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Desert town clings to its quirkiness

Quartzsite, Ariz., is a truck stop town of 3,600 that draws about 1 million visitors in winter with its gem shows, swap meets and 'naked bookseller.' Officials are looking for ways to boost revenue in the off-season, but locals and the snowbirds don't want the town's character to be lost.

April 16, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • As the owner of the Reader's Oasis Book store Paul Winer is one of the most interesting characters in Quartzsite because most of the time he walks around (nearly) nude.
As the owner of the Reader's Oasis Book store Paul Winer is one of the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Quartzsite, Ariz. — Debbie Eldridge was lolling about her 40-foot-long Monaco Diplomat luxury motor home with her twin sister, Betty Hayden, cooling off with a Diet Pepsi after a marathon morning at the flea markets.

Eldridge, 58, had reaped a modest haul — a dog toy for her beloved bichon, Boomer, and a decorative sun sculpture that she planned to display in the backyard of her real home in Merced, Calif.

Hayden was sporting her newest acquisition: a pink fringed T-shirt that read, "Quartzsite, Arizona."

The girls, as their husbands call them, come here every winter for some shopping, some sun and a break from the rhythm of retired life. Begrudgingly, they bring the boys along, too.

Photos: The "naked bookseller," snowbirds and the desert

The couples moor their RVs side-by-side at the Desert Oasis trailer park off Highway 95, where about $300 a month gets you a parking space, sewer hookups and a front-row seat for one of America's oddest annual migrations.

During the scorching summer months, Quartzsite is little more than a hiccup on the highway, a truck stop town of 3,600 baking in the Sonoran Desert where road trippers pull off for gas before crossing into or out of California.

Then winter blows in.

From October to April, more than 1 million people pass through, town officials estimate. Some stay only a week or two. Others call it home for the season.

During that time, Quartzsite may be the most eccentric place in the country, a weird Western outpost where "tea party" retirees mingle with cigarette-rolling rock hounds and white-haired hippies — and where no one bats an eye at a bare-bottomed bookseller.

But with that diversity come various views of what the town should be, and sometimes they conflict. After decades of watching its population rise and fall, Quartzsite has hit a midlife crisis, with some wondering if the town needs to rein in its freewheeling ways.

"This was like an Old West town," said Jake Jakubec, a 66-year-old retired truck driver who has wintered in Quartzsite since the 1990s. "We bought and sold and partied and camped. We had a ball here."

Jakubec, who lives out of a souped-up Chevrolet van, was sitting on a porch just off Main Street, trading tall tales with his old friend Harold Donaldson, 64. Both men have the archetypal Quartzsite look: sun-freckled skin that bears a resemblance to boot leather, and T-shirts the color of dust.

"Alien intervention is very real," Donaldson was saying when Jakubec cut him off.

"Harold, am I right or am I wrong?" Jakubec said. "They're trying to make this place into Palm Springs."

"Ah, it's a commercial deal now," Donaldson said, sighing. "It used to be you could just drive up here, throw your tarp down, pay the property owner $5, and that was all."

Town Manager Alex Taft would like naysayers like Donaldson and Jakubec to spend a week in her shoes. Then they'd have to reckon with the question she faces: How is a town with no supermarket and only 13 police officers supposed to cope with such a massive swell of people?

"It's kind of a wall of humanity," Taft said. Some days, traffic is so thick it's faster to walk than drive.

The snowbirds putter in from all directions in motor homes and campers, which they hitch up at one of Quartzsite's 70-plus trailer parks or on the federal land that sprawls in all directions beyond the town limits.

With metal roofs glittering amidst the saltbush and saguaro, the rigs look like covered wagons from a distance. Some part-time residents, like the Eldridges, dress up their lots with plastic flamingoes and fake palm trees.

Many are drawn by the gem and mineral shows that materialize each year in windswept tents along the side of the road.

One of the largest is the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show, a temporary tent city where bargain hunters pick through cardboard boxes brimming with onyx, rose quartz, meteorite and Brazilian jade. Other essentials for sale include gun holsters, hula hoops and diabetic socks, along with the sorts of deep-fried concoctions typically hawked at state fairs.

At 10 a.m. on a recent day, patrons were already knocking back cold ones at Beer Bellys, a bar set up on a patch of AstroTurf in the middle of it all.

"It's kind of like a big carnival," said Charlene Mullens, 58, who was dusting off jewelry at Dave's Bead Emporium. "People just have a good ol' time."

Nobody's sure exactly how Quartzsite became a haven for the RV set. But many say it may have started in the 1960s when a woman traveling west broke down on Interstate 10.

She had four young girls and no money to fix her station wagon, so she sold the kids' toys. Soon, others were imitating, exhibiting their wares in the backs of pickup trucks.

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