Curio shops tough business

“I think I’ll go inside and see if I can buy a rubber tommy-hawk,” I told my wife as we made a bathroom stop on a recent trip up Interstate 40 to Albuquerque.

We had pulled in to one of those roadside businesses with 20 miles of billboards hyping everything from snakeskin boots and Indian moccasins to turquoise jewelry and T-shirts. It was the kind of place my dad told us was a tourist trap when we were growing up and suggested that maybe we should pull over and see the two-headed rattlesnake advertised on the billboard.

I may have picked it up from my dad but I always said such businesses were in the rubber tommy-hawk trade. That meant they carried souvenirs, usually made in China, that were often stamped with an area town or destination name.

My dad spent a little time driving a truck cross-country and on one of those trips my mother went along and somehow she must have talked him into one of those tourist traps around Hoover Dam. When they got back they gave us children Indian headdresses with gaudy bright colored feathers and the name Hoover Dam stamped on the headband. There was also a toy tom tom drum and rubber tomahawk. Pretty neat swag in exchange for being left with grandparents.

I’ve known people in the rubber tommy-hawk trade, namely Mike and Betty Callens of Tucumcari who owned the coolest curio establishment on the planet, The Tee Pee, when I lived in Tucumcari. I sold the occasional newspaper ad to the couple and I’ve got to say it looked like a tough way to make a living. With the endless barrage of mindless questions from tourists and the worries of moving the dust collectors and buying the hot items at the right price it looked like more trouble than it was worth.

They survived and their odd-looking building with the shape of a tee pee on the front has become world famous, even more so after the animated movie “Cars” came out and featured like images of the iconic Route 66 building in the film. I guess the Callens still own the business.

Browsing the aisles of this big tourist trap on our recent trip I found lots of things that brought back memories. The Indian headdresses looked pretty much the same as 45 years ago and they even had a tom tom that looked right. But after searching high and low I couldn’t find a rubber tommy-hawk.

They had some all-wood carved tomahawks that some tribe without a casino had marketed to bring a little revenue onto the reservation but no rubber ones. I decided I would continue my quest for a rubber tommy-hawk at another curio shop on another day. I wonder if the Tee Pee has any rubber scalp-takers gathering dust.