Leopoldo “Polo” Gomez is a classic Mexican success story. Born and raised in a tiny mountain village in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico he came to work in Santa Fe in 1952 at the invitation of Tony Taylor, founder of The Old Mexico Shop. This year, Polo and his family celebrated the 25th anniversary of his own shop, the world renowned Artesanos Imports.
Here you can wander vicariously the entire length and breadth of Mexico through Artesanos’ dazzling and intriguing array of merchandise; pottery from southern state of Oaxaca, Saltillo and glazed floor tile from Monterrey, a huge selection of hang-painted tile from Guanajuato, mirrors from Mexico City, glassware and pigskin furniture from Guadalajara, lighting fixtures from San Miguel de Allende, tin work, fat-bellied ceramic fire places, planters, wooden chests, benches…
Polo, his family and associates gather this eclectic assortment of goods year-round and then shop it north to Santa Fe. It arrives in great lumbering trucks with tarpaulin arched high over the sidewalls, vehicles bulging with the exuberant output of Mexico. Unloaded, it goes on display in the 22,000-square-foot facility Polo has slowly developed on busy Galisteo Street. Through the store’s quiet, but very attractive doorway (designed, by the way, by noted Santa Fe architect, artist and friend of Polo’s, Bill Lumpkins) comes a steady stream of loyal customers. More and more, this has come to include quiet a few famous people such as Jane Fonda (who furnished much of Ted Turner’s Montana ranch with Artesanos’ furniture), Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange, Jull St. John, Ali McGraw, the extended Kennedy family, and newsman Sam Donnaldson.
However, even Artesanos’ early years, Polo’s work brought him into close contact with people such as Alexander Girard, the famous designer and art collector who retired to Santa Fe, and Girards stable of friends, such as painter Georgia O’Keeffe and write Truman Capote, Truly its been an amazing journey for Leopoldo Gomez.
Polo, Dressed in a stark, simple white shirts buttoned at the neck and dark trousers, recalled his life and business in his own unique and charming fashion, “I came from Oaxaca, in the high mountains. I am a Zapotec (an Indian people). My family moved to Oaxaca City. When I was the first CPA (certified public accountant) in Oaxaca. Probably this is in 1935 to 1937. In that time nobody knows what’s a CPA. But, he started working, he started making money. After that he moved the whole family (to Oaxaca). I finished public high school, we were poor, very poor. We couldn’t afford to go to private school. And anyways, I believe in the public school. My four children all went to public school here in Santa Fe (son Fernando is Artesanos’ manager)
At about 16 years old, Polo moved to Mexico City, where we went to college at night and worked days for a company that imported science books from Chile. Around 1947, Tony Taylor, found of The Old Mexico Shop in Santa Fe, went to Mexico City and called Polo. He already knew Polo’s brother, the CPA, who occasionally acted as a buyer for Tony in the Oaxaca area. Tony asked Polo if he would like to visit Santa Fe to see about possibly moving there to work for him.” See if you like. If you like, you can stay more. You no like, come back right away. ‘ My impression was very nice in Santa Fe. The people speak Spanish, they have a fiesta. It was like a small village of Mexico City. So I can stay here three weeks. Was in the Fiesta time, in September. Beautiful. In fact, Mr. Taylor was at that time president of the Santa Fe Fiesta. We had mariachis that cam from Guadalajara, and I stay with them. So I had the feeling that I am in Mexico. After that I went back to Mexico and continued to study accounting. In 1948, Mr. Taylor went back to Mexico and said, “ Look, what’s your opinion of Santa Fe? I said, “It’s beautiful.’ Santa Fe was small then, very small. The end of the town was El Rey Motel. That was it. The rest, Chamiso (he gestured to the south). Everybody speaking Spanish. Everybody knew each other. Immediately they say, “Oh, You are new here.’ Yes. Fascinating. Very Fascinating. So, Mr. Taylor invite me to come to work for six months here. I agreed. I moved to Santa Fe 1948. After six months, he tell me, ‘ How you like to continue?’ Well, I said, ‘I’d have to go back to Mexico City, close my apartment, take care of some bills I have there. So, in 1949 I came back. But, Mr. Taylor send me to Mexico all the time to buy. So I did some travel. But in 1952 we formalized everything. He said he wanted to get me the citizenship. I told him I would like to have residency, not citizenship. This took me probably four hours to get. It was so easy. With Mr. Taylor we went to the American embassy in Mexico City and like that, we had it done.”
Polo would spend the next 16 years with Mr. Taylor living, in fact, with the Taylor family. Over the years Polo had also made many friends in Santa Fe, and one in particular, Pete Casados, was always encouraging him to open his own business. Finally, with Casados’s encouragement and financial assistance, Polo did. (Casados remains a partner to this day.)
Meanwhile, polo’s personal life had continued to develop too. In 1958 he married. His wife, Dolores, is from Mexico City. Together they bought a house in Santa Fe (with a $259 down payment and a $104 a month installments!) and began raising a family.
Artesanos was launched in the site of a former beauty salon in a building owned by another of polo’s friends, Dr. Miguel (mike) Pijoan of Nambe- who was born and raised in Spain. This initial space was six feet wide and 43 feet deep. “It was a long hallway, with very low ceiling, so we couldn’t hang anything. But it was a very nice. After a year we expanded into some space next door, which has been a restaurant. It was so dirty, so dark and greasy. So, we decided to get a loan to renovate it. By that time I meet Mr. Bull Lumpkins. He gave me the first big order for lighting fixtures when we did the renovation job on the West De Vargas. So I established a very good relationship with Bill Lumpkins and he recommended me all over with the fixtures (as with Rancho Encantado’s founder Betty Egan whom Polo supplies with much merchandise in the ranch’s infancy). Anyway, when we decided to renovate the building, I asked him if he would do the design. He said,’ sure. You want $100,00?’ ‘Oh, no, ‘ I said, $35,000 is plenty.’ Then we got the Santa Fe National Bank to back the loan. Everything was easy.”
