Oscar Cardenas: the spirit of n old cowboy's hearts and soul lives on&
Sadles and Spurs
by L. H. Guerra
It was the late 1960s, and as Oscar Cardenas led me through his enclosed garage crammed with an eclectic assortment of antique furniture, artifacts and memorabilia I felt a little strange listening to a running discourse on the aesthetic high points of each piece by one of the toughest men on the Laredo police department. I ended up putting a green primo-genitary gas stove on layaway that afternoon, and emerged forever hooked on the beauty of all things old. The strength of Oscar's selling technique had worked its magic on me. Here was a man with a genuine appreciation for and sense of excitement about the things he offered his clientele.
When Oscar's home location became too small to accommodate his expanding inventory he decided it was time to concentrate exclusively on the antiques business. He left his job on the police force and opened up a shop in the south part of town. The new store was a combination of Old West and Mexican hacienda in design. The parking lot was lined with ox-carts, an antique stagecoach stood by the front entrance and rows of wooden yokes hung from the porch roof. The place was pure cowboy-- just like Oscar.
A few years later he received a lucrative offer on the property, which he accepted, and relocated the store to its current address on Guadalupe Street.
Oscar was a sharp entrepreneur who dared to take a chance on the idea that hard work and determination can lead to success. During the 1989 Texas gas and oil bust he and his wife Bertha decided it was time to specialize in Mexican rustic and primitive antiques. Their customers were looking for more affordable merchandise and the Cardenas knew Mexico was a fairly untapped market for buying. Their timing couldn't have been better.
"We entered a new and unprecedented level of growth," stated Bertha, "which, thank God, has lasted to this day. That decision not only saved us from going bankrupt, it opened up a much wider market for us. By 1992 we quit carrying European and Victorian American pieces altogether and focused on wholesaling Mexican antiques."
Word about the store spread rapidly on both sides of the border. Mexican dealers soon began appearing at their doorstep with truck loads of old doors, rustic tables, spurs, branding irons, copper pots, wooden crosses, vintage signs, and much more for sale. Oscar would buy just about anything that was old and Mexican, and traveling dealers knew they could turn a quick profit with him without having to worry about returning home with unsold merchandise.
Antique dealers from the United States flipped over the new line the Cardenas carried. Dealers arrived in droves to this border town, eager to purchase Mexican saddles, pottery, religious pieces, bronze candle holders, rustic benches and chairs. Hungry for something different in the antiques business, American dealers fell in love with the folksy charm of Mexican collectables. What's more, they didn't have to leave the country to buy them. Oscar had everything they could possibly want-- in multiple.
Houston based antiquarian Judith McClellan notes, "Oscar and Bertha developed new avenues for us by contacting Mexican suppliers and obtaining massive quantities of rustic items. They were responsible for creating a new fad in our business. Why, Oscar practically invented the yoke / door table!"
Business grew faster than the shop could keep up with. By January of 1996 the Cardenas ended up expanding to two additional warehouses just to store merchandise that wouldn't fit in the main showroom. Shipments of rustic Mexican antiques were going to Holland, Belgium, Australia, Japan, Canada and throughout the United States. Oscar, in his signature jeans and bull-rider hat, cowboy boots propped on the edge of his desk, was doing what he truly enjoyed. Even with all his tremendous success he was still the same guy I remembered from the cramped garage of thirty years ago. His eyes still twinkled with the same excitement as he shared the discovery of a new piece with friends and customers.
In 1997 Oscar was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He underwent months of chemotherapeutic treatment, but in March of 1998, at the age of fifty-six, he succumbed to the disease. His wife Bertha continues to carry on the Laredo tradition established by her husband, Oscar Cardenas.