The renowned painter Pablita Velarde helped the store move three times.
Wright’s Indian Art hums with a legacy as old as the 1907 brass cash register dangling a portrait of Martinez on the north wall. Its owners are celebrating the store’s 110th anniversary this month.
Tucked behind an unassuming storefront in the shadows of Albuquerque’s shopping malls, Wright’s offers a vortex of time travel through both the past and the future of American Indian art. This year, longtime owner Wayne Bobrick (“Mr. B”), 78, is handing over that history to his granddaughter, Lauren, and her husband, Dan Hyman.
“We could not have survived without the artists,” Bobrick said. “The artists have always been wonderful to us.”
Today the store boasts clients as far away as Australia, London and Japan.
It all started when Charles Wright hitched up his team and headed west from Kansas to seek his fortune in 1897. He set up the Fred Harvey Indian shop at hotels in both Albuquerque and the Grand Canyon. In 1907, he opened a curio shop in Downtown Albuquerque. Old photographs show the original building, complete with a totem pole and sweat lodge.
The store evolved into a gallery after the paroxysms of Central Avenue urban renewal demolished the old building in 1958. Marguerite and Samuel Chernoff bought the business from Wright’s widow in 1956 Marguerite took silversmithing classes; Samuel was a master chess player.
They stocked the inventory from Gallup’s pawnshops.
“He would go (to Gallup) with blank checks,” Bobrick said. “They really wanted to get rid of the pieces. He would give them 12 checks and tell them to cash one a month. They would give him grocery bags full of bracelets.”
Bobrick is the Chernoff’s son-in-law. He and his wife, Tania, took over the shop in 1967. Long fascinated by American Indian culture, he had moved to Albuquerque from Iowa to attend the University of New Mexico.
Over the years, Velarde brought in her hand-ground colors and explained how she used them. Martinez created a display of the stages of the pottery process, still a centerpiece in the gallery’s collection.
“Maria came to the house for lunch,” Bobrick said. “She was a wonderful lady. She would do anything to make sure the pueblo survived. She would always be humble.”
Martinez performed the ribbon cutting at one of Wright’s Downtown stores. The shop moved to its present location five years ago.
Later stars would include the Navajo jeweler Arland Ben and Jemez Pueblo potters Joe Cajero and Kathleen Wall.
Bobrick acknowledged at least one serious miss. The great contemporary Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma approached him with some new bracelets with stones protruding like mesas.
“When he came into the store with glued stones, I was scared,” Bobrick said. “If it falls out, what am I going to do? He said, ‘OK.’ I shot myself, because he never came back.”
Loloma’s trailblazing work would later command tens of thousands of dollars and jump-start a contemporary movement in modern Indian jewelry.
The store once groaned with a wall of work by San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Blue Corn, who was becoming famous for reviving polychrome ware.
“This gentleman came in and said, ‘Can I buy a lot of it?’ ” Bobrick said. “He bought 10-15 pieces. We found out the next day she was in The Wall Street Journal.”
Bobrick credits the store’s generous layaway policy with bolstering it through bad times, such as the 2008 crash. He has always maintained a sharp eye for quality and authenticity, making sure a bezel line is straight and no telltale drying marks of greenware maul the bottom of a pueblo pot.
“The main thing we come by is it’s real,” he said.
Now he’s passing on that experience to a third generation.
The Hymans were living near Denver when they made the decision to move. Lauren was working in accounting; Dan was working for T-Mobile. Lauren still remembers visiting the shop during summer vacations and polishing the jewelry as a child.
“The thought of it not being ours, it hurt me,” she said.
Then a familiar face came to her in a dream.
“My great-grandmother walked up the path, and her teeth were clicking and her arms were open wide,” Lauren said. “She said, ‘I’m back.’ I woke up, and I said it’s the right thing to do.”
To commemorate the anniversary, Wright’s will host a silent auction of donated pieces benefiting First Nations Health Services from Oct. 10 to 15.