Border Bargains

Turn your house into a hacienda with Talavera tile and terra-cotta pots, hand-blown glassware and hand-carved furniture: a guide to thirty shops just across the Rio Grande where the quality is high and the prices aren't.

December 1996By Comments

A THREE-FOOT-LONG WICKER LOCUST WAS MY FIRST HOME-FURNISHINGS purchase from a Mexican border town. I treasured my bug for ten years, despite a chronic beetle infestation that left small pyramids of fine dust on the floor beneath him, and loved the hint of tropical mystery he brought to my boringly provincial bedroom. Since then, I’ve hauled other decorative stuff back from the border: colorful Talavera pottery, thick hand-blown glasses, terra-cotta dancing dogs, woven wool rugs. This affordable craftsmanship dissolves my Sheetrock walls and gleaming appliances, casting a fantasy of thick adobe, warm breezes, and tequila nights.

I’m not alone in my desire to transform my home into a hacienda. Recently, several friends embarked on building and remodeling projects, spending every available weekend dashing to Nuevo Laredo for one more carved-wood column, yet another giant pot for their patio, an additional box of marble tiles. My husband and I went along on one such spree, and it was truly inspirational. The couple didn’t eat. They didn’t sleep. They shopped. And when we pulled out of town two days later, their trailer and our van were so loaded with patio furniture and pots and limestone fountains and columns and statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I was lucky to find a space to squeeze in the one luminaria I had bought.

What follows is a selective guide to shopping for home furnishings just across the Rio Grande. The stores run the gamut from border institutions, whose prices reflect their standing, to fledgling shops with ridiculously low prices and a here-today-gone-tomorrow feel. All of them love U.S. dollars—the prices listed are based on an exchange rate of 7.5 pesos to the dollar—and many accept major credit cards. (To phone them from the States, dial 011-52, then the local number.) I’ve arranged the shops más o menos in the order you would encounter them heading away from the river on each town’s main thoroughfare. Maps come in handy and are easily obtained from tourist bureaus on either side of the river. Finally, most car-insurance policies cover you within 25 miles of the border, but it never hurts to check with your agent to be sure.

Based on prices and selection of merchandise, only two of the towns I covered—Nuevo Laredo and Juárez—rate classification as a home furnishings travel destination. In Matamoros and Piedras Negras you could visit all the shops in the morning, pick up a Talavera lamp or a patio table, and still have plenty of time for an afternoon siesta. ¡Vámonos!

Nuevo Laredo

COMMERCE IS KING IN THIS BORDER TOWN. The combination of its enormously varied offerings, competitive prices, and relative proximity to San Antonio (154 miles), Austin (232 miles), and even Dallas (424 miles) via Interstate 35 makes this the premier shopping destination for fans of el estilo Mexicano. Enter Nuevo Laredo by International Bridge #1, which empties directly into the main shopping drag, Avenida General Vicente Guerrero. Navigating the city is a snap in your own car, and in more than ten bridge crossings over the past year, we’ve never had to wait in line for longer than twenty minutes going either way. City maps can be picked up at the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau (501 San Augustin, 800-361-3360) or the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce, just across the bridge (Avenida Guerrero 810, 87-12-77-07), where there’s usually someone on duty who speaks English.

Marti’s, Calle Victoria 2923, at Guerrero, 87-12-33-37; personal checks accepted. Marti’s eclectic selection and comparatively high prices support its reputation as the Neiman Marcus of the border. You enter this three-story shop through an ivy-covered courtyard. The first floor is dedicated to designer clothing and jewelry, with most of the furniture and home trappings tucked away on the top level. Wicker chairs, tables, and bedroom furniture of natural cane with green and burgundy accents were more reminiscent of the Pottery Barn than colonial Mexico (chairs $135 each, small dining table $295). But there was also a nice selection of more-traditional furnishings, like patio sets of the rustic leather-and-cedar furniture known as equipal (chairs $135, table $160, settee $295)—more expensive than at other places, but the quality justifies the price—and dining tables big enough to comfortably seat a convention of vaqueros with their spurs on (a gorgeous wormy cypress table for twelve, no chairs, $1,900; a table for eight fashioned from an antique door and ox yokes, no chairs, $1,795). I kept my eyes peeled for tiny piles of dust under the furniture, a telltale sign that powder-post beetles have invaded. I saw none here, but should you discover your wooden purchase producing dust once you get it home, a pest-control company or furniture refinisher can help you de-bug it.

