Old Town Artisans Gets New Charm and a Coat of ‘Old Paint’

January 30, 2014

Shade, scrumptious color, and even better drinks await visitors to Old Town Artisans!

Shade, scrumptious color, and even better drinks await visitors to Old Town Artisans!

 by James J. Jefferies

If you walk straight into Gypsy Emporium, a charming vintage goods and gift outlet positioned on the south end of the Old Town Artisans compound, and look straight up, you will see the original ceiling dating back to the 1870s. Even more impressive is the center beam, on which a large scrap of the original wallpaper is still affixed. “Pretty amazing how they managed to do that, even with this dry weather,” remarked Debbie Forest, who operates Gypsy Emporium along with Diane Barone. So while the news that Old Town Artisans is undergoing a renovation might be a bit of a heart-stopper for those who’ve grown to love the charming late-19th century Sonoran ambience, fret not. “They’re fixing it up a bit, but not too much. This is Old Town Artisans,” said Forest.

It's not everyday that you visit a place where you can gaze at 140-year old wallpaper AND purchase a Richard Pryor album under the same ceiling.

It’s not everyday that you visit a place where you can gaze at 140-year old wallpaper AND purchase a Richard Pryor album under the same ceiling.

The history of this fantastic location dates back to 1775, when the Spanish built El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson as a fort in the name of New Spain. The block itself served as the stables, and the north adobe wall, constructed in the 1850s, once repelled attacks from Apache. Now it has a slightly less combative mission: attracting shoppers and diners! But even if you’re a die-hard Tucsonan who can name all of the Gumbys from Arizona’s first Final Four squad (Google it), and consider yourself insulated from such things as kokopelis and southwestern kitsch, there is an undeniable charm to this spot, and a fantastic variety of genuinely cool arts and crafts for sale that go far beyond the usual gift shop suspects at the airport.

Mo' plates to fill yo' crates, dig?

Mo’ plates to fill yo’ crates, dig?

Retailers such as Shelago’s Artwerks USA (silversmith and lapidery), Tolteca Tlacuilo (handcrafted gifts and imports), La Zia (Native American handcrafted wares), Art House Centro (clothing, jewelry, and artwork), and other vendors in addition to the aforementioned Gypsy Emporium all have excellent wares worth perusing. The entire complex is anchored by the venerable Mexican restaurant and cantina, La Cocina. Again, the entire complex remains open during renovation, and is much more of a freshening up than a remodeling. It remains a space which conveys a feeling that is tangibly comfortable with itself, from the shaded northern wall entry way constructed with saguaro ribs, to the small painted signs that rest in the windows. The place manages to exude the long and storied history of Tucson while remaining entirely welcoming.

Speaking of paint, OTA has a brand new resident, that being Old Paint, a record shop operated by Lana Rebel and Kevin Mayfield, which shares the same corridor as Gypsy Emporium. On a recent visit, there was a small but growing arsenal of records at very reasonable prices (mostly $2-8, with some collectible LPs a bit higher). There was also a variety of custom painted works by the owners for sale as well. Debbie Forest kept wandering in to check on customers, and is more than happy to throw on a record for you. Drop in, burn a lovely afternoon at the shops, eat the nachos and knock back a margarita on La Cocina’s shaded patio, then go home with a few records. It sounds like a perfect way to enjoy a warm ‘winter’ afternoon in Downtown Tucson. Old Town Artisans can be found at 201 N. Court Avenue, and on the web here.

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