Late on a Friday afternoon in July, I stop by what is one of my favorite stores certainly in the Austin area but also, possibly, anywhere in the world I’ve ever visited. The Turquoise Trading Post has been in operation in the same blue awning–clad shopping center on Burnet Road since the summer of 1994.
As I sit down to talk with owner Jim Williamson in his cozy office/workroom behind the jewelry counter, he’s at work on a ring. He taps it gently down a ring mandrel for a custom fit, then cleans it and restores its patina before handing it through the curtain that shields his workspace from the main retail area. He’s surrounded by the tools of his trade and continues to work as we talk.
My first question is somewhat unusual. I’d love to know, in a general sense, how you define work?
I don’t do work here. This is not work; this is just my life. I’ve had real jobs before, and this is not a real job. Nobody tells me what to do… It’s a pretty easy life.
I know from your website that you opened the store in 1994. What types of work did you do before opening the store? You mentioned working with the Boy Scouts of America.
I raised money; well, that was a big part of it. I did Boy Scouts for 10 years as a professional. I was in Tulsa, OK, Oakridge, TN, Hattiesburg, MS. Probably from the time I was 14, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I had some really great mentors growing up, so I thought “Well, that’ll be a good job,” and it was. They gave me lots of responsibility that I probably shouldn’t have had at 22 or 23 years old. But they let me do it, and I had a lot of fun. It was a great life, but it was work. We were basically seven days a week, and we worked 10–12 hours a day. I got tired. I just wore myself out, so I moved to Dallas for a fresh start.
Here Williamson details his work history starting with a short stint in the 711 Management Training Program and many years in the non-profit sector including positions with The National Jewish Hospital, the Arthritis Foundation of Louisiana, Cerebral Palsy, South Texas Arthritis Foundation (where he served as President and which position brought him to Austin), and Texas Lung Association.
You have a strong background in non-profit work. When did you decide you wanted to think along the lines of entrepreneurship?
I should have done it in high school because I’ve got a degree in business.
Why Native American jewelry and crafts?
Throughout the years of non-profit in Alabama, Louisiana, Dallas and Austin, Texas, Williamson had a Navajo boyfriend who made jewelry.
It was cheap jewelry, and I would help him make it. We made tons of it and sold it to gas stations and to some stores here in town. He would go to shows and sell it. Gradually, he started making better stuff. One day, I said “Why don’t we open a store?”
So we opened a store––it was only 1000 square feet, and I didn’t know how we would ever fill it up. Going into it, within the first month or so, I knew it was up to me because he would call me and ask me to run over and open the store because he was running late. I said, “Well, hell, I’ll just quit, and I’ll play store.”
Was the original store here in Austin?
It was just four or five doors down. We’ve always been right here in this shopping center on Burnet Road. We opened in August of that year, and it wasn’t easy. We had days we didn’t make a dime. We didn’t have a single sale. We started ads, early on, and did as much creative stuff as we could. Of course, there was no social media. None of that was available. But finally Christmas came, and I could see we’d live.
We figured out that the hardest part of having a store is finding stuff to sell. That’s the hardest part. Figuring out what people are going to buy. Originally, I had thought we would do western and native and southwestern, but western didn’t work at all.
Jewelry has never really been a problem. The only problem with jewelry is that we never had enough money to buy all that we wanted to sell. We started with something like ten rings, and they were all adjustable. We probably didn’t have fifty pairs of earrings, and maybe we had twenty bracelets. We should never have opened.
25 years and two spaces later, Jim’s website proudly proclaims that their selection includes more than 1900 rings from “hundreds of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Santa Domingo silversmiths and jewelers” and plenty of space, 3600 square feet, in which to peruse the jewelry, pottery, and other Navajo-made artifacts.
This [location] has really worked out for sure. It was mainly, I think, the space helped. We were making more money, so we were buying more jewelry. The more you have, the more you can sell, so everything just kinda fed on itself. Media probably made a difference. We started with the Statesman because the salesman was really cute. The format I used in all the ads was humor and silliness, so people would talk about the ads. They really seemed to catch attention.
It’s been a long journey for you. This year is 25 years in the store, if you started in 1994. What would you say in 25 years of running the store are the most satisfying things about this work.
The customers are really good. We don’t have tourists, as such. We get a few, but that’s not how we make our money. It’s the repeat customers.
If the customers are the best part of the work, what is the most challenging?
Finding stuff to sell. Once we moved into the second location, which was 1800 square feet, business seemed to pick up. We had more room and more stuff. We started going to some shows I found out about so that we could find things to buy [for the store], and we had more people coming from New Mexico to sell jewelry. Back then, there were a lot of people on the road selling jewelry. Today, there’s not. I’ve got a couple of guys coming tomorrow, and they’ll come down 3 or 4 times a year. The rest are just hit and miss, and their prices are way too high.
If you weren’t running the store, what other work do you think you would do?
At this point, nothing. I would just go die. I’m not going to retire or anything. My instructions are in [the desk]. If I die on Sunday, they’re supposed to go ahead and put me in the dumpster on Monday because that’s pick up day. If it’s Wednesday, well, Thursday is pick up day. That’s all they have to do.
Do you have any advice to would-be entrepreneurs? Someone who’s thinking of opening a store or just doing his or her own business?
Find something you think you’d really enjoy doing and totally commit to it. If it’s retail, but I guess it’s the same with anything. You can’t do it half–ass. The ones I’ve seen who go out of business are those who don’t show up. They don’t have regular store hours or think they’re the boss and can come in at 12 and leave at 3. You don’t have to be here 7 days a week like I am, but you got to show up. There are so many who think because they own the place they can do whatever they want. The people who do that just don’t stay around long. You’ve got to be committed.
Now that you’ve been in the business of selling Native American jewelry and crafts for 25 years, what do you think it is about this style of jewelry, the Native American style, that has such an enduring legacy? People seem to love it. I follow a store in Paris, France, that sells nothing but Native American jewelry. What’s your take on that?
Well, I think it’s just the overall culture of the whole thing. People will go to New Mexico on a vacation, or maybe grandma went and she liked the jewelry. Somebody in the family liked the jewelry at some point, and they kinda get the bug. Out there, everybody that goes buys a pair of earrings or a ring, then they come back here, and most folks within a week or two of going out there will come here to see what we have. They want to match some earrings with that ring or vice versa. So then we get them.
You have some real collector’s pieces. Are there customers who come here looking for one-of-a-kind pieces? People not necessarily looking for jewelry they’re going to wear everyday but things that are more important pieces, ceremonial pieces? I noticed the huge slab turquoise bracelet in the center display. I can’t imagine someone would wear that around everyday.
No. That’s a really unusual piece. We have people who buy a couple of thousand a month. I have a customer who comes in and buys every month. She’s retired. She’s also blind, and she has a talking color meter at the house. She keeps it all separated in bins in her jewelry box. It’s quite something. It’s like a hobby almost.
There does seem to be a culture within the culture. Those who might have a ring they bought on a trip or it belonged to their grandmother, and then those who tend to collect it, buy more and more of it.
Yep. As I’ve said, tourists, that’s not how we make the money. It’s the repeat customers. We’ve got 8000 on our mailing list.
Turquoise does seem to have a nearly universal appeal.
Yep. It’s always been that way. Every now and then there’ll be a spell, with Hollywood folks or the tv folks, and you’ll start seeing more interest. We’ll get a little surge at those times, but there’s not a whole lot of that. Here, it’s all about the repeat customers.