Some items were reasonably priced, like large, thick wool rugs for $300 to $500, an armoire with an unusual carved basket-weave design at $995, and barstools of carved pine or pigskin and cedar for $125 to $165. But some prices would make even Stanley Marcus blush: $2,500 for a small mystery-wood table that the sales clerk claimed was eighteenth century, and $1,500 for a hip-height chest of drawers painted a rich red and green. But who could say whether $6,000 is too much for a pair of three-foot-high wooden oxen pulling a plow with a wooden farmer tending the reins?

Cem-Pochtecatl, in Los Arcos Market, one block east of Avenida Guerrero at Ocampo and Belden, catercornered from the old Cadillac Bar (now known as El Dorado Bar and Grill), 87-12-69-90, Laredo phone 210-718-2802. The cost of kitsch is high in Los Arcos, but you can find a few bargains at this shop filled to the rafters with baskets, furniture, and antiques. Naturally, I lusted after the most expensive item—a canoe from Michoacán carved from a single cypress log ($900)—but I would have been almost as happy with a couple of the high-back pine dining room chairs embellished with bas-relief swans, suns, or flowers ($93 each) or a set of five punched-tin luminarias for $25.

Casa Mañana (87-13-42-84), Don Juan Gifts, and San Miguel, on Calle Ocampo, across the street from El Dorado Bar; no credit cards. This trio of deep, narrow stores offers a small but varied selection of goods. Mañana and Don Juan, father-and-son enterprises, specialize in smaller items like Talavera table lamps ($40), old chandeliers ($60), whimsical walking sticks with old men’s faces carved in the handles ($20), and sculptures made of gnarled tree trunks depicting subjects both sublime (religious epiphanies) and ridiculous (rodeo drunks) that must be seen to be believed ($250 and up). San Miguel, which opened in April, carries rustic pine furniture crafted in Puebla. Bargains include a three-seater bench ($290), a rolltop desk ($485), and an entertainment center—size armoire ($420). The sales clerk thought it odd that norte-americano customers seem so intent on hiding their television sets.

The Glass Shop, Calle Ocampo 503, 87-12-85-25; no credit cards. This is not the place to take toddlers or swing your handbag. The front windows are lined with a dazzling array of hand-blown glasses, goblets, tumblers, and platters in blues, greens, browns, and multicolored polka dots—most of them made at the Bejines brothers’ glass factory at 5 de Febrero and Lena Vicario, a few blocks away. Pitchers start at $7, highball and wine glasses at $2.50; clear goblets with blue-green twisted stems are $4, platters and plates $4 to $10 (quantity discounts available).

Marmoles y Materiales Treviño, Calle Santos Degollado 1452 (Santos Degollado runs parallel to Guerrero nine blocks to the east and leads to International Bridge #2), 87-12-30-77 or 87-13-02-18; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. I didn’t need any tile, but the prices for hand-painted Talavera tiles in a wide selection of colors and designs were so low—$13.50 a case (ninety tiles, covering eleven square feet) for plain tiles and $17.50 a case for decorative tiles—that I thought about adding on a bathroom just to take advantage of the bargain. Then I would have a place for one of the Talavera painted sinks, which cost a mere $50. The friendly owner of this small shop, Leopoldo Treviño, also sells marble lamp bases, tabletops, and pedestals as well as limestone columns from Guadalajara (an eight-foot column fourteen inches in diameter, with an understated capital and base, was $200).

