For nearly 50 years, Aspen’s Les Ochs has been a “peddler” of Western antiques and goods.
Written by Constance Dunn
“I’ve tried lots of different labels,” says Les Ochs. “Art dealer. Shopkeeper. But the truth of matter is I come from a long line of peddlers, and I buy and sell things, primarily cowboy and Indian vintage pieces.” For Ochs, his lifestyle tracks closely with his career, which started nearly 50 years ago when he arrived in Aspen with a friend, and set up shop in an old miner’s house on Main Street, right next to the courthouse.
To satisfy the owners, who insisted the building remain a commercial spot, Ochs and his friend Richard set up a gallery in the front room of the building—really, just hanging pieces of art they owned, and lived in the rear. The sign out front read: By chance or appointment. “In the early Seventies it was a hippy culture,” says Ochs, “and craftsmen were making things, and they would knock on the door. If we were there we would open the door, and we kind of became the store we were pretending to be.”
From 1973 to 1975, the duo sold vintage clothing, from denim and leather jackets to turn-of-the-century dresses. They also stocked wooden toys, stained glass windows and silver items fashioned by craftsmen. The name of the store was Smith Brothers Trading Company, inspired by the duo’s earliest days in Aspen. “Richard and I had beards,” explains Ochs. “As we walked through Aspen during those first few weeks, people would say, ‘Who are you guys anyway, the Smith Brothers?’ After that happened repeatedly, one day we looked at each other and said: ‘We’re going to be the Smith Brothers.’”
One day, two men came into the store with a cardboard box draped in silver Concho belts. “They had been trading in Indian goods for several years,” Ochs recalls. “It dawned on me that I wanted to do what they were talking about.” So he has. In the old days Ochs might have set up shop by simply rolling out a blanket on the ground, and laying out his goods. Times have changed. These days Ochs sells to select private parties and high-end retailers, including Ralph Lauren and Kemo Sabe. “After 48 years I’m an overnight success,” he says wryly. Despite his raised profile, Ochs likes to remain somewhat under the radar. “I don’t spread my access widely,” he points out. “I like to be found.”
A place where his goods can be found, for a short while at least, is a pop-up trunk show at the John Wayne Stock & Supply store in Fort Worth Stockyards. Starting on October 28 and running through the month of November, visitors can peruse a selection of his Western and Native American objects, including silver and turquoise jewelry, belt buckles and intricate Ketohs. While turquoise of all types—from pale eggshell blue and deep cyan to the veiny emerald variety—is a perennial feature of Ochs’s collection, a current specialty is the Ketoh. A bow guard bracelet meant to protect the forearm from the kickback of a bowstring, Ketohs are intricately carved items typically forged from silver or other metals, and sometimes leather, and often embedded with turquoise and other stones.
In true peddler fashion, Ochs keeps his footprint nimble, living in Aspen and making buying and selling trips as he needs or wishes. Each year he spends the month of August in Santa Fe, attending Western antique shows and auctions, flea markets and galleries. “Like everything in life, you learn through your mistakes,” says Ochs when asked how he’s honed his craft over the last half a century. “On a good day, when everything’s going well and someone asks me, ‘How’re you doing’?,’ I’ve been known to respond: ‘I can’t wait to make my next mistake.’”
Photographs courtesy of Les Ochs