Joshua Tree first cast its spell on nature lovers and New Age spiritual seekers. Then the high desert community seduced musicians, artists and other urban refugees with affordable real estate. Now the frontier town has yet another draw: The retail backwater is an emerging shopping destination.
New stores — some opened, some on the way — are making Joshua Tree a more interesting detour not only for junkyard discoveries but also for handmade goods by the growing community of artists who now call the area home. A short stretch of the Twentynine Palms Highway (California State Route 62) is devoid of big-box stores; residents are up in arms about a proposed Dollar Store. Instead, thrift shops and quirky, independent retail enterprises have opened in what used to be offices, gas stations and garden sheds.
The closest thing to a mall in Joshua Tree looks like the furthest thing from one. Behind the turquoise paint and zebra stripes of the vintage clothing and art gallery Trailer Trash (61871 Twentynine Palms Highway), you'll find the Trailer Court Shops. The open-air mini-village opened this spring with refurbished recreational vehicles and wooden sheds turned into small shops.
Among the vendors: Bird on a Wire stocks vintage Mexican Saltillo blankets, and La Tienda La Luz sells midcentury furniture and collectibles. Early American Landfill sells clothing and accessories and stages small-scale exhibitions; one featured wonderfully naïve figurative sculptures and scrap furniture by Joshua Tree folk artist Friedrich Rudolph.
"There's something about this place that facilitates whimsy," said Allison Simonis, a sales clerk at Ricochet Vintage Wears, who was dressed in a vintage frock with a necklace made of dried orange peels. The store sells cowboy boots and flannels and has an area with home furnishings staged like an abandoned Depression-era farm. It's perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the town, where the late assemblage artist Noah Purifoy, a founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center, built an outdoor sculpture park made from castoffs and junk.
By contrast, the cement floor and plywood shelving in Joshua Tree's Starlite Courtyard (6460 Veterans Way) create the air of an arts complex, albeit a miniature one. Here, the HDTS Headquarters serves as an information booth and research library for the experimental and environmental art initiative High Desert Test Sites. The headquarters also sells local crafts and furniture with a rustic modern flair. A cowhide beer cozy by Von Tundra Outpost is $18, can of Tecate included.
Next door, another rehabbed office space is the home of BKB Ceramics, which opened in December. Potter Brian Bosworth and jeweler Jamie Poole sell kilim pillows and maple cutting boards by other artisans as well as their creations — pieces made from cast porcelain and wheel-thrown or hand-built stoneware. Their co-tenants, Von Tundra Outpost, is a small exhibition space for the designs of Portland, Ore., transplant Dan Anderson, who creates rainbow octahedron side tables and candlesticks from painted construction-grade lumber.
The Station (61943 Twentynine Palms Highway), a 1946 Richfield Oil garage painstakingly restored by Glenn Steigelman and Steve Halterman, is an event space and pop-up store opening regularly in the fall and by appointment [(760) 974-9050] this summer. The co-owners are partners in S + G Projects, a props and styling business for the growing number of photo shoots in the desert. They show Halterman's stained-glass work and rent and sell restored patio sets, cement lawn ornaments, Mexican pottery, Army surplus and battered industrial goods.
"Local people don't always understand why we have this kind of stuff, which they might consider junk, but people who mix the new and the old and the rough with the smooth can give it another life," Steigelman said, describing the kind of rusted aesthetic that has become part of contemporary design trends.
The new ventures in Joshua Tree join stalwarts including the Red Arrow Gallery, Joshua Tree Art Gallery and Art Queen, the playground of painter Shari Elf, who also maintains the World Famous Crochet Museum in a former drive-through photo processing booth. Another long-standing business, Wind Walkers, specializes in local weavers and sculptors along with pottery and crafts from Native American pueblos and reservations. All are stops along the way on the monthly Second Saturday evening art walk.
On Saturdays, artisans are also part of the mix at the Joshua Tree farmers market just off Twentynine Palms Highway. You can check out the latest cache at the Hospice of Morongo Basin's thrift shop and grab a healthful bite from the Natural Sisters Cafe. It's a genuine gathering for a community that embraces the isolation of the desert.
"We only show local crafts," said Lori Herbel, who started the weekly event, which runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Regular participants include glassblower Paris Birdwell and potter Anahita King. At one booth, Bruce Hearn displays Native American crafts made of leather and beads. "There's nothing plastic on my table," he said, neatly summing up the ethos of Joshua Tree.
Shoppers have the best luck visiting on weekends. During the week, store hours are Joshua Tree casual — you may catch the proprietors only by appointment or by accident.