Curiosidades Nelly, Avenida Guerrero 2328 and 2610, 87-15-01-68; American Express only. Eliseo Navarrette Chimal has been selling pottery from this open-air shop for 23 years. His business card lists his wares as “Clay Pottery, Talavera, Mexican Culture”—which translates into a wildly eclectic assortment of stuff. Classic terra-cotta pots are stocked in hundreds of shapes and sizes, from nearly immovable behemoths to clay thimbles fit for a dollhouse. (To protect these less-than-durable clay pots from the elements, slather on a coat of Saltillo-tile sealer.) You can load up on those ubiquitous goat pots (whose heads always seem to snap off after the first year outdoors) or a wide-mouthed fish or an armadillo lounging on his back waiting for a nice geranium to be planted in his stomach. Among the mind-boggling options: 25-gallon terra-cotta pots ($25); enormous white clay pots with firing burns ($75); odd, four-mouth water vessels with handles, perfect for strawberry plants ($20); eight-foot cantera columns ($200); and small carved-cantera fountains ($180). (Cantera is a soft volcanic stone that comes in cream, gray, and rose.) Stone guard lions? A plaster bust of a Native American with a wolfskin headdress? A hundred pineapple decanters glazed green and yellow? Get ’em all at Nelly.

Three blocks farther down Guerrero, the second Curiosidades Nelly is tucked behind an unassuming and easily overlooked storefront (I found it only because I was walking  and looking determinedly for it). Here you’ll find an extensive variety of Talavera pottery: Navarrette stocks the more refined dinnerware from Puebla ($740 for eight place settings plus an assortment of platters, pitchers, and serving bowls, 72 pieces in all, which can also be purchased separately) and the vibrant pieces from Dolores Hidalgo, which come in both lead-free glazes ($7 for a dinner plate) and traditional glazes ($6). Serious Talavera addicts can feed their habit with additional necessities that carpet the second floor: small picture frames ($6), triple-tier fountains ($150), tissue holders ($8), soap dishes ($6), and urns ($12). You can even give that special someone the sun and the moon for a mere $40.

If you don’t want to store your new pottery on the floor at home, you can pick up a six-foot-long carved-pine buffet ($800) or hutch ($350 to $600). Other unfinished pine furniture includes headboards (twin size with a carved spray of calla lilies, $180; double with a carved peacock in repose, each feather rendered in stylized detail, $250) and benches (carved with the typical designs of swans or sunflowers or dueling horses’ heads, $200). For something a little different, consider a bench with frolicking fish and turtles painted on the back and sides for the same price, or a two- by three-foot carved and colorfully painted retablo with an arched top and saintly figures in little niches ($200). Check out the five-panel pine screen decorated with carved and painted saints, poppies, a sun, and a couple of shifty-eyed deer ($180). And whatever you do, don’t let the overwhelming inventory in this store distract you from the five-foot statue of San Pascual that guards the sales counter by the front door. Carved from a single piece of mesquite, he looks unnervingly like Richard M. Nixon ($400).

Guadalajara Pottery, Avenida Guerrero 2908, at Chihuahua, 87-14-47-61; personal checks accepted. Your American Express card is welcome here, and it’s a good thing—especially if you covet the nearly life-size wooden crucifix ($3,592) or the replicas of Mayan relics (from $325) or an enormous cantera clamshell fountain topped with a languid mermaid ($2,500). After 25 years in business, this indoor-outdoor rabbit warren has miles of pots ($4 to $150), Talavera ware ($5 to $100), and terra-cotta suns ($10 for el sol grande) stacked in room after room. The prices marked on some of the merchandise are merely a jumping-off point for bargaining. Owner José Navarrete offered me “wholesale” status without my even asking, which brought the inflated prices more in line with those at other border establishments. The bizarre curiosities upstairs—paintings, carvings, masks, and religious icons—will appeal to the shopper looking for that one-of-a-kind treasure.

Rafael, Avenida Guerrero at Sonora, just before the circle, next to the Hospital San José (on the left heading south; no sign and no phone, although messages can be left for Rafael at 87-14-25-88—which is, confusingly, the number for Rafael Disco); personal checks accepted, no credit cards.

