TIJUANA — Shuffling past the zebra-striped burros and nudie show barkers, hordes of shoppers clog the 10 blocks of curio shops along Avenida Revolucion and--can't find anything to buy.
With levels of walk-in traffic comparable to a suburban mall the week before Christmas, the purveyors of Mexican blankets, plaster statuary, leather jackets and fake Rolexes mostly sit and watch their wares collect dust. Some of their colleagues have given up and been replaced by pharmacies, the latest capitulation to American desires that stretches back to Prohibition, when this street sold booze to thirsty norteamericanos.
The crumbling of the curio business on Revolucion is a sad spectacle. Some of my most treasured possessions were unearthed in these shops, and those farther south in Rosarito Beach.
Back home, shopping holds about as much enjoyment for me as a trip to the DMV, but somehow it's different in Mexico, maybe more honest. Without all the blather, you realize junk is junk, and the main difference between theirs and ours is marketing.
Here's a partial inventory of the stuff I've hauled back from curio hell in the last 25 years with some current prices (not much different from years past): an annual pair of huaraches ($12), a dozen or so Mexican blankets ($10 each), a wool herringbone poncho that Clint Eastwood would shoot me for ($20), a sturdy hammock ($15), some handmade beer mugs (four for $10), an outdoor clay fireplace ($40), numerous hand-painted flower pots, a couple of switchblades, a bullwhip, a Nazi skull with glittery eye sockets (bachelor party gear), a 20-pound concrete fish, custom-made bar stools, leather jackets ($100 each), silver jewelry, Christmas ornaments, several boxes of Cuban cigars, and one or two velvet paintings, which I argue (constantly) are a legitimate art form.
Many of these purchases were made on forced marches with out-of-town family or friends in tow. Like every other reluctant visitor to Revolucion, I could have plastered on a smug scowl and zoned out. But there's great fun in bargaining amid the Porky Pig sheriffs and onyx ashtrays if you adopt the right frame of mind.
It's always been a buyers' market--even more so now. Nobody expects you to take the first price offered. "People come here looking to bargain," says Carlos Sanchez, manager of Virgo in Rosarito Beach. "If we don't bargain, they say it's no fun and don't come back." Curio shop salesmen can't compete by offering radically different merchandise--most shops have basically the same stuff--so they rely on personality. You can match your shopping to your mood: Feeling garrulous? Look for the young hombre with the sharp repartee. In a quiet mood? Find a low-pressure Oaxacan woman in a shadowy stall in the basement arcade.
And if you can't stand the sight of any more colorful junk, you're in luck. There's an upgrade underway in curio quality, an experiment that may or may not work. Real arts and crafts--from handmade furniture to beaded basketry--are finding their way into established stores such as Tolan, or new ones opening in the past year such as El Companario and La Piramide del Sol.
Whether the market will bear real quality is still an open question. And to me, shopping for junk is the whole point. Look, sooner or later everybody has to enter the curio zone, no matter what city in Mexico you visit. At least pretend to be in the market for something, and the hours won't be wasted. Plus, you'll end up with some gewgaw you never knew you couldn't live without.
With this plan in hand, here's the treasure map:
Corner of 8th and Revolucion. Telephone: 011-52-66-88-1462
Open 9 a.m.-midnight daily.
If you only go into one store on Revolucion, this should be it. There's a pretty good Mexican restaurant, large bakery and candy counter, and a microcosm of the country's goods in this Mexico City-based chain department store. A fine bookstore, perfume counter (perfume is cheaper in the U.S.), jewelry (30% off Taxco silver all summer), electronics, pharmacy (the fertility drug Pergonal is a hot seller at $13.34 for 75 international units), stoneware, toys, luggage and boxes of 25 Cuban Montecristo cigars at $230. A good place to whet your appetite for the more hand-to-hand style of curio combat along the street.
1471 Ave. Revolucion. Tel. 011-52-66-88-3637. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Across the street from the jai alai palace and one block north of Sanborn's, Tolan has been selling quality folk art since 1960. Tolan owner Jesus Perez combs all of Mexico for metalwork, carved wood doors, glassware, crockery, papier-mache animals and clothing. Mirrors framed with hammered tin go for $100. Two floors and numerous chambers filled with stuff make for diverting fun.
Jorge Espinosa Silver
918 Ave. Revolucion, in the Ciros Arcade between 5th and 6th streets. Tel: 011-52-66-85-0705. Open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily