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Maintaining a vibrant passion amid lackluster sales of crafts

Special to The Times

Packed to the rafters with folk art from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the Folk Tree has been a Pasadena institution for years.

But rising rent and slowing sales are forcing owner Rochalinne “Rocky” Behr to look for new digs for her South Fair Oaks Avenue store, a labor of love into which she has poured 20 years and thousands of dollars in personal savings.

Behr closed a nearby second location in March because of sluggish sales.

“We have people coming in all the time, but they are coming down on what they spend,” said Behr, who caught the bug for folk art and travel as a girl when an older cousin sent dolls from around the world.

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The Los Angeles native says sales dropped to $300,000 last year. That’s down 40% from 2006, when sales hit $500,000.

She is not the only one in the business of handcrafted items who is feeling the effect of a weaker retail market.

At Austin, Texas-based Tesoros Trading Co., a major vendor of folk art in the United States that counts the Folk Tree as one of its oldest customers, just matching prior-year sales will be considered a success for 2007.

“We have adjusted our sales goals,” said Jonathan Williams, owner of the 24-year-old retail and wholesale company, which is also being pushed out of its longtime location by higher real estate prices.

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At Historia in Santa Monica, owner James Caswell says in-store sales of the antique folk art he specializes in are flat but Internet sales are helping to fill the gap.

“My sales are about similar to 2006 but I’m not complaining; a lot of people in my business are hurting,” said Caswell, who opened his Santa Monica shop in 1987, specializing in pieces made from 1825 to 1940.

Caswell and Behr remember the boom in Mexican folk art in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Los Angeles that helped them and other longtime retailers such as Soap Plant, which opened on Sunset Boulevard in the 1970s.

Fueled in part by the passion for folk art of co-owner Billy Shire, Soap Plant grew and now occupies a former post office on Hollywood Boulevard where it carries an array of Mexican folk art, including Day of the Dead items as well as kitsch, novelties and books.

The boom also boosted Sonrisa, which opened as a folk art and furniture shop in 1980. As customers’ tastes changed, the popular store evolved to specialize in refurbished vintage steel furniture and industrial-style accessories.

The Craft and Folk Art Museum on Wilshire Boulevard also prospered during that time, before the recession of the early 1990s forced it to shut its doors for a few years.

“There was a big vogue of the Santa Fe style, which was not a literate, educated gravitation toward Mexican and Latin American folk art; it was based on trendiness,” Caswell said.

Behr is devoted to folk art and the artisans behind it, he said.

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“She’s a guru about contemporary Mexican crafts,” Caswell said. “Rocky has created her own thunder. She’s a very active travel tour guide. She has this whole following of people, but they are graying.”

Behr is graying too. But at 78, traveling and buying the folk art she loves are what keep her going, she said.

“If I stopped buying -- which I would hate to do -- we could coast for a long time, but it wouldn’t be fun,” she said.

Her passion and discerning eye draw longtime customers such as designer Bob Mackie, who said he fell in love with Mexican folk art during school field trips to historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

“I remember I spent every last penny I had on a Tree of Life,” said the designer known for his glamorous gowns and clients, including Cher.

He is attracted to the vitality and colors of folk art, including some of his favorites: the wood animals carved by the Jimenez family in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Just recently I walked into the Folk Tree thinking, ‘I’m just going to check out the Christmas things,’ ” Mackie said. “I thought I didn’t need another Oaxacan animal in my life, but there was this wonderful cat in the case -- it was kind of hidden -- just when I thought there wasn’t anything left to buy.”

Mackie credits the love Behr has for her work, and her perseverance, for her store’s longevity.

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“You have to have passion to have a store like that -- you have to, otherwise it’s too much,” he said.

Despite a complication from a 2006 hip-replacement surgery that results in the occasional use of a cane, Behr has no plans to give up her store anytime soon, even though it is not making money.

The crowded shop, which carries $4,000 folk art pieces as well as toy whistles that cost less than a dollar, hasn’t broken even for years, she said. And that’s OK with the onetime school psychologist and substitute teacher.

“The store, on the books, owes me over $350,000, and [in 2006] according to my accountant, I lost $200,000,” Behr said. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”

She doesn’t have to rely on the shop for a living, though it does cover certain expenses for her, including her travels.

The store’s losses came despite years of paying what she acknowledges as below-market rent. Two years ago, the rent increased 15% to $1,950 a month.

Last month, she was notified that her rent would increase 25% a year for the next four years.

It was a shock, she said, and has spurred her to begin to look for a new location, perhaps in Eagle Rock or South Pasadena, though she has visited at least one potential site in Pasadena. The store hasn’t had a lease since the first three years of its operation.

Behr would like to find a larger space than the current shop, which contains less than 2,000 square feet.

Its walls and shelves are crammed with outlandish papier-mache creatures, devil masks, colorful tooled tin ornaments, books and burnished black-ware lanterns made by Zapotec potters in Oaxaca, among dozens of other folk art pieces.

Each year, she clears enough space to bring in the popular nativity scenes from around the world -- including one from Poland made out of candy wrappers -- that draw regular customers each December.

A hearts-and-flowers sale is up next, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Behr recently opened an art gallery -- the Marengo Collection -- in the bottom unit of the 1920s Pasadena duplex she owns on Marengo Street. The gallery, which is run with the help of her boyfriend, Sergio Diazvelez, showcases the fine art the couple finds in Mexico, including prints and paintings as well as copper and pottery by master crafts people.

She has another buying tour to artisan houses and studios in rural Mexico planned for June.

Behr has no formal succession plan, though she hopes her longtime manager will take over the store someday.

“I don’t face that until I have to face it,” Behr said. “My plan was just to continue month to month as long as I possibly can.”

She was approached by at least one longtime customer about buying the store but turned down the offer.

“I said ‘absolutely not,’ ” Behr said. Without the business, “I’d become a huge depressive. That doesn’t interest me. I like buying. I like traveling. That’s what I like.”

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Folk Tree

Business: Retail shop specializing in Latin American folk art

Owner: Rochalinne “Rocky” Behr

Founded: February 1987

Employees: 3

Sales: $300,000 in 2007

What’s next? Unwilling to pay for a 100% increase in rent over the next four years, Behr is looking for a new location for her store. The Folk Tree has been at its South Fair Oaks Avenue address in Pasadena for almost 21 years.


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