Shoppers can profit from what owner Rafael Costilla calls his “sickness”—an obsession to possess every paper rose, every Talavera platter, every punched-tin luminaria that strikes his fancy, whether or not he can afford it or find the space in his shop to hang it. And since he has no business card, no telephone, and no sign announcing his shop, you have to wonder if he even wants to sell it. Costilla says he sells to many merchants from north of the border (a testament to his reasonable prices), and indeed, while we were browsing in the store, the owner of a gift shop in Boerne was picking up merchandise to resell and an interior designer from San Antonio was down on his weekly visit to collect iron tables and chairs for his clients. After 33 years of compulsively stocking his store, Costilla offers a selection of merchandise that can’t be beat. If you can navigate the mountains of lanterns, boxes of hand-blown glasses, piles of carved masks and folk art animals, and stacks of metal furniture in this labyrinth of rooms, stairways, shady courtyards, and halls, you will find double doors of weathered mesquite ($250); an equipal love seat, sofa, and large chair of leather, bent saplings, and cedar slats ($660); comfortable iron-and-woven-cane chairs ($90); metal chairs that cry for a cushion ($60); iron table bases ($135); a small unfinished desk with a rustic, carved front ($235); an unfinished double-bed headboard carved with stylized fish ($380); a five-foot by three-foot mirror with a punched-tin frame ($360); punched-tin lamp shades ($18); hand-forged-metal drawer pulls ($3); twenty-inch Talavera platters decorated with calla lilies ($60); Talavera dinner plates with a busy blue, yellow, green, and red design ($10); and so on. Thank goodness we didn’t have a larger truck or my husband and I would now be the proud owners of a wooden cart, probably half a century old, that was used for hauling cane in the interior of Mexico. All that character for only $450.

El Cid, Avenida Guerrero 3861; no phone. “Dear Customer, If you break it, you pay it,” warns a sign in this small glassware store. Behave yourself, however, and you can buy unbroken tumblers, candle holders, vases, bowls, plates, and margarita glasses in thick, clear hand-blown glass with blue or green rims for $2 to $10.

Luis Medina Custom Furniture, Calle Anahuac 3351 (Anahuac crosses Guerrero just north of El Rio Motor Hotel), 87-15-07-81; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. You won’t find any of the pieces made here in a store: Medina employs twelve workers, who concentrate solely on custom furniture. When we visited his woodworking shop, library cabinets destined for “Señor Longoria’s” home were being made. Although the significance of the name was lost on us (we later learned that the Longoria family is one of the wealthiest in Nuevo Laredo, with interests in banking, agriculture, and manufacturing), the size and elegance of the bookcases were not. More than twelve feet tall, each was topped with an ornate cornice and featured beveled-glass doors from France. The finish was going to be faux crackle, a technique of which Medina seemed especially proud. The shop was also making all the furniture for Señor Frog’s, a new restaurant (part of the Grupo Anderson’s Carlos’N Charlie’s chain) in Nuevo Laredo. I wouldn’t recommend your wandering in here and asking for a rustic pine table and a couple of high-back chairs. But if you have some serious, extensive woodwork in mind, this is the place. Because every order is different, Medina declined to quote prices.

Marmoles y Canteras de Nuevo Laredo, Avenida General César López de Lara 3126 (the street becomes the Monterrey Highway), 87-14-99-41. Guadalupe Nori runs a straightforward, industrial store offering a modest selection of flooring tiles and a good selection of cantera fountains and columns. Ten-foot columns, assembled from manageable sections for easy hauling, were around $320; fountains, from diminutive to ostentatious, started at $128 and went up to $280. Some oversized double sinks made of a poured terrazzo material (small pieces of stone set in cement and polished), only $22 each, were large enough to bathe a couple of springer spaniels with room to spare.

Ciudad Juárez

ENTER JUAREZ VIA THE CORDOVA BRIDGE and you’ll find yourself on Avenida Lincoln, home to all but two of the shops listed here. Because the city is in an isolated location for road-trippers (even by Texas standards), many shoppers fly into El Paso; therefore most of Juárez’s larger, more-established furniture stores will deliver to El Paso for a fee, and most of the smaller stores will also do their best to get your goods across the river. Driving here can be exhausting, not because of the poor condition of the streets or the seemingly haphazard one-way signs (pick up a map at the tourist office at the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1 Civic Center Plaza, on Santa Fe, 800-351-6024), but because of all the “parking hustlers,” notable for the red rags they use to flag down cars. They’ll grab your side-view mirror and practically jump on your hood to entice you to park where they can “watch” your car for a couple of bucks. It’s up to you whether to pay them or not, but remember: They’re with your car when you’re not.

Muebles del Pueblito, in the Pueblito Mexicano mall near the bridge, Avenida Lincoln 147, at Zempoala, 16-29-01-44. A relative newcomer, Pueblito carries items that are unique and carefully selected. This is the only place I saw picture frames by Cantera de Diseño. These fired-clay frames in muted colors with subtle geometric reliefs are so chic, they’re sure to show up in a Horchow catalog any day now ($12 for a large frame that holds a three-and-a-half-inch-square picture). The Talavera pottery here is certified lead-free (a one-quart bowl with painted grapes, apples, and pears was $23). A well-crafted iron side table with basket-weave details and gracefully curving legs was $187 (the price is higher than average, but then so is the level of design and craftsmanship). Co-owner Adriana de Leal says the shop will ship your purchases anywhere in the U.S. if the freight is paid COD.

Mexican Tile, Avenida Lincoln 1205, 16-16-50-25; no credit cards. Here’s a tiny store with tiny prices on a tiny selection of Talavera and Saltillo tiles. A case of 100 decorative four-by-four-inch Talavera tiles was $37, and a 30-tile mural of a village or mission scene was $89. A case of 11 one-foot-square Saltillo tiles was $8.91 for glazed tiles, $7.59 for unglazed.

Miranda Puertas y Vitrales, Avenida Lincoln 1188, 16-11-24-84; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. Don’t even think rustic much less request it when you walk into Juárez’s premier door store. Select from dozens of styles (or take in your own design) crafted from mahogany, poplar, oak, or pine, some with beveled-glass panes and side panels. Prices start at $475 for a simple oak-and-glass entry door.

Alfarería Azteca, Avenida Lincoln 1170, 16-16-19-36; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. If you’re beginning to lament the demise of Mexican kitsch, check out the fountains on the second floor of this multilevel shop. In the basin of one, small clay pots are suspended in a “lava flow” of that expanding spray foam used to insulate houses, plastic greenery is stuck here and there, and the whole thing is spray-painted bright green with accents of shiny gold and brass paint. It’s so ugly it’s almost worth the $162 price tag. For those with slightly more conventional tastes, there are lamps made from Talavera “ginger jars” ($65 to $85), trios of carved-limestone fish that serve as coffee-table bases ($180), and metal baker’s racks ($250 without glass shelves). Some of the best bargains can be found up on the roof, where a collection of iron furniture slowly rusts (chairs around $65, table bases $90).

Pueblo Wrought Iron, Etc., Avenida Lincoln 1151, 16-16-77-71; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. This is a strictly cash-and-carry business; the owners don’t want to hassle with the border crossing. Considering the bargains here, you won’t care. There is an ironworks on-site, so metal table bases ($58 for a round coffee table, complete with rust), birdcages ($225 for a six-foot-tall cage in which a cockatoo could easily stretch its wings), and light fixtures ($9.50 for a carriage lamp) are great buys. (This place is happy to take custom orders, especially for ironwork.)

The shop also casts its own concrete forms, and you reap the rewards. For a mere $115, you can break an axle dragging home a concrete picnic table and two benches. A small concrete frame for a window or a niche in the traditional square-within-a-clover-leaf design was $25 and a five-foot Saint Francis only $75. A twelve-foot fountain with four dishes was $400. Even the items imported from the interior, like the equipal table and four chairs ($321), the eight-foot carved-pine columns ($80), and the five-by-five-foot wooden screens with stylized designs chiseled on both sides ($197), were priced to sell.

