As owner of G. Robinson Old Prints and Maps in the John Dunn Shops, Cullen Stevens is living his childhood dream. Stevens’ family used to vacation in Taos from Dallas and visit the shop, which opened in 1976.
“I fell in love with it and always wanted to own this store,” says Stevens, “so I found a way to do it.”
It was the visual appeal of the maps that Stevens fell in love with as a kid. “It wasn’t the window into history that you get no other way. It was just, ‘Look at how cool this stuff is.’ And it was the idea that you can hold something 400 years old in your hand,” he explains, adding that he loves “old paper.”
There were, of course, many years between the time he decided he wanted to own the shop and when he got the call from the former owner that it was for sale.
One might wonder what he did in the meantime. “The list of my past careers? Uh, let’s see here,” he says, scratching his chin. “I was an engineer on crew boats in the Gulf of Mexico in the oil field for a few years, a metal polisher in Houston for a few years, a strip club manager in New Orleans, the same thing in Minneapolis and then for 15 years I was a retail carpenter.”
The shop, however, is the first business Stevens has owned, although he says he gained many valuable business skills through his other careers.
“With this kind of stuff you just feel it as you go,” he says. “You change your inventory as you have to, and you see something you like, you give it a try.”
Stevens’ inventory has changed significantly over the past few years. Traditionally, the shop contained 90 percent maps and 10 percent prints, but nowadays, it’s about 40 percent maps and 60 percent prints. Map sales dropped dramatically with the economic downturn, and Stevens began to see a changing demographic. It used to be that 80 percent of his customers were men.
“Now 80 percent of my sales is to women,” he says. “Men buy maps; women buy other things. And also, when you do have a downturn, men are the first to quit spending money.”
While Stevens still carries a wide variety of maps, some dating to the 15th century, he has come to focus on prints of old erotica and Golden Age book illustrations. Also popular are “dance of death” prints — images of death taking people.
“It’s a very old genre of art,” says Stevens.
The shop contains many other treasures as well.
“There are 10,000 pieces of paper in here,” says Stevens. “Everything in the store is original, and I have everything from 19th century high-end bird prints to botanicals of every stripe and 19th century steel engravings of cities all over the world.”
Stevens is currently building a shopping website called MarieSebastian.com, which is a composite of his wife’s and his middle names. It will launch in the next couple of weeks with a focus on the erotica and Golden Age illustrations, which Stevens says are difficult to find online.
“Reproductions, sure,” he says, “but not the real thing.”
Surprisingly, much of what Stevens carries is quite affordable, and can make for wonderfully unique gifts. “It’s not the same old crap that you can get anywhere,” he says. “Some people think it must be too expensive, but you can buy stuff hundreds of years old for 20 bucks or even less in some cases.”
It’s not just what you can buy in Stevens’ store that makes it worth visiting. “I’m not just here with a register and stuff for sale,” he says. “What I consider a good day is me literally spending eight hours on my feet talking to people, telling them about this stuff, pulling out 13th century medieval manuscripts for people to feel. It’s not a stuffy museum, it’s a place where you can touch things and talk about history.”
Susan Carpenter Sims writes exclusively to create awareness of the critical role entrepreneurship plays in our community.