Charley Burlingame created a Taos tourist emporium using moxie and a sense of humor
Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the 1998-1999 Winter Enchantment magazine published by The Chronicle. Charlie Burlingame died May 20, 2008, at age 77. His obituary is below.
By Ellen Miller-Goins
For 13 years, Charley Burlingame has greeted souvenir shoppers and watched sightseers stroll by from his spot in the front window of Charley’s Corner at the northwest corner of the Taos Plaza.
“I like to visit with the customers,” Charley says. “That’s why I sit up here.”
A folding metal chair stands next to Charley’s in case anyone wants to sit down for a visit.
“We used to have a real comfortable chair, but it broke down,” Charley says. “We went with something less formal, but more practical.”
People walk in, Charlie waves and his son, Yost, greets them all, saying, “Everything’s 50 percent off, folks. Take half-off whatever’s marked.”
The sale that never ended
The half-price “sale” started five years ago as a season-end clearance sale.
“The last day of September in 1993, we were just going to have a four-day sale,” Charley explains, adding the sale went so well, “I said, ‘Why don’t we try another week?’”
Then another week was added, and another… and the weeks kept adding up.
Charley says folks like the gimmick and only “a few, but not many” view the perpetual sale with skepticism.
“The tourists really enjoy it,” he says.“ People always ask me if we’re going out of business. I say, ‘No, we’re trying to stay in!’ The tourist business is a little different. You have to provide some entertainment.”
In the past he’s called his place “a department store for the skiing tourist.” It’s a description that still applies. Charley’s Corner is packed with T-shirts, rugs, mugs, caps, chili lights, pottery, postcards… as he says, “the works.”
“Most things have something to do with the Southwest,” he says. “You have to have things they can’t find at home.”
Charley still does most of the buying for the shop specializing in “low end” souvenirs and gifts.
‘Authentic Taiwan Tomahawks’
An Aug. 11, 1985, Albuquerque Journal column read: “The prize for creative salesmanship surely goes to Charlie Burlingame.… Early in July, the Taos News ran an article about changes at the Plaza, which is rapidly losing the last of its small-town character as family-run stores are replaced by art and gift shops strictly for the tourist trade. ‘How many Taiwan tomahawks and T-shirts can Taos sell?’ a businessman asked in the article. Charley, who happened to be out of tomahawks, responded by placing a hand-lettered sign in his window: ‘Due to unprecedented publicity, we are temporarily out of Taiwan tomahawks.’ He was flooded with inquiries and immediately ordered a gross. Since then he has been advertising ‘Authentic Taiwan tomahawks’ on sale.…”
Says Charley, “I got good mileage out of that. We sold about, what? 20 gross.”
Charley used to run ads with the saying: “For one brief shining moment to taste the sweetness of low price… is to sup with the Gods.”
It’s an important marketing lesson Charley never forgot — know your customer.
“We always have this debate at the Taos Chamber about who we should solicit to come to Taos. I don”t care who we solicit, they’ll come here. I just like good old folks! Our customers are family people.
“We really like buses. If a bus pulls up, we begin to rub our hands.”
Taking the plunge
Charley left a job as a traveling salesman and he and his wife, Jerry, moved here in 1970, from Norman, Okla., seeking a better lifestyle for themselves. (She died in a 1984 car accident after 30 years of marriage.). They had set their sights on Taos and during a two-day Easter holiday, they found a shop on Kit Carson Road.
“It’s almost miraculous,” he says. “There’s never any shops in Taos.”
Since buying the shop on Kit Carson Road, Charley has moved his shop a few times, once to anther Plaza location, and in 1985 to its present location.
Jerry also operated Burlingame’s Gallery, just north of the plaza, selling Southwestern art, jewelry and pottery, and Jerry’s miniature paintings.
“She ran that gallery and painted small paintings,” Charley says. “A large painting for her would have been an 8 by 10. Most of them were 3 by 5s. She painted hundreds of ’em.”
Charley says he does not regret choosing the seven-day-a-week grind of owning a business in a resort community — he recommends it to any married couple, including his son and daughter-in-law, Mary, who works in the shop.
“Doing it together is a lot better than getting up in the morning and going your separate directions,” he says. “I was raised in that kind of situation. My family had a small-town drug store in Deer Creek, Okla.”
Charley says he helped out some — “I ran the soda fountain, carried watermelons in and out…”
Welcome to the ’70s
When Charley and Jerry moved to Taos a number of disaffected Americans had picked the Northern New Mexican community as an ideal site to “drop out.”
“I was kind of fascinated with hippies,” Charley says. I’d go out to the communes and visit with them. My wife said, ‘How come you’re always hanging around those hippies?’
“This community didn’t know what to do about hippies,” he said. “Generally they did not accept them. Our church, the Methodist Church in El Prado, was the only one that welcomed ’em in.
“One time we had a church potluck dinner and half the people who showed up were hippies and they didn’t bring any food so we ran out.
“Someone said, ‘Well, we’ll just have to bring more food!’”
Times get tough
Charley says Taos businesses shared a little more camaraderie when he and Jerry first bought their business.
“I tell people, ‘Taos had a golden age in the ’70s.’ Everybody thinks the year they arrived was the ‘Golden Age.’ But you knew each other in the stores. You’d have lunch together. We’d all go over to Roberto’s and get a whole big tray of tacos and everybody’d gather around and eat.
“You knew people better.”
Charley says businesses help each other out “as much as you can, but that’s the trouble — when winter comes, it’s winter for everybody.”
At one time he kept his two stores on opposing corners of the plaza, but the three years after 1994 “kind of knocked the stuffing out of everyone,” he says, and he had to close one of his stores.
Charley remembers struggling, too, after the Texas oil economy went bust in the mid-1980s. He says he gets irritated when locals hope the price of oil will go down.
“We need the price of oil to be high because all these people in Oklahoma and Texas sell oil!” he says.
Taking it easy
These days Charley takes it little bit easier, with the help of Yost and Mary. He comes in and orders merchandise, checks new arrivals and sits at his window post visiting with customers and friends who drop by from all over the globe, and reading local papers, the Wall Street Journal, opinion pieces and political commentary.
“I read a lot of stuff but not as much as I used to,” he says. “As you get a lot older, even stuff that doesn’t take a lot of energy takes a lot of it!”
Obituary: Charles Burlingame
Charles Burlingame, 77, of Taos passed away on May 20, 2008. He was born in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and grew up in Deer Creek, Oklahoma. He attended Oklahoma State University, joined the Air Force, (Big Springs, Texas) then moved to Norman, Oklahoma before moving his family to Taos in the summer of 1971. He was the proprietor of several gift shops before settling on the northwest corner of Taos Plaza as Charley’s Corner for over thirty years. He was preceded in death by his wife Geraldine Burlingame, parents Clyde and Viola Burlingame. He is survived by son, Yost Burlingame (Mary Agnes), sister, Lois Hansen (John) of Sarasota, Florida, other relatives and friends. Graveside service was held on May 27, 2008 at the Las Cruces Cemetery.