El Patio, Avenida Lincoln 787, 16-16-22-06; personal checks accepted. Every border town seems to have one store that endures through the years and serves as a kind of shopper magnet to the benefit of all the shops in town. In Juárez several might claim the distinction, but none is more qualified than El Patio, a border institution since 1975. The selection of merchandise is truly overwhelming, even if the bargains are not. Nowhere else did I find brightly painted pine armoires with cornices trimmed in Talavera tiles and doors and sides inlaid with Talavera dinner plates decorated with smiling suns ($800). Six feet high and four feet wide, these would make great TV cabinets that could entertain you even with the doors shut. (They’re much more tasteful than they sound.)

El Patio’s cement statuary includes the standard guard lions ($66.95 for one the size of a Norwegian elkhound) as well as more-novel shapes like crouching lizards ($14 for one the size of a squirrel) and a mermaid ($159.95). The sign out front boasts the largest selection of light fixtures, and this is not an exaggeration: Thousands of fixtures in hundreds of styles festoon the ceiling and walls. Besides the ubiquitous punched-tin luminarias and garish copper coach lights, we saw simple blown-glass lights sheathed in perforated metal cylinders ($29.95) and replicas of Victorian chandeliers dripping with colored-glass tubes ($245). Although the sales clerk said this was a fixed-price store, willing to bargain only on wholesale orders, I noticed some wild price discrepancies on similar items. In the entry area, I was shocked by the $1,250 price of a simply painted pine table with four high-back chairs. When I wandered into another section of the store, the same-style table and chairs, painted à la Grandma Moses by one Felipe Benítez, were only $630.

Some of the primitive antiques and nostalgia items here were so expensive I thought I was in Fredericksburg. A couple of cast-iron carousel chickens were tagged at $350 each, and an old black rotary-dial telephone was $149. Lest you assume that an item’s one-of-a-kind status merits such prices, let me tell you about the basement we wandered into by accident. Dozens of old children’s pedal cars were stacked to the ceiling, awaiting paint jobs. Old wooden wagon wheels, which had seemed unique when displayed alone upstairs, lost some of their allure when I saw them piled in a corner. Even the 1916 coal-fired moving-picture projector had a few clones in this warehouse. Unless you know your antiques, stick with the pieces produced in Mexico, like the carved-wood mirror frame large enough for Alice to slip through even after she has eaten the mushroom, resplendent with rugged cherubs and odalisque ($495). And don’t miss the baroque frescoed chapel upstairs, where you can try praying for a miraculous extension on your Visa credit line.

Recubrimientos de Mármol, Calle Mejía 2560, just off the ProNaf Circle  (Avenida Lincoln becomes the ProNaf Circle), next to Willy’s Disco, 16-16-13-60. When my husband and I priced granite countertops for our kitchen a couple of years ago, we quickly saw the beauty of concrete as an alternative. Recubrimientos de Mármol offers even more alternatives: marble tiles in four sizes and fourteen shades of black, gray, green, and pink. (Consider delicate rojo vino, for example, at $1.57 a square foot, or sexy negro Monterrey for $3 a square foot.) There are no solid countertop-size slabs of marble here, but you can get a tabletop of blanco Aurora forty inches in diameter for $600.

Decor, on the ProNaf Circle, across from the Plaza of the Americas, 16-13-14-15; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. This store reeks of quiet desperation. Judging by the brochure (which must be more than twenty years old), Decor must have given El Patio a run for its money back when the complex included an upstairs restaurant, a “beauty and wig salon,” an art gallery, and in-house iron and furniture factories. Now much of the building is boarded up or for rent, but you can still watch the glassblowers at work. Inventory was low when we were there, and the peso’s devaluation had resulted in a sale—25 percent off everything and 40 percent off glassware—that sent prices into the giveaway zone: plates for a buck, tumblers for $1.50, shot glasses for 60 cents. (For $4, my husband bought two big glass paperweights, about two pounds each, to use as fish eyes in one of his metal sculptures.)

The few pieces of unfinished wood furniture that were in stock were more refined than much of the work we saw elsewhere on the border. A well-crafted pine armoire with paneled doors and a true arch top would make a great entertainment cabinet (sale price $696). A pine credenza five feet long and thirty inches tall was notable for its simple, clean lines and its drawers and doors that fit and worked smoothly, not always typical (sale price $280).

