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Imagine a museum where the tours are up close and personal, you can touch and try things on, and even open your wallet to bring home a favorite item.

There is no need to imagine. You can find just that at Old Adobe Traders in Santa Ynez. Merlin Carlson has been collecting his American Indian and Western treasures his whole life, and he has the inventory to prove it. Located at 3630 Sagunto St., across the street from the Santa Ynez Inn, he is open every day (with an occasional day for rest) 10 a.m.-5 p.m., or by appointment.

“Our specialty is bringing authentic Native American art to you as well as helping you learn about the areas of art that are of interest to you,” says Carlson.

Featuring award-winning artists and quality, natural materials, there is always something new as Carlson is forever acquiring new items from artists, estates, in trade or taking things in on consignment.

Nearing retirement age, Carlson wouldn’t be opposed to selling the place “to just the right buyer,” but sharing the history, promoting artists and meeting his customers seems just as important to him as selling his wares.

Carlson is a knowledgeable and sought-after appraiser for both museum and private collections, keeping himself busy even on the days when he is closed. And then there are the grandkids, just a bit far away for his tastes. Spying a small silver vessel a customer asks its purpose. “Navajo men all carry in their medicine bag a tobacco canteen,” Carlson explains, removing it from the case for a closer look. Lovingly worn, the carefully stamped-in patterns are still clear. Tobacco would be ground and used in much the same way as stuff he expounds before directing attention to a much more interesting piece.

It is a handmade knife from the 1870s that in a previous incarnation was a military sword, the handle once a scabbard. Now it is encased in an intricately beaded bag, using bullet casings as a kind of fringe. “The beadwork may have been done by either the hunter or his wife,” Carlson says, before explaining that the first mention of Indian beadwork is found in the records of Lewis and Clark, date 1804, wherein was mentioned how beautiful the work of the Crow Indians is.

Back then, he says, American Indians were willing to trade a horse for 54 blue beads.

Carlson was born and raised in Northern Minnesota next to a reservation.

And though his parents had no interest in Indian lore, Carlson credits his proximity to the reservation in his early years as the foundation for his passion. “I’ve been to most every reservation,” he says.

He bought his first piece of Indian artwork – a Navajo rug – not long after graduating from the University of Minnesota, and paid more for it than his monthly salary as an electrical engineer for Honeywell.

Taking a bolas made by Eddie Beyuka from the case, Carlson explains how turquoise – with its crystalline structure – is believed to be a healing stone. It comes in various shades from green to blue, its color dependent on the minerals of the surrounding rock.

“We deal strictly with in all natural U.S. turquoise – nothing that has been manufactured in any way,” he says. He has a collection of old stones, and sometimes has them set in custom jewelry by one of his many American-Indian friends.

One such friend is Clendon Pete, a full-blood Navajo. Pete was originally trained to be a blacksmith. He not only makes his own jewelry, but also designs and makes the stamps used to decorate his work.

And while Carlson has a wide array of jewelry, both modern and antique, he also carries pottery, baskets, kachina and artwork depicting the American West. He even has a very rare Blackfoot Indian Teepee recliner of museum quality. With its carved and painted legs and accent decorations made from an old military uniform, it’s worth the trip to see, even if you look at nothing else.

But then, there is the horse-hair braided quilt (to use as an incentive for your horse), moccasins with old silver dimes for buttons and even rare and unusually large baskets. Carlson shrugs, smiles.

“Everything has a story,” he says. And he knows and is willing to share many of them with you. struax@syvjournal.com