About Utah: Internet saves the day at the Twin Rocks Trading Post

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9 2012 10:38 p.m. MST

BLUFF, San Juan County— Situated beneath towering twin sandstone pillars that are symbolic of the Hero Twins of the Navajo, the Twin Rocks Trading Post, where the specialty of the house is fine Navajo art, has a setting as unforgettable as it is fitting.

But Steve Simpson, who owns the trading post along with his brothers Craig and Barry, will be the first to tell you that in this case, location, location, location is not enough.

The reason why Twin Rocks, located on a two-lane highway in a quiet town of 258 people six or more hours from any big city, has evolved into one of the world's most distinguished purveyors of elegant Southwestern art has considerably less to do with its spectacular physical surroundings than with something that's completely invisible.

The World Wide Web.

"Social media," Steve says as he relaxes in his shop among a dizzying array of high-end jewelry, rugs and baskets, "it's a lifesaver."

Case in point: At the moment, there's not a customer in the store. And in the dead of winter, there may not be one for hours.

But art lovers are still shopping at www.twinrocks.com – the address that never closes.

"The Internet allows us to get to a much larger market," says Steve. "The web is essential in keeping the business viable."

And essential in supporting hundreds of talented Southwestern artists whose wares make up the enviable Twin Rocks inventory. The majority of them are Navajo, along with others from the Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes, and even a few Anglos ("We always say that we don't discriminate against the white folk," smiles Steve).

"We try to do what the old-time trading posts did," says Steve. "Support the local economy and culture."

But in a new-time trading post kind of way.

When Twin Rocks was first established 23 years ago, the business plan did not include the Internet.

Basically, it was the striking 15-story tall sandstone structure – the Hero Twins – that begat the business.

Steve, Barry and Craig's dad, Duke Simpson, bought the land at the base of the pillar and thought it would be a terrific location to attract customers. For years, Duke had operated (and still operates) a family-run trading post in nearby Blanding called Blue Mountain. He invited the whole family to get involved in the new project. Steve left a promising career as a tax attorney in northern California to lend a hand.

When Twin Rocks opened in October 1989, it had a modest inventory and an equally modest number of contributing local artists.

The plan was to attract business the way business had always been attracted – as it passed on the highway.

But the plan changed because of one of the store's new employees: a young self-taught graphic artist named Damian Jim.

Damian was a Indian who lived with his grandmother on the edge of Bluff in a house that had no electricity.

At night, though, after work, Damian would hook up his computer to his car battery and connect to the world. By the light of a kerosene lamp, he became acquainted with a marketplace of unlimited dimensions.

One day in the early 1990s, he said to Steve and his brothers: "You guys should get a Web site."

Steve and his brothers: "Get a what?"

Simpson never tires of telling that story – how a Navajo teenager with no electricity introduced his family to the Internet Age, and saved the trading post. It's a legend that one day might elbow its way in among the legend of the Hero Twins. In Navajo lore, the twins, one called Monster Slayer, the other Born For Water, were the result of a relationship between the Sun and Mother Earth. They are the redeemers of the Navajo people and are held in deep reverence.

The Twin Rocks behind the trading post are emblematic of the Hero Twins. They're impossible to miss as you drive into Bluff – located west of the two-lane on the north end of town.

Or, you can check them out at www.twinrocks.com.

Either way, they provide a remarkable ancient backdrop for the modern, socially mobile business that sits just beneath.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: lbenson@desnews.com

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