Muebles Rusticos Raramuri de la Sierra, Avenida 16 de Septiembre 2759 (the street crosses Avenida Lincoln), 16-13-56-88. The salesmen in this store, which opened last January in an unassuming second-story location in a strip mall, assured me that their furniture wasn’t made in a big factory but by little “chaps” in Juárez. It took me much too long to figure out we were talking about little “shops.” Equally confusing were discussions of “ladder” and “leather,” but when it came to prices, we agreed they were cheap. Even though I don’t have kids, I was tempted to buy the child-size equipal table and three chairs ($110). Unfinished rustic pine armoires large enough to hold a television and stereo ran from $275 to $300, and this place’s standard line of pine furniture includes three-drawer nightstands ($60), four-drawer dressers ($120), and six-foot-long credenzas ($200). As is almost always the case, Raramuri is happy to build custom pieces.

Matamoros

MATAMOROS’ MAIN TREE-LINED BOULEVARD, Avenida Alvaro Obregón, practically beckons your automobile across the Gateway International Bridge. The town’s major stores are on Avenida Obregón (which becomes Avenida Hidalgo about eight blocks from the bridge) or clustered around the old market area on Calle 9 between calles Matamoros and Bravo. Maps are available at the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau (U.S. 77 and 83 at FM 802; 800-626-2639) and at García’s, your first destination. Whatever you do, don’t stop at the tour-guide booths, at least not the one across from the Gran Hotel Residencial, because guides will hop into your car faster than you can say “Pero no…,” bark orders at you like a cranky mother-in-law, then demand an exorbitant fee when you finally dislodge them from the passenger seat.

García’s, Avenida Obregón 82, just over the bridge, 88-12-39-29. While my husband gawked at the best tequila selection on the border, I discovered that onyx art, my heart’s desire when I was young, is still alive and well here (onyx poodles go for $2.49 each). More to my current taste were the Talavera wall sconces painted with pairs of rather angry-looking birds ($22.95) and the carvedwood cherubs, including oddly apathetic flying angels ($9.95) and their mutant cousins, the two-headed horn blowers ($51.95). A Talavera urn that was decorated with a Picasso-esque portrait and had handles shaped like ribbon candy also caught my fancy ($85). A small selection of unfinished furniture ranged from tiny folding tables, a light lunch for a termite ($2.99), to a bench with horses’ heads carved in the back ($269). García’s also has a great collection of “unleaded pewter” candle holders, picture frames, and kitchenware ($9 to $30) that is “oven-proof and needs no polish.”

Johnny’s Place, on Calle 8 between Bravo and Bustamante, under a sign reading “Johnny’s Place,” 88-12-41-10. A more congenial proprietor can’t be found on either side of the border. What Johnny Garza lacks in inventory he makes up for in enthusiasm. When we stopped by, he was gleefully unpacking some of his new merchandise and seemed especially smitten with a decorative pottery fruit bowl complete with pottery fruit with metallic leaves and stems. I was more interested in his collection of old metal hardware, like the aged mail slot ($15) and punched-metal drawer pulls and knobs that looked like open umbrellas ($3 each). You can get a small metal table and four chairs for $90. The set wouldn’t win any design awards, but for that price, who cares? Birdcages up to five feet tall cost $120 to $160. Old blown-glass-and-metal light fixtures (like some I recently dug out of my parents’ attic, relics from a buying trip back in the seventies) were $40 to $60, and wagon-wheel chandeliers that would do the boys on Bonanza proud go for $120. Johnny also has a cache of curios, some of which—like the miniature chair fashioned from a tin can—sent me spiraling into a nostalgic time warp.

