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A world of finds in Tucson's Lost Barrio

Need barn doors or a staircase? The shopping district packs in an eclectic mix of goods from faraway lands.

April 09, 2006|Hope Hamashige | Special to The Times

Tucson — THE Lost Barrio got that name for a reason. It can't be found on any map. Ask locals for directions there, and chances are good you'll get puzzled looks. Just three-quarters of a mile from downtown Tucson, this shopping district isn't so much lost as it is hidden.

A highway cuts it off from neighborhoods to the south. A dusty arroyo is its northern border. Its western edge is obscured by a suburban-sized Volvo dealership and a pair of big box stores.

"It used to be that the only people who came down here were lost and asking for directions," said Paul Buck, who opened Magellan Trading in the area in the late 1980s. "That's when we started calling it the Lost Barrio, and the name stuck."

Anyone lucky enough to discover the Lost Barrio these days will have stumbled onto one of Tucson's most surprising destinations: a three-block drag of red brick warehouses that looks decidedly out of place in this city of sun-baked stucco. The cool, cavernous spaces, a welcome respite from the heat, house the city's most unusual shopping district.

Renovated warehouses run along both sides of South Park Avenue in an area compact enough for strolling. Though mainly old warehouses with prettily worn facades, a few smaller storefronts are mixed in along the retail strip.

First-time visitors might be surprised by the offerings. Tucson's Old West heritage and proximity to the Mexican border suggest cowboy boots, kachinas and Mexican blankets. Shopping along this stretch of South Park Avenue, by contrast, is like taking a tiny, whirlwind tour of the world.

Eastern Living's collection of mainly 19th century Chinese antiques frequently includes rare pieces such as Ming Dynasty altars and painted Mongolian chests and always a large selection of stone Buddhas.

Christy Martin filled her 10,000-square-foot Studio Encanto with sleek lighting from Italy, antiques from Sweden and elaborate linens from India -- an eclectic mix that reflects the Tucson designer's signature style.

Mixed among the imports are Martin's own designs, including a bar that hangs from the ceiling called a "booze-elier."

Bohemia carries a broad mix of locally created art -- paintings, clothing, woodblock prints, photographs and metal sculpture -- that spills out onto the patio shared by a restaurant and a backpack designer.

By informal agreement, the merchants in the Lost Barrio don't compete with one another, so nobody but People's Imports carries silk and wool rugs from the Near East. Magellan Trading is the only place with authentic tikis from the South Pacific. Only the folks at Explorations fill their warehouse with colonnades and stone washbasins from Morocco.

What they do have in common is a distinct preference for hard-to-find merchandise, most of it home decor. The owners are international shoppers who travel the globe in search of the unique.

"Where else is someone going to find an Art Deco mirror from a beauty shop in Buenos Aires?" asked Michael Bernstein, the chatty owner of Colonial Frontiers. He has hand picked the oversized antique furniture from Mexico, South America, India and Myanmar, also known as Burma. "Every single thing here has a story to tell," he said, "and I'll tell anyone who wants to hear." Have no doubt he will.

There's little in the way of standard import fare -- or even practical home items -- in the Lost Barrio. Who, for example, is in the market for a 20-foot staircase that was taken out of a mansion in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, India, and carefully restored in Tucson? There are doors everywhere -- temple doors from Tibet, 20-foot barn doors from South America, 1-ton teak doors from Africa -- probably none of which will fit in anyone's home.

Part of the fun is in looking and, because the wares aren't mass produced, time always brings new items to choose from. "Come back six months from today, and we are going to have completely different stock," said Daniel Hedin, who manages Explorations.

The slightly hidden location -- a sliver of the larger Barrio San Antonio -- is still an obstacle that frustrates merchants in the Lost Barrio.

"People who have lived in Tucson for 20 years still don't know where the Lost Barrio is," said Tana Kelch, who runs Bohemia. "People seem to be finding out, but even people who do know say they have trouble finding it."

Barrio San Antonio was an even lonelier place when Guberto Platt opened Rustica in 1987. At that time, the Lost Barrio hadn't even earned that moniker. The companies that used to stock the warehouses, built in the 1920s, with fruit and vegetables from Mexico had moved to more modern digs in another part of town.

Rustica, which sells Mexican furniture and creates custom pieces, was the lone retailer then, surrounded by abandoned warehouses. Foot traffic was almost nonexistent. The slow conversion to a stable, upscale retail district has come only in the last three years, Platt said.

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