Mountain bikers prefer Hopi jewelry over any other kind of Native American tradecraft. Not many people know that, but Tony Lema, Sr. certainly does, and with good reason; he has been running Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery on Main Street, with the help of his family, since he opened it in 1987.
His mother, a Native American crafts expert, was the one of the first people to interest him in selling traditional arts and crafts.
“She taught it to me as a way to make a living, but back then you couldn’t make a living doing it here in Moab,” Lema, Sr. said.
So he closed the fast food restaurant that he had been running since the 1960s (which was on the lot where the Moab Diner now sits) and moved down to Gallup, New Mexico to open a store.
During those first years, Lema, Sr. learned the basics of the business and how to work with Native American artisans. After a few years he closed the Gallup store and got into the wholesale side of the business, distributing Native American art as far north as Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“I learned more and more about the trade each year, the whole things was a learning experience,” Lema, Sr. said.
He learned that many of the non-pueblo tribes did not start doing craft work until the 1880s, when they learned it from the Spanish. He learned that Native Americans had never manufactured silver jewelry before the 1920s, when whites began teaching the Navajo silver smiths how. He also learned that sections of reservations have specific types of rug designs, and that those designs adapt based on the buyers feedback of what sells.
Then in the late 1970s his wife suggested he try opening a store up in Moab, since there were so many foreign tourists coming through.
Lema Sr. didn’t much like the idea because, “Moab was a hard place to open a business at that time.”
But he eventually agreed and in July of 1987 Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery opened its Main Street doors to the public.
It went well.
“The first night we stayed open till six, the next night till eight and the next night till ten. We realized that late night is when people come out shopping,” Lema, Sr. said.
And his wife was right; it was mostly Europeans who came in. The Germans were the biggest customers, since the exchange rate with the Deutsch Mark was so good. But the French weren’t far behind, and they were followed by the Italians.
“Europeans love the mystique of the West,” Lema, Sr. said.
Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery has expanded several times since then to fill the 5,000 square-foot area it now occupies. The gallery has also expanded the products that it offers to fit most budgets.
“We now have gift items that people with $20 can get,” says Tony Lema, Jr., who has begun taking the reins from his father in recent years.
“Dad is pretty much retired now, but still comes in and out whenever he wants. It’s a family business and we are all partners,” Lema, Jr. said. “Maybe some day one of my kids will want to step in and take over when I’m done.”
The gallery’s website and online store is an aspect of the business Lema, Jr. has focused on. The entire site is now run in-house and offers around one thousand of the products that can be found in the store, ranging from $9.99 to $16,000.
“We eventually want the website to sell 50 percent of what the store does,” Lema, Jr. said.
Lema Sr. believes that there are several things that have made the gallery a success. One is taking the time to educate customers so that they can appreciate the product.
“I have people that come in who I spend two hours with and they may not buy anything, but they have learned something and they can appreciate the piece,” he said.
Another reason that Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery has continued to grow is that Moab has continued to grow. Lema, Sr. said that without the hard work of the volunteers who put on events and bring people in — the town, and his family’s gallery, wouldn’t be what it is today.
“We business owners have a huge debt of gratitude to the people that bring folks to town,” Lema, Sr. said.