Mueblería José Gutiérrez, on Calle Herrera between calles 8 and 9; no phone, no sign. To illustrate the sturdiness of the wood furniture his family’s shop turns out, Alfredo Gutiérrez jumped on top of a dining room table and did the fandango for us. When he told me the price of an unfinished pine table with four carved high-back chairs ($95), I did the fandango. A pine vanity with four drawers and a chair was $110, and a china hutch was around $200. Alfredo was kind enough to drive us to a showroom of sorts where the finished furniture—dark and heavily varnished—is sold. (I think a creative shopper would buy the unfinished furniture and decorate it with bright, multicolored stains, add a hefty coat of urethane, and call it patio furniture.)

Fabricaciones Metálicas Rios, Calle Michoacán 1512, at Calle 6 Sur, 88-17-46-44; personal checks accepted, no credit cards. This ironworks, a couple of miles from the bridge, is off the beaten path but well worth searching for. The craftsmanship here was the best we saw. For eleven years the Rios brothers have been turning out some of the most elegant gates and architectural ironwork in Matamoros. Luis showed us photo albums filled with their work: playscapes, barbecue grills, light fixtures, birdcages, and gates and fences fit for a palace. They can custom make anything you fancy; just take them a picture and give them three to four weeks. Six-foot-high birdcages were $100, and a patio table and four chairs cost $300. And for $3,500 they can fashion a set of entry gates that will make your River Oaks neighbors swoon with envy (less ostentatious gates start at around $500).

Piedras Negras

THIS IS THE PLACE TO SHOP IF YOU DON’T want to feel hurried or overwhelmed by the selection. And the tourist office (on your right just over the bridge) was the most helpful we encountered along the border, handing out various maps of the city. (You can also get a map at the Eagle Pass Chamber of Commerce, 400 Garrison, 210-773-3224.) All four shops listed are located on the main drag, which has three names: Avenida Emilio Carranza, Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, and Highway 57. When you leave the bridge, you’ll be on Avenida Juárez. Take Juárez to Anahuac, turn left on Anahuac, then right onto the main drag. There are only a few stores here that carry home furnishings, but look on the bright side: Without a dizzying array of choices, ingenuity and imagination blossom. You might decide to cover the walls of your den with cheap, brightly painted birdcages of wood and wire. Or stock up on garish baskets. Or fall in love with a three-quarter-scale plaster Rottweiler guaranteed to scare an intruder at least once.

Escobas y Trapeadores del Norte, on Avenida Carranza across from Motel 57; no phone. While wandering the border towns, I was struck by the beauty of the lowly broom, imagining what a stunning wall hanging half a dozen of them might make. This specialty store, selling nothing but brooms, mops, and dustpans (kind of reminded me of the Scotch-tape store on Saturday Night Live), was doing a brisk business when we stopped by to pick up a handsome oversized broom with a handle of natural wood ($3) and a couple of long-handled tin dustpans, elegant simplicity itself ($1 each).

Mosaicos El Aguila, Avenida Carranza 1003, near Motel 57, 87-82-00-09; personal checks accepted. Not the lowest prices on Talavera tiles on the border (73 cents each), but you can snag a Talavera bathroom sink for less than $25 here and a Talavera switch-plate cover for $6.

Zulema, Avenida Carranza 1300, across the street from Motel California, 87-82-27-10. Don’t let this store’s stylish design fool you: Bargains lurk within—along with kitschy geegaws. The furniture prices were so low I had to ask the sales clerk to write them down to make sure I understood her correctly: an eight-foot, deeply carved, stained and glass-topped pine dining room table with six chairs was $527; a stained pine china hutch was $495; an upholstered equipal-style sofa set was $475; and a six-foot-tall, unfinished carved-pine bookcase was $335. Accent pieces like Talavera sconces, soap dishes, and picture frames ($6 to $9) made it onto my Christmas list.

Alejandro Rodríguez’s Place, Avenida Cárdenas 2208, across the street from the Casa Blanca Inn, 87-83-23-33; no sign. This open-air store has a no-nonsense inventory of garden statuary, pots, and furniture at no-nonsense prices. A cast-aluminum garden table and four chairs, painted a mottled green-black, were $380. A ten-foot cantera pillar can be yours for $300, a three-foot section of cantera balustrade for $85 (two sections would make a novel base for a table).

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