he says there is a preconception his inventory is overpriced. "It's not true, that's the foothills mythology." His overstock includes belts, sized 30 and under, because women who attend UA don't trek to the foothills to buy. There is no website for a reason, how it cancels out real-time interaction, face to face. He is the old guard now, whose long-term relationships with Natives began on handshakes.

He talks death. His girlfriend of 20 years died of cancer, 13 years ago. He was there, sleeping on the floors and little couches.

"When she died I started taking care of myself. I went to the doctor and he forced me to get an ultrasound." They put a needle in a lump on him, "and discovered I had cancer."

The chemo was horrible, wreaked havoc on his brain, and it nearly took him out. But it didn't.

"I'm still here," says the man saddled with two mortgages on his house, which he shares with sister Carol. Their sibling bond is deep. Lately Carol has been taking care of her brother at home. ("She gets my pills together ...")

Osborne says in his best year at Desert Son, he personally made $55,000. "That's it."

* * *

Years ago, Phillip Cassadore, a spiritual leader of the Apache tribe on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, would often come into Desert Son to hang out and drink water. People would come in just to see him, and Osborne would play his music. The two were good friends.

"After he died," Osborne says, "sometimes an eagle, or maybe it was a hawk, would fly over the parking lot, and then a car would pull in and I would make a sale. I may sound crazy, but this is absolutely true."

He glances around the familiarity of his lovely, comfortable store—his life—and he says, "Some days not a single customer comes in." He gets up and shuffles through the place, the gleaming lighted cases filled of spectacular pieces. "Nobody buys lizard anymore," he adds pointing to shoes lined along the floor. "Maybe I'll make a sign that says 50 percent off."

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Portrait of the old moccasin seller
Brian Smith
Steve Osborne inside his 50-year-old store.

I return the next day and there is a sign out front: 50 percent off. I am in the back with Osborne who is standing over paperwork. The Desert Son phone rings and he picks it up, the woman on the other end is calling about the sale.

"If you're buying a $7 item, not so much. But if you're spending $7,000, yes."

More words on the other end.

Osborne: "Are you coming in or are you just asking? We've got people lining up now!

"Okay, thank you. Goodbye."

He sits down on a chair. There isn't a customer in the store. He says, "People need to start buying again. Too much overhead here. And, I hope I get better soon."

Two days ago, a customer came in and spent $5,000. Rare hopeful occurrence these days.

He drags his hand over his forehead, lets his shoulders drop, and says, "This is the lowest point in my life. The reservation's closed down in New Mexico. If I let people go, what are they going to do? They come in too because they are loyal, and it's the same with the customers. One of my employees is recovering from a huge medical operation. And there's me, and I'm half the man I was. I don't get a paycheck. If I was a smart businessman I would shut it down. But I'm not. If I can't function anymore, I would have to sell. Anyway, who would want to buy an Indian store?"

Every piece of jewelry and kachina doll here carries import and stories. He knows them, can talk for hours of the creators, where they are from, how they live and survive. How they died and what they left behind. It is years and years of friendships and study and the near suffocating dedication of a single-mindedness, which really comes down to bringing some beauty to the world, a trader for the artist. One can't sell that stuff.

He laughs softly, says in a tone of kidlike hopefulness. "I'll get better. My accountant would always say, 'What's your backup?" And I would say, 'Luck.' I've always had luck."

He mentions Cassadore and the birds with a sly grin. "But I don't want to burn out my good luck."