NORTH HOLLYWOOD — On Jerry Stoffers' first trip to Mexico, when he was 22, he bought $200 worth of wrought-iron candlesticks and curios, which he then sold from the front lawn of a rundown house on Hollywood Boulevard.
More than 35 years later, Stoffers' privately held Arte de Mexico furniture business has grown to $40 million in annual sales. It has $20 million worth of inventory, and occupies a 250,000-square-foot showroom in North Hollywood, a new 45,000-square-foot shop in Irvine and 140,000 square feet of warehouse, office and work space in Burbank.
Clients include homeowners, designers and celebrities, as well as representatives of restaurants, hotels and casinos. They come from as far away as Saudi Arabia to browse the packed-to-the-ceiling showrooms, where the eclectic designs range from antique doors carted straight from some Indian palace to hand-carved armoires to elk-antler chandeliers.
Stoffers, 58, and his son, David, 38, now import furniture and artifacts from 15 countries, including India, Nepal and Mexico. Not bad for a man with limited education who left his small-town Iowa home at 15.
"I was very ambitious," the elder Stoffers said, explaining his decision to go out into the world. "I wanted more."
He traveled across the country, serving ice cream in a Florida amusement park, sanding cars in a Las Vegas body shop, painting boats in Hawaii. He said he joined the Navy at 20 and served three years, including a stint in Vietnam. After his discharge, he settled in Los Angeles, where the vacation to Mexico ignited his passion.
"I just fell in love with Mexico, with the people and the wonderful art and furniture they produced," he said. "I had never seen anything like this. I knew I had to make this part of my life."
From his first foray south of the border he brought back small items, but soon he was buying tables, shelves and hand-carved furniture.
"I just kept reinvesting my energy and money back into the business," Stoffers said. "I still do that. Every year was better than the last."
While weekends were spent selling from the street corner, weekdays would find Stoffers hitting furniture and lighting fixture stores. Then he expanded to out-of-state routes.
"I'd go to a city like Phoenix, get a map and find all the places where I could sell, such as antique stores, furniture stores, lighting stores. I'd hire a driver and bang-bang-bang, we'd hit these stores. I probably covered half the U.S. for two years."
Retailers then began calling him with orders.
"There was such a demand," he said. "I found I was going more and more to Mexico to bring stuff back. That's when the business started to take off."
He compiled a catalog and began seeing customers by appointment only. He also began commissioning furniture, rather than relying just on what he could find.
"My skill was in forming cottage industries [in Mexico] with craftsmen who could produce what I wanted," he said. "It took a long time to build up a network of people to work with."
He outgrew his first warehouse and bought one across the street, turning both into showrooms. He bought another warehouse as storage space, corporate offices and a workshop.
He hired woodworkers, iron forgers and furniture craftsmen and began making his own items, copying old designs or adapting imported goods to fit modern needs. He hired an artist to create renderings to show how the finished piece will look.
Carved wooden doors from an Indian palace or a Mexican hacienda might be turned into tables, armoire cabinets, headboards--even doors that are rebuilt to fit Americans' larger house requirements. A headboard might cost $700 to $5,000, depending on the age of the door and how rare it is. He said he recently took 18 doors from an Indian palace and created a large double gate for Sylvester Stallone.
A reproduction of an intricately carved antique European chest, turned into a wine cabinet, sells for $1,250; a hollowed-out teak tree trunk fitted with shelves is $600. The most expensive items are oversized mesquite armoires, which run from $12,000 to $48,000.
Another of Stoffers' specialties are lighting fixtures made from recycled antlers. He pays organizations such as the Boy Scouts to gather antlers shed by deer, elk and moose. "We buy them by the ton and sell hundreds of these fixtures a year."
Customers say they are drawn by the store's variety and uniqueness.
"People may think of [Arte de Mexico] as a limited shop, but it's far from that," said Ron Wilson, a Los Angeles designer who has worked for Cher, as well as clients around the world. "They have items from all over the world, a wide variety. The Stoffers are excellent to do business with. They are extremely accommodating, very courteous and their business ethics are excellent."