There are some stores in town that are highly dangerous to my account balance, and Prima Materia is one of them. Packed with colourful and beautiful things of all kinds, it invites the eye and lures shoppers. The window is a view into the store’s rich interior stuffed with vivid delights for the table, for the walls, for wearing.
Prima Materia was founded by Deb Rushfeldt and her husband Rod nine years ago, who imported their entrepreneurial know-how to Nakusp and set up the unique shop.
But Nakusp was already well-known to both of them.
“In the 1980s when I was in my thirties we would come out here,” Rushfeldt told me, when I visited the store last week. Her husband Rod has an even longer history here. He moved out from the coast to a hippie commune in 1969, and started travelling and importing in the ‘70s, selling in local craft fairs.
Around 2000, Deb and Rod moved out from Calgary, bowing out of the corporate framing business, Fast Frames in downtown Calgary.
“We were at it for 22 years, but I think we were done,” said Rushfeldt, “It was pretty stressful, because when you’re working with corporate clients, everybody wants everything yesterday.”
The couple have been enjoying the more sedate pace of the Kootenays for over a decade now.
“The quietness has allowed us to focus more on what interests,” revealed Rushfeldt, who appreciates not being distracted by the bright lights of the big city.
When they came to Nakusp they bought a six-acre parcel of the land in Crescent Bay that was the commune that Rod was part of in the seventies, and their friends Wendy Toogood and Don Mabe bought the five-acre plot next door.
“They’re both really well-known Canadian artists,” Rushfeldt said, “and they’re hidden out here. Not many people know.”
Art is something native to the area, and something she sees could be a big draw for both tourists and new residents.
“All the communities [in the area] are artistic,” noted Rushfeldt, who feels like once a critical mass of artists is reached, even more people will be attracted to the area. Artists have been seen as real population and economic drivers, and increasing this “bohemian index” is seen as highly desirable.
Rushfeldt herself is working on a drawing project that captures the feel of the Kootenays through pictures of objects found on neighbours’ property.
The harmony of colour and texture are clearly important in the store as well. Displays are carefully arranged by hue, each one its own interesting environment. Balance is key.
“I want to show things off,” she said, “I don’t want it to be too busy, but there’s got to be enough stuff.”
Rushfeldt draws some of her decorating and display inspiration from the stores in Antigua, a city she is very familiar with from the pair’s winter buying trips to Central America.
Generally, they go to markets in Guatemala to find their wares, sending enough embroidered bags, jewelry, pottery, and art to last an entire year.
Rusfeldt’s favourites are the masks they carry, which are made by a mask-making family in Chichicastenango.
“They really do add to the atmosphere of the store,” she observed, “Sometimes you get one that’s really special. Masks are odd in a way; sometimes they seem to capture the spirit.”
One mask in particular, a blue jaguar mask with glass eyes, radiated a male presence to her.
“It was kind of spooky,” she recalled, “It sold right away.”
Buying as an importer isn’t a pleasure trip. It takes about two and a half weeks of days spent in markets bursting with crafts as well as flowers, food, and people. It can be too much for many people.
“I see tourists go in there and come out empty-handed, they’re so overwhelmed,” Rushfeldt remarked. “Every single thing you have to pick out and check it, and every single thing has to be bartered for. We love it, but it is work; we’re tired by the end of the day.”
Working in another language can also be exhausting, particularly if you’re less than fluent.
“Neither one of us has a great aptitude for languages,” she admitted, but when all sides are speaking a foreign tongue, it tends to work out.
“Spanish is a second language with most of the people we work with,” Rushfeldt noted, “It actually works ok, because we speak very slowly and simply, and they speak very slowly and simply … Guatemalans are very sweet, very gentle people.”
This year they’re changing it up and will be going to Ecuador to find some new pieces for the store.
“I try to get different things in every year so people here have a variety,” Rushfeldt said, something the tourists who make up the majority of the store’s clientele will also appreciate.
One of the most interesting trips was to a bazaar where they weren’t buying at all.
“We stayed right next to a witches’ market in Bolivia. They sell all the potions and the stuff for their religion.” Including dried llama embryos, a must-have for anyone building in Bolivia. According to local tradition, burying one under your house is a sure-fire way to attract good luck to your new home.
Another memorable expedition to Cuzco found Rushfeldt, her husband and her daughter in the middle of a huge protest, complete with chanting protesters, fires, and military armed with machine guns.
“It was about the government trying to privatize Macchu Picchu so it was huge,” she remembered, “It looked kind of scary like it could get out of hand but it didn’t.”