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BEVIS HILLIER

Border Lines : Jerry Stoffers' $10-Million Mexican Import Business Started on a Street Corner

March 08, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

Jerry Stoffers ran away from home in 1963, when he was 15. Home was Carroll, Iowa, where his father was a mailman. "Carroll had a population of about 5,000," Stoffers says. "I wanted to become a self-made millionaire, to set the world on fire."

For a while he sold ice cream in Tampa, Fla. Then he joined the U.S. Navy. After serving in Vietnam, he decided to take a vacation and "become a beach bum in Mexico." But while traveling through Mexico, he was impressed by Mexican craftsmanship in furniture, wrought-iron work--"which the Conquistadors taught them"--pottery and other decorative arts. "The craftsmen there were still handing skills down the generations in a way that has been almost lost in the industrial society of North America."

Stoffers saw the potential for importing Mexican wares into the United States. "Luckily," he says, "I was too naive to know all the complications: customs complications; how primitive the country was--roads, transport; no letters of credit, it was all cash; no packaging or shipping facilities. Even today, there are many places in Mexico that I have to visit on a donkey. In some villages, the people don't even speak Spanish; they have their own patois."

Stoffers began his import business by selling Mexican wares at street-corner gas stations in North Hollywood. Today, the company, called Arte de Mexico, does business totaling about $10 million a year and occupies seven warehouses on one site in the same area. Stoffers sells primarily to hotels and restaurant chains and to amusement parks such as Disneyland, Disney World and Knott's Berry Farm "when they want to create a real Spanish or Mexican look." Arte de Mexico is also a prop house for the movie studios. "We set up a whole village for the film 'Three Amigos,' " Stoffers says.

Private buyers in search of Mexican / Spanish furnishings may visit Arte de Mexico by appointment. "It takes about an hour to tour the warehouses," says Charlotte Liss, Stoffers' assistant, "and we like to give personal service."

When I visited Arte de Mexico, Stoffers was on one of his buying trips in Mexico (he spends about a third of each year there), so Liss gave me the tour. One warehouse wall is lined with wooden chests bearing massive iron locks, big keys and iron hinges with arrowhead finials. Liss pointed at one of them: "This chest is very old wood that has been battered by the elements. The artisans of Mexico take wood from old doors and fabricate it into something that has an antique look."

About 25% of the goods are antiques. One room, much picked over by the movie studios, is filled with bronze bells, metal canteens, spurs, antique saws, old musical instruments, mantels, dentist chairs, muskets, an old pool table, old mailboxes and Mexican street signs.

Ecstatic saints and warrior angels predominate among the woodcarvings, but Stoffers also has acquired some appealing carved animals and figures that were hollowed out so that Mexican children could wear them in carnival processions: an alligator, a horse that might have come from a small carrousel, and King Neptune.

We passed a row of thrones--these were modern reproductions--but a blowzy pair of armchairs with carved bases and velvet coverings "look as if they came from a house of ill repute," Liss suggests, "and they probably did." A suite of furniture (a sofa, two armchairs and two chairs in quilted black leather with animal-claw feet) were acquired from a Mexican dentist's waiting room.

Spanish baroque is the style of the grandest pieces: towering doors from churches and mansions, carved with barley-sugar columns and heraldic cartouches with armed supporters.

There is a rapid turnover of stock. Two days after a shipment arrives, most of the goods have been sold. "It is almost impossible to train a salesman here," says the firm's manager, Michael Cho, "because the inventory constantly changes."

But certain things are always on sale: papier-mache vegetables, and papier-mache parrots who will never say rude words and whose cages will never need cleaning. There is a Hall of Mirrors, with frames that Charlotte Liss describes as "festive"--a word that epitomizes so many of the Mexican decorative arts.

Jerry Stoffers knew he was doing something right when people in Mexico began ordering from him. Charlotte Liss enjoys working for him but finds there is one occupational hazard. "My office desk," she says, "is the fourth I have had in a year." It is a handsome piece, carved with rosettes on the feet and with an angel on the drawer front. "People who come into my office for a discussion say, 'What a beautiful desk. May I purchase it?'--and there it goes, out the door," Liss grieves. "The only thing that's not for sale is the computer."

Arte de Mexico is at 5356 Riverton Ave., North Hollywood 91601.

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