As mentioned, Polo also worked over the years with famed designer’s collector Alexander Girard. Works Girard collected over a lifetime fill an entire wing of the states Museum of International Folk Art and constitute the largest collection of its kind in the world. Much of it focuses on the folk arts of Mexico and Polo played an important role in finding and acquiring some of these last works.
“When we started Artesanos, I worked also for seven years for him. One day he call me and said ‘Polo, I need someone to drive to for me in Mexico. How’s your time?’ I said I could spare some time. He said he needed three weeks. I said, “ Okay. The only problem I have is my car. My car is not too good to travel.’ He said,’ Go to Capitol Ford, Get a new car there, pick out the car you need,’ He gave it to me for a year. A blue Falcon Station Wagon. Beautiful! I can’t believe it. When I went home, I told my wife, ‘ Come outside. I want to show you something!’ She couldn’t believe it!
“That was a very, very special relationship. The way we traveled together in Mexico, for example We’d stay together for weeks- have a lunch, have a dinner, sleep in the same hotel. Next day go here, go there. He took me to all the cemeteries in Mexico. He said, “find out the most interesting, no matter if we have to travel for hours and hours,” One project was collecting materials for pavilion of the 1972 World’s Fair in San Antonio.
Through the Girards, Polo also met a bevy of other interesting, well ‘known people. One night, for instance hw was asked to take Georgia O’Keeffe home after a dinner at the Girards, “ She was living in Abiquiu then, so they had a long drive together talking about their lives and times. He also met Truman Capote at the Girards’ one night. The next day Polo came out of his store and cross the street. Leaning on a telephone pole, was Capote- dressed as usual, recalled Polo, with a long tie reaching towards his knees and a fedora on his head. Capote had just come out of the infamous Senate Lounge (now gone). Polo called out, “what do you think?’ Capote responded, “ interesting people, so interesting.”
Over the years, many other prominent people have found their way to Artesanos, such as Jessica Lange and some of the Kennedy clan. Polo recalls that Sam Shepard “always he try to do it himself. We took out a lot of chairs and tables, he say. ‘ No, I like to work. I help you to unload it. “ ‘Of the Kennedy’s, both Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ethel shopped at Artesanos. Polo remermbers Ethel because she came in and kept them three hours past closing time buying up almost everything in sight for her daughter who was living in Arroyo Hondo. A problem arose with the close to $8,000 sale when Polo arrived at the house later that night; the daughter said she didn’t need a thing! This was in spite of the fact her home was almost devoid of furniture or fixtures. Ethel told Polo to cash the check anyway, but Polo refused and eventually sent it back to her.
As in the past, Polo is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, although he employs 14 people in Santa Fe and more in Mexico. Asked who does the buying, he responded, “ I do everything, but sometimes we send another people, right there in Mexico, because I have a warehouse in Dolores Hidalgo. And, my brother is in Oaxaca, and I have a family there. And, I have another brother in Mexico City. So, we are well connected. When we have some urgency, I just call, depends where l say we need something from Guadalajara, I call Dolores Hidalgo. If we need something from around Toluca or Puebla I call Mexico City. If I need something from the south, I call Oaxaca and my brother go to San Cristobal Las Casas. So we’re set.”
Loyalty and honest appear to be the prime factors on which Polo bases his business. He has had, for instance, the same chief supplier in Mexico for 25 years, “ I am not one to change because one offer me a few pesos less. I stay with the original people because they give me a good price, a good service. We are not only in business, but also friends. Very close friends. I travel to Mexico at least once a year, just to go, check with them, I have a dinner, have a lunch…”
This combination of hardworking people and quality merchandise has led to an astounding degree of success for Polo and his family. Today Artesanos products are sold nationwide, its name familiarized through word-of-mouth and aggressive paid advertising. “ When we decided to open here, I told my partner. The only way I want to do his is upper crust, so we have to spend lots of money in advertising because I believe in advertising.”
Artesanos has been a demanding calling, noted Polo. “ I am here every day at 7:30 in the morning. At 5:30 I get the mail and go to the post office, then home. My son Fernando, is often here at six. My business is my hobby, and it is my second marriage, after my wife.” About his only recreation is watching professional sports. Though he was traveled extensively, it has almost always been in Mexico and he said he is looking forward to having some free time and traveling abroad in the future. He is especially interested in visiting Spain and is planning a trip there next summer, if Dolores, who is ill, is feeling better. “ After that, maybe South America. It all depends on how is the situation.”
Looking back over his life, Polo can scarcely believe his level of success. “ I was very poor. My family was poor. I had opportunities to advance, to get a better education, to learn from Mr. Taylor. But, I didn’t come to Santa Fe to get rich, to make millions. No. I just want to please people (with my merchandise). I am very grateful to people in Santa Fe and in the U.S. They make me happy. We are very, very happy what we are doing. To make a nice shop, to get a lot of merchandise. I have no enemies, I think. I have nothing against nobody.”
Known as a generous provider to charities, schools and other local institutions, friend to politicians of all stripes, liked by his associates and Santa Feans as a whole, father of growing family, and founder of a thriving business… you could definitely say Leopoldo “Polo” Gomez is a true Mexican success story.