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Atkinson family's niche is Indian-crafts business

By Tiana Velez -- The Arizona Daily Start, Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. (MCT) - In the summer of 1945, shortly before his wife was to give birth, Jake Atkinson drove her 862 miles from Rattlesnake, N.M., to Dallas. His firstborn - a son, at that - would be a Texan.

As soon as little John Henry Atkinson was born, the family got back in the car and returned to their hogan with dirt floors in San Juan County, where Atkinson was raised.

''That's just how my father was when he wanted something,'' John said.

A son of the Lone Star State, Jake ''swore that his firstborn would be born in Texas.''

The elder Atkinson brought the same tenacity to running the family business - trading in American Indian crafts - that he brought to choosing his son's birthplace. The trade has spread down through the generations and out through two states, encompassing 12 stores in Tucson.

It began with a trading post near the family's New Mexico home, on the nearby Navajo Reservation. John was always on hand helping out.

Tribal artisans would bring their handcrafted goods, including baskets, rugs and jewelry, and trade them for items such as food and clothing, he said.

Twenty-seven years later, in the fall of 1972, after stints in the U.S. Navy and at the Atomic Energy Commission, Atkinson rejoined his father - this time at the Indian Village Trading Post at 72 E. Congress St.

Recently moved to La Placita Village at 110 S. Church Ave., the trading post - started by Jake's brother, Leroy, in the early '50s - remains in the hands of the Atkinson family, specifically John and his two sons, J.D., 38, and Larry, 36. If ever people have found their niche in life, it would be the Atkinsons.

More than half a century after Jake Atkinson opened the trading post in New Mexico, the Tucson Atkinsons have built a small empire of local stores that employ 55 to 70 people, many of whom have been with the family for years.

In addition to the Trading Post Downtown, John, J.D. and Larry's 11 locations stock a similar assortment of handcrafted Indian goods bought from craftsmen on nearby reservations, as well as a variety of Southwestern-inspired goods and knickknacks.

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The newest addition, Spirit of Santa Fe at La Encantada, carries a more select range of Native arts and crafts showcased in a gallery setting.

As Larry explained recently, ''there are Atkinsons in the Indian jewelry business statewide in two states'' - Arizona and New Mexico.

Stemming from those early trading post days, Jake, his two brothers and sister continued selling goods they acquired through contacts on the reservations - many of which are still utilized by second- and third-generation Atkinsons like Larry and J.D.

Many of the artisans they deal with lack e-mail access and sometimes phones, so they still conduct deals face-to-face.

''Nothing has changed on the reservations. Business is done identical to how it was done 100 years ago,'' J.D. said.

''It's nice, too, 'cause you can do a lot of business on a handshake,'' Larry echoed.

Neither J.D. nor Larry envisioned a career in the family business. J.D. earned a bachelor's degree in graphic design, while Larry studied management at Northern Arizona University. ''I'm the only one who studied business, and they still don't listen to me,'' he quipped.

As the Atkinsons give birth to a fourth generation - Larry's eldest is 6 years old - even John is unsure how long the family will remain in the Indian

crafts business.

He can only offer this advice: ''I tell my sons, 'I'm your crystal ball. See what mistakes I made, and when you're in a similar situation, improve upon what I did.'''

Copyright (c